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How To Identify A Savannah Cat

As a standardized breed through The International Cat Association (TICA), there are key identifiers for determining whether or not a cat is a Savannah cat. If you own a Savannah, or are looking to own one, it is helpful to understand how to identify a Savannah cat.

You can identify a Savannah cat by its long, tall, and sleek body covered in bold dark spots with large ears. They resemble their wild African serval relatives which are often mistaken for small cheetahs. While they can be a few different colors, they all possess the distinct spotted pattern.

Throughout this article we will discuss the finer details of how to identify a Savannah cat based on their pattern, color, and size. Additionally, their behavior traits are quite unique and can help with the identification. First, let’s define what a Savannah cat is.

What Is A Savannah Cat?

Savannah cats are a hybrid species, which in this case is a cross between felis catus (domestic cat) and Leptailurus serval (African serval). The very first Savannah was the result of an accidental breeding between Bengal cat breeder Judee Frank’s domestic female and her male serval in 1986. The result was a single F1 Savannah kitten – the first ever on record.

The female kitten was later bought by Suzie Wood who named her “Savannah”, which would ultimately inspire the breed’s name. Out of curiosity, Suzie decided to breed her Savannah back with a domestic cat, resulting in several litters of F2 Savannah kittens. Word soon got around and inspired breeder Patrick Kelley to establish a new breed.

Creating A New Breed

Although neither Judee or Suzie were interested in developing the breed further, Patrick continued his work and bought Suzie’s only F2 female. With the odds against him, Patrick sought the help of several serval breeders in the hope of producing future generations of Savannah cats. After much work he was eventually successful in breeding new F1 Savannah generations.

In addition to using Suzie’s F2 Savannah, Patrick used domestic females with desirable coat patterns to breed with his servals. In the beginning it was common practice to use domestic cats to produce F1s as there were not many Savannahs yet. Additionally, male Savannahs are not fertile unless they are of the F3 generation, and often only F4 or later. Domestic cats were also more cost effective.

Championship Status

After some years of hard work and selecting the best traits, Patrick, along with his partner Joyce Sroufe, presented their written breed standard to TICA. By 2001 the Savannah was approved for registration and eventually given Championship status in 2012. Today, the Savannah cat is an officially recognized breed.

Today, there are more people involved in furthering the Savannah breed as breeders, enthusiasts, and pet owners. It’s also no longer common to use domestic cats for breeding F1s but instead using F2 or F3 Savannahs. Purebred Savannahs must be at least third generation and only bred from two Savannahs. 

What Does A Savannah Cat Look Like?

Early generations of Savannahs look almost identical to their serval relatives, having very long legs, a lean body, long neck, large ears, and a beautiful spotted pattern. Both servals and Savannahs look very much like a miniature cheetah, which is why Savannahs are often mistaken for wild cats.

As you move further into the later generations Savannahs still hold a lot of resemblance to the serval but will usually be smaller in size and may have slightly different coats. The domestic traits of a Savannah influence their coat patterns as well as their color, and when mixed with serval traits it makes for something very unique and beautiful.

The Breed Standard

A breed standard is the specific criteria that is created to identify a specific breed type based on genetic, physical, and morphological characteristics. The standard is usually written by and agreed on by those who have been developing the breed and selecting the best traits. Once established, the standard is approved by whichever organization you submit the breed to, in this case TICA.

TICA breaks down the breed standard into different categories including head, body, coat (color and pattern), and temperament. Each category is then broken down even further to include things like their ears, torso, tail, etc. This standard is used when presenting Savannahs at cat shows using a points system. The more your Savannah fits the standard the higher their score will be.

Their Head And Ears

A Savannah’s head should be an equilateral triangle shape. Their ears should sit above the brow and form a rectangular shape from ear tip to ear tip and base to base across the brow. Overall, the head will be small in proportion to the body while the ears will look quite large.

The ears are probably one of the most noticeable traits of a Savannah because of their large size. It is also preferred for Savannahs’ ears to have noticeable ocelli, which are “eye-like” patterns that form on the back of the ears. These patterns are common in the wild and are shared by the serval, and they help scare off possible predators that fear they are being watched.

Neck, Torso And Legs

Their neck and torso should be noticeably long, lean, and muscular. Shoulders should be squared and prominent and lead the eye down the legs. A Savannah’s legs will be longer than the average cat’s and display a toned muscular look. Additionally, the back legs are usually slightly shorter than the front legs.

Even a Savannah’s tail has special criteria, and should be long but also tapered and blunted at the tip. While a Savannah can have a “whippy” or “pointed” tail, it is not desired if you plan on showing them in a TICA cat show, as it could ultimately cost you points.

Colors And Patterns

When considering a Savannah’s coat pattern and color, the basic look you are trying to identify is a distinctive spotted pattern. Spots should be a bold black or brown color running down the length of the body, and have a round, oval, or elongated shape,but not to be confused with stripes. Background colors include black, black smoke, brown, or silver.

It should be noted that there are other colors and patterns associated with Savannah cats, such as chocolate, blue and marble. However, these are not breed standard colors, but the cat may still ostensibly be a Savannah cat.

Another distinctive marking in the spotted pattern is the commonly found vertical stripes that come down from the back of the head and spread to the shoulder blades. The spots of the Savannah tend to follow where the stripes left off.

There are many more in depth details that go into the TICA breed standard right down to what color a Savannah’s nose should be depending on their coat color. However, these basic identifiers should be enough for the common observer to properly identify a Savannah.

Behavioral Traits Of The Savannah Cat

A Savannah’s temperament is another trait that is used to identify a Savannah both to the common observer but also the TICA breed standard. Traditionally, a Savannah will have a very outgoing and sociable personality. They are very active cats compared to their domestic counterparts and have a lot of similar behaviors to a serval.

Early generation Savannahs are easily identifiable by their behavior, and are known to be very hyperactive, curious, and intelligent cats. Most are able to jump to heights of over 7 feet, can open cabinets, enjoy a good swim, and are known for sticking to their humans like glue. Savannahs are not known to be shy cats, but instead are very confident and graceful in their demeanor.

Training A Savannah

With their high intelligence they are especially adapted to being leash trained. Many people will teach their Savannah to wear a harness and walk on a leash for outings in the backyard, down the street, or to the local park. Generally, if persuaded properly, a Savannah can be harness and leash trained within a month, especially if you start when they are young.

While Savannahs still enjoy 10+ hours of cat napping a day, when they are awake, they are incredibly active. These balls of energy need lots of different toys, climbing areas, and other types of enrichment to stimulate their easily bored minds. A great exercise is to simulate the “hunt” by getting them to chase a small toy around, playing off their natural instincts.

A love for water is another very noticeable trait for a Savannah cat no matter what generation they may be. Unlike most domestic cats, Savannahs absolutely love the water and are excellent swimmers. Many people have noticed their Savannah even wanting to join them in the tub or the shower. Others have set up small children’s pools or ponds in safe indoor or outdoor enclosures.

Final Thoughts

When trying to identify a Savannah cat, remember to look for specific traits such as a very lean but muscular body, long legs, large ears with ocelli patterns, and their bold spotted pattern. Colors should be a shade of brown, black, black smoke, or silver. Additionally, Savannah cat personalities should be very confident, outgoing, alert, playful, and curious.