If you are thinking of bringing home an exotic hybrid pet such as a Savannah cat, it’s important to know what makes a Savannah a Savannah. Knowing your Savannah cat’s genetic roots can help you better understand their behavior, size, pattern, color, diet, and potential health problems.
Savannah cats are a hybrid species, being a cross between a wild African Serval and a domestic cat. The Serval gives Savannahs their trademark lean body, with large ears, long legs, and a beautiful exotic coat. Domestic genes also contribute to coat patterns, while also affecting their personality.
Below, we’ll discuss the origins of Savannah cats in more detail and take an in depth look at the African Serval. We’ll also discuss their effects on the cat’s genes and how these genes display themselves in terms of their personalities and physical appearance.
The Origins Of The Savannah Cat
The very first Savannah was a happy accident in 1986 when Bengal cat breeder Judee Frank’s domestic female mated with a captive bred African Serval. The result was the first ever F1 (first generation) Savannah kitten who was in fact named “Savannah”. Later, Suzi Wood, who ended up owning Savannah, decided to breed her with another domestic male.
Savannah had multiple litters that were successful in producing F2 kittens, proving that this could be a new breed of cat. Although Suzi didn’t want to pursue the breed further, she did sell the only female F2 kitten to another breeder Patrick Kelly. Patrick would go on to successfully establish the Savannah cat breed.
Patrick bred his F2 kitten with a domestic male to create an F3 generation, further proving the establishment of the breed. At the same time, he sought out Serval cat breeder Joyce Sroufe, who would go on to help Patrick produce more Savannah cats.
In February of 1996 Patrick and Joyce presented their “Breed Standard” to a board of directors for The International Cat Association (TICA). Although it wouldn’t be until 2001 that the Savannah became an officially recognized breed. This was thanks to the effort and dedication put forth by Lorre Smith, the Savannah Cat Breed Chairperson.
Thanks to all those involved in the early development in the Savannah cat breed, it has now become one of the most sought-after hybrids on the market. This popularity is down to their beautiful exotic coats, loyal and friendly demeanor, and ability to walk on a leash.
The serval is a medium-sized wild cat found most commonly in sub-Saharan Africa, but it can also be found in parts of northern Africa. Characterized by their lean, slender bodies, standing on long legs, with large ears, and an elongated neck. Their coats are a beautiful golden-yellow, adorned with black spots and stripes similar to those of a cheetah.
These cats are built for hunting in the tall savannah grasslands. Their long legs and neck allow them to peer over the grass undetected, while their large ears can hear prey from long distances. Once they have spotted something, they can leap over two meters to secure their meal.
Studies have shown that servals are the most efficient hunters in the cat kingdom. Their average success rate is 50%, and a serval mother averages around 64% compared to most cats at 20% or less. They prey mostly on small rodents, birds, frogs, and some reptiles. They are even meticulous about removing internal organs and plucking feathers prior to eating!
While hunting, the serval will change its technique depending on how small or large the prey is, or if it flies. They will shift their body depending on the damage they must inflict, such as sprinting and leaping for birds, or dealing a hard blow with their forepaws onto a rodent. Sometimes if the prey is large, they may even hide it for later under dead leaves or grass.
In the wild, servals will learn hunting skills from their mothers early in their development. After being born, serval kittens only nurse for the first month before their mother starts bringing home small prey. Sometimes the prey may still be alive, allowing the kittens to begin learning their hunting skills.
Learning To Hunt
Eventually the kittens will start joining their mother on hunting trips until they are about six months old. At this time, they’ll have fully developed adult teeth and be able to start hunting on their own. Once they are a year old, they’ll be ready to part with their mother and begin a home range of their own.
Servals are naturally loners and do not travel in groups but instead have their own established home ranges. These ranges can be 4-12 square miles and overlap with other serval territories, although aggressive confrontation is rare. The servals are able to detect one another and opt to avoid rather than engage in conflict.
The only time you will really see two servals together is if there is the possibility of mating. These cats do not have an established mating season, but female servals will usually go into estrus (their heat cycle) once or twice a year. During this time, she will spray and mark throughout her range attracting males in the area.
The female may also heavily drool, vibrate her tail vertically, and meow loudly to help attract a mate to the area. Once a male has found her, and if she accepts him, she will rub her face onto his to initiate the mating ritual. Afterwards, the gestation period lasts for about two and a half months and she will give birth to 1-4 kittens.
Servals do not mate for life, and go their separate ways after mating, and the mother takes on the responsibility of raising the kittens. She will seek out a safe place that will serve as a shelter to give birth. Often, serval mothers will use the abandoned dens of aardvarks or porcupines.
Servals And Humans
Humans and servals have had an interesting relationship, ranging from admiration to aggression. In many cultures, servals were praised and even kept as companions, which can be dated back to Ancient Egypt. They were even depicted in art and traded as gifts, but unfortunately others sought them out to trade their beautiful furs.
