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Where Do Savannah Cats Originate From?

If you are one of the thousands of people around the world who have become fascinated by the Savannah cat breed, you may be interested in knowing more about their origins. While they are not the only hybrid breed, the Savannah cat origin story is very interesting.

Savannah cats originate from Pennsylvania in the United States through a happy accident between one male African serval and a female domestic Siamese cat. The domestic female gave birth to one female kitten who was the first F1 Savannah ever created, and would pave the way for future generations. 

In this article we will discuss how the Savannah cat came to be a breed of its own recognized by The International Cat Association and sought after by thousands of pet owners. We’ll cover their origins, serval ancestors, and the development of modern techniques to produce pure Savannahs.  

Where Were Savannah Cats Bred And Where Do Their Ancestors Come From?

Originally, the first Savannah kitten ever produced was born in Pennsylvania in the United States. However, after the first kitten was born, they would later primarily be bred in Missouri via Joyce Sroufe, an expert in both domestic and exotic feline breeding. This is also where the breed was officially developed.

Today, Savannah catteries can be found in several US states, Mexico, Europe, Canada, and Asia. This popular breed has taken the world by storm, resulting in several catteries dedicated solely to the Savannah breed.

A Hybrid Breed

It’s also important to understand where the Savannah cat’s ancestors come from and the important role they played in the development of the breed. The Savannah is considered a hybrid breed meaning it has both domestic and wild genetic roots. The first Savannah kitten produced was the result of an African serval and a domestic Siamese female.

During the process of establishing the Savannah breed, breeders did not limit themselves to one specific type of domestic cat but rather selectively chose them based on their colors and patterns. Certain traits were considered more valuable for developing the breed standard than others, and so they would be selected based on their similarities to the serval markings.

Balancing The Personalities

Domestic cats were also selected because of their temperament. These cats have been long bred to display more docile behavior favored by pet owners. Their domestic genetics help dampen the wild nature of the African serval which can be intense and unmanageable. Additionally, if the right domestic genes are selected, they will not have an impact on the exotic looks of the Serval.

When breeding a hybrid, it’s important to consider not just the look but the behavior of the wild cat selected to produce it. The African serval already has a long history of being bred domestically by humans as far back as the ancient Egyptians. They were one of the many cats worshiped and considered to be human companions.

Smaller Size

The size of the serval is also beneficial for breeding hybrids as they are on the “smaller” side as far as wild cats go. They possess beautiful cheetah-like markings as well as a better temperament for human interaction. However, it is important to recognize that these cats are still wild and have natural instincts that otherwise do not suit life as a pet.

This is why, with the combined genetics of both a domestic cat and the wild serval, one is able to produce a much more manageable human companion. On one hand you have the wild exotic look and intelligence of the serval, and on the other the more docile temperament of the domestic cat. 

How And Why Were Savannah Cats Bred?

There are somediscrepancies as to the exact events that led to the first Savannah kitten being produced. This may have something to do with the two breeders who were involved, named Judee Frank and Suzi Wood, and their own personal dispute involving the breeding pair and the resulting Savannah kitten.

As the story seems to go Judee Frank, a known Bengal breeder agreed to take in and care for Ernie an African serval owned by Suzi Wood. During Ernie’s stay with Judee he ended up in contact with Judee’s domestic Siamese female, and took advantage of the situation as most male cats would. To the surprise of Judee her Siamese soon gave birth to one single female kitten, the first F1 Savannah.

Uncertain Details

It is said that once Suzi found out what happened she demanded the return of her serval Ernie as well as the resulting kitten. This is the part of the story where things get a little hard to track as some say the kitten was returned willingly whereas others report Suzi ended up purchasing the kitten from Judee and later named it Savannah, which would eventually become the breed’s name.

Once Suzi was in possession of Savannah she decided to see if she would be able to breed her back with another male domestic cat, producing another litter of Savannah kittens (F2s). To her pleasant surprise Suzi’s Savannah was able to produce several litters of F2 Savannah kittens. She then went on to publish her experiences which would later catch the eye of Patrick Kelley.

Taking Things Further

After seeing the results of Suzi’s publications on her Savannah kittens,Patrick Kelleybecame intrigued by the idea of taking things a step further by establishing the Savannah as a new breed. After attempting to approach both Judee and Suzi in pursuit of embarking on this new breeding endeavor, both women showed no interest. This may have been due to the dispute between the two of them.    

Despite their lack of interest, Patrick decided to purchase one of Suzi’s only female F2 kittens in the hope of starting the breeding process himself. However, in order to succeed in his mission, he would have to enlist the help of a serval breeder in order to recreate F1 kittens. Eventually this led him to serval breeder Joyce Sroufe.

Officially Recognized By TICA

Between the two of them Patrick and Joyce would go on to produce the first F3 Savannahs and then later generations. Eventually, after years of breeding Savannahs, servals, and domestic cats with desirable qualities, they were able to present their breed standard to TICA in 1996. The Savannah was officially introduced to the public by Joyce in Westchester NY in 1997 at an exhibition.  

While all breeders mentioned deserve some credit in bringing the Savannah breed into existence, Joyce went on to be the most successful Savannah breeder at the time of its early debut. She was the first to also produce fertile male Savannahs (F4s and F5s), through successful breeding of Savannah to Savannah.

Solidifying The Breed Standard

It’s also worth mentioning Lorre Smith who served as the first TICA Savannah Breed Chairperson, and whose efforts greatly impacted the success of the Savannah breed. If it were not for her it is possible that the Savannah would not have become accepted into TICA’s New Breed Program until much later.

Due to the efforts of those listed above and others who actively participated in the breeding of Savannahs and protecting the breed standard’s integrity, the Savannah breed was not only accepted as a breed of its own, but it also went on to win Championship status in 2012. Championship status is TICA’s highest standard of breed recognition.

Modern Breeding Of Savannah Cats

In the early stages of breeding Savannahs, many breeders still used domestic house cats in order to breed F1 and F2 generations. An F1 can only be produced by a mated pair of one serval male and a female domestic or Savannah cat. Without the serval, an F1 generation cannot be bred. Even if it is an F1 Savannah to F1 Savannah, it will still result in an F2.

Because fertile Savannah males were so scarce in the beginning, many breeders had no choice but to use domestic cats. These cats were often selected based on their color genetics which had similar markings and patterns to those of a serval. Domestic tabbies were often selected, especially if they possessed the “spotted” pattern we now associate with the Savannah breed standard. 

Phasing Out Domestics

As more breeders were successful in producing later generations of fertile males (F4+), domestics were phased out in order to preserve the breed. Using domestics in modern Savannah breeding is often frowned upon because it is said to pollute the breed’s genetics and can easily create cats with non-standard colors.

Today, it is more common for breeders to produce F1s via a serval male and an F2 female, and all subsequent generations via Savannah-to-Savannah breeding. Once a breeder has successfully produced at least three generations using only Savannahs, they are considered to be a “Stud Book Tradition” (STB) or purebred.

Despite resulting in mostly non-standard Savannahs, some breeders still use domestic cats or non-standard Savannahs to produce litters. These breeders are less interested in showing their Savannahs in competitions and more interested in the different variations they can produce. While not as accepted in the world of cat breeding these breeders still produce beautiful Savannahs.

Final Thoughts

Savannah cats originate from an accidental breeding of a domestic Siamese cat with an African Serval in Pennsylvania in the United States. This led to the birth of the first F1 Savannah, and Judee Frank and Suzi Wood were the two breeders involved.