Asian Leopard Cats (Felis bengalensis bengalensis) look similar to a normal domestic cat, but they have longer legs and a longer back. Their head is relatively smaller with a short narrow muzzle, large eyes (necessary for their nocturnal life) and about 11 to 14 inches long thick tail. Body length varies between 25 to 32 inches, and they weigh between 7 to 15 pounds. Their size and weight differ between subspecies in different geographical regions. Males are heavier than females.
Asian leopard cats have around ten sub-species, with distinct variations in body color. For instance, those from Northern regions tend towards reddish brown spotting on a yellowish-grey background; cats from more humid regions tend to be more ochre-yellow to brownish. With the Bengal breeding program maturing, more Leopard Cat bloodlines are being introduced into the breed, bringing diversity of colors.
The cats’ attractive markings that have in many ways responsible for their downfall by attracting people involved in fur trade, are striking and show some variation between individuals. All subspecies have four black bands running from forehead to the back of the neck, breaking up into elongated spots on the neck and shoulders, often forming a “broken necklace” and a spotted or ringed tail, with a black tail tip. Their ears are round, black and have a white spot at the back, and all cats have a white underside, throat and cheek-flashes. The under-parts are spotted on the white background. The marks on the body can be rosetted or solid and sometimes show marbling.
Though it has been named Asian Leopard Cat, but is not restricted to southern Asia. It occurs across India, through China, Korea and the Soviet Far East. The animal can also be found on islands such as Sumatra, Taiwan, Philippines, Java, Borneo and Bali. The widespread occurrence of the cat has led to many different names, like the Wagati cat, Javan cat, Chinese cat or “money cat“, so called because the spots resembled Chinese coins.
Amongst the smaller cats, Felis bengalensis is possibly one of the most common and widespread. Due to this reason most authorities do not consider it to be in imminent danger of becoming extinct. However, the destruction of its habitat by rapidly expanding human populations, farming, deforestation and soil erosion still remain threats to the populations. The Asian Leopard Cat has been placed on Appendix II of the CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) and its trade is regulated as an endangered species.
These cats are generally solitary and nocturnal in behavior and prefer brush and forest as their habitat. They usually live in tree-hollows, under large roots or small caves and crevices etc. and have an unusually wide variety of skills. They often live near water and are accomplished swimmers and fishers. They are very agile climbers and are very much at home in trees, hunting for birds, squirrels, tree shrews and other prey. Indeed there are some reports which claim tropical Leopard Cats being totally tree dwelling in nature.
Since they are solitary and reclusive in nature they do not make good pets and rarely allow humans to touch or handle them. Being carnivorous hunters they can pose grave threat to children or other pets.
Bengal cats are born when outcrossing takes place between Asian Leopard Cat and a domestic cat, originally Egyptian Maus, Abyssians or Ocicats. A first generation cross is called an F1. An F2 is the progeny of one F1 parent and one domestic parent (usually a Bengal these days), and an F3 has one F2 parent and one domestic parent. F1 males are usually sterile, and F2 and F3 males also often have fertility problems. The early stages of breeding programmes are therefore usually carried by crossing female Asian Leopard Cat hybrids with male domestic cats.
The fourth generation removed from the wild and beyond can be considered a domestic animal, and is officially a Bengal, rather than a Leopard Cat hybrid. Given that the breeding programme will have been explicitly aimed at producing good pets, the resulting Bengals should display the beautiful markings and unusual behaviour of the wild cats, whilst inheriting the domestic cat’s social nature and adaptability to human lifestyles.