Other threats to the serval include medicinal use of body parts in certain west African tribes, degradation of habitat, and being shot by livestock owners. Unfortunately, most livestock owners do not know servals are rarely a threat to livestock. In fact, servals hunt pests like rats and snakes and can actually have a positive presence for farmers.
Servals have served as pets tracing back to Ancient Egypt, but it’s also important to remember these are wild animals. Many servals have been taken from the wild in order to create breeding stocks overseas where they are desired as exotic pets. Although they have been domestically bred for over a century, these cats are not considered to be domesticated. Owning one is a huge responsibility.
To own a serval cat in most places you must have an exotic pet permit, but in some states it’s illegal. Servals can’t just live in someone’s apartment, as they need a proper enclosure like those at a zoo or wildlife center.
Servals Are Not Pets
There have been several reports of servals escaping from their owners. Some of these cases have resulted in the death of another pet or the serval themselves. On other occasions servals have attacked those who have approached them. These animals have very sharp powerful teeth, the ability to leap just over 2 meters, and claws that swipe at lightning speed. Injuries can be severe or even deadly.
In reality servals are not pets, which is why it’s better to opt for a Savannah cat. The genes of the common domestic cat really help tame the wild side of the serval bloodline. This makes owning a Savannah cat much more manageable. But it is still important to remember, especially with early generations, Savannah cats still require different care than domestic cats.
How Is The Savannah Affected By Its Domestic Cat Genetics?
Genetically speaking, the genomes of domestic cats and wild cats such as the serval are very similar, which is why they’re able to give birth to viable offspring. However, the mixture of the two sets of genes has a significant effect. For example, there is a high rate of infertility in early generation males. It isn’t until F5 or higher that male offspring become fertile.
Infertility is common in domestic cats, caused most often by abnormal sperm, which also occurs in many wild cats. These genes, combined with the gestation difference between a serval(75 days) and a domestic cat(65 days), causes premature births which can increase the chances of infertility. In an F5 generation male, the genes become further removed from the serval, resulting in fertile males.
Domestic genes also affect the personality of the Savannah cat depending on which generation they are. Early generations like F1-F2 who share anywhere from 25-75% of the serval bloodline, will keep a lot of their wild instincts. The further removed they are from the serval the tamer and more domesticated they will act.
For instance, F4s and later are considered to have the behaviors of a domestic cat with lower energy levels, are more likely to enjoy being picked up or petted, and are able to be left alone for longer periods of time without feeling lonely. These generations will also be much smaller compared to the earlier generations, which can reach a weight of up to 25 pounds.
Breeders that use multiple domestic male genial lineages (males from different bloodlines) will expand the genetic pool. This helps prevent potential health problems that can occur from exhausting the same bloodlines. Inbreeding over and over can lead to some serious mental and physical effects, which is why genetic diversity is a must.
Domestic genes can also affect physical characteristics of the Savannah cat, especially if you are continuously outcrossing. Coat patterns and colors are determined by genetic markers and could be either recessive or dominant. Recessive traits mean that both parents must carry the gene in order for it to transfer to their offspring. This is similar to the blue eye gene in humans.
Which Domestic Breeds Are Typically Used?
Originally, when the Savannah cat breed was just appearing and had yet to be accepted by TICA, domestic males were used to breed with early generation female Savannahs. This was done in order to increase the population and create enough genetic diversity to establish the breed.
No Need For Domestic Cats
Once F5 fertile males were produced, breeders were able to begin breeding Savannah to Savannah. After three generations of Savannah breeding without domestic outcrosses breeders had created the first purebred Savannah cats. Although it was a recognized breed by TICA, it still had not achieved championship status.
At this point, although it was possible to breed purebred Savannahs, it was still common to outcross with domestic breeds. It was both economical and you can selectively breed for different colors and patterns. Common cats used include the domestic shorthair tabby, which often resulted in lavender, blue, snow, and other beautiful colors.
Prior to them gaining championship status, TICA also accepted Savannahs outcrossed with an oriental shorthair, Egyptian Mau, and Ocicat breeds.
TICA standards for a Savannah include brown or silver tabby, black, and black smoke colors with the distinct spotted pattern with four stripes running down the back of the neck. These are the colors and patterns that have been selectively bred into the Savannah’s official breed standard.
Today it is very uncommon for Savannah breeders to use domestic cats in order to keep the Savannah breed pure. Despite this, Savannah cats will still have genetic markers that are shared by both their domestic and serval bloodlines. By becoming an established breed these cats will develop more breed-specific characteristics as they continue to reproduce.
While it seems like a simple question, the Savannah cat’s genetic history can be quite extensive. If you like keeping things simple all you really need to know is your Savannah comes from domestic and wild roots. The happy accident of an African Serval mating with a domestic female produced the world’s first F1 Savannah cat.
After several years of breeding the Savannah cat is now its very own breed, no longer needing the assistance of domestic cats to produce them. The Savannah is the perfect mix of cats, maintaining the exotic look of the serval and the temperament of a domestic cat.