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The Savannah is a hybrid domestic cat breed. It is a cross between the serval and a domestic cat. The Savannah Cat is a new and still fairly rare exotic domestic cat breed that is the result of a cross between an African Serval and a domestic cat. Laws governing ownership of Savannah cats in the United States vary according to state. Most notably, hybrid cats defined as a domestic wild species’ crosssuch as the Savannah are illegal to own as pets in the state of New York as of 2005.
The majority of states, however, follow federal and USDA code, which define wild domesticated Hybrid crosses as domesticated. Other states known to have laws restricting hybrid cat ownership include but are not necessarily limited to: AK, IA, HI, MA, and GA. Savannahs more than 5 generations from the Serval are allowed to be owned in NY state, but not in the city of New York.
Bengal breeder Judee Frank managed to crossbreed a Serval and domestic cat, producing the first Savannah (named Savannah) on April 7, 1986. Judee Frank’s Savannah attracted the interest of Patrick Kelly, who had been interested in exotic looking domestic cats for many years and purchased one of Savannah’s kittens in 1989. Patrick Kelly’s enthusiasm and vision for establishing a new domestic breed based on the Serval / domestic Cat cross prompted him to research what steps would be needed to be recognized and accepted by an official feline registry.
Armed with that information, obtained from Leslie Bowers at TICA, Patrick approached numerous breeders of Servals and encouraged them to attempt the development of this new breed. Initially, no breeders were interested. But Patrick persisted and finally convinced one breeder, Joyce Sroufe, to join him in founding the Savannah breed.
In 1996, Patrick Kelly and Joyce Sroufe wrote the original version of the Savannah breed standard, and presented it to the TICA board. However, in that same year, TICA had placed a moratorium on new breeds. It was not until 2000, that the standard, with input from other breeders, was accepted by TICA in a narrow 7-to-6 vote. At that same time, the Savannah International Member & Breeder Association (SIMBA) was formed, and reported just over 100 registered savannahs. As of 2001, the population of Savannahs was estimated to be over 200ץ
As Savannahs are produced by crossbreeding servals and domestic cats, each generation of Savannahs is marked with a filial number. For example, the cats produced directly from a Serval/domestic cat cross are the F1 generation, and they are typically 50% serval (although if you use a F1 Savannah as the domestic cat, the percentage of serval blood can jump to 75%). The F2 generation, which has a serval grandparent and is the offspring of the F1 generation, is 25% serval. The F3 generation has a serval great grandparent, and is 12.5% serval. They can be very expensive to purchase because of their scarcity.
Male Savannah cats are typically sterile until the F5 generation or so, although the females are fertile from the F1 generation and on. Savannahs tend to be one of the larger breeds of cats, ranging up to 32 pounds (most other domestic cats range in the area of 5.5 and 16 pounds). The earlier generations, F1′s to F3′s or so, tend to be larger than the later generations. Also, the males are often larger than the females.
The bodies of Savannahs are long and leggy–when a Savannah is sitting, their hind legs are often higher than their spine, like a Cheetah. Their heads tend to be longer than they are wide, and like their serval ancestors, they have long necks. Also like servals, they tend to have spots on their ears, and their tails are about 3/4ths the length of other cats’.
The coat of a Savannah depends a lot on the breed of cat used for the domestic cross. Early generations always have some form of dark spotting on a lighter coat, and many breeders employ “wild”-looking spotted breeds such as the Bengal and Egyptian Mau for the cross to preserve these markings in later generations.
Savannahs are considered one of the larger breeds of domesticated cats. Their tall and slim build gives Savannahs the appearance of greater size than their actual weight. F1 hybrid and F2 hybrids are usually the largest, due to the stronger genetic influence of the African Serval ancestor. Male Savannahs tend to be larger than females. Early generation Savannahs may weigh 10 to 25 lbs. Size is also very dependent on generation and sex, with F1 male cats usually being the largest. Later generation Savannahs are usually between 8-17 lbs. Because of the random factors in Savannah hybrid genetics, there can be significant variation in size, even in one litter. Some breeders report Savannahs in excess of 30 pounds, with at least one breeder claiming an over 40 pound male.
The coat of a Savannah depends a lot on the breed of cat used for the domestic cross. Early generations have some form of dark spotting on a lighter coat, and many breeders employ “wild” looking spotted breeds such as the Bengal and Egyptian Mau for the cross to help preserve these markings in later generations. The International Cat Association (TICA) breed standard calls for brown spotted tabby (cool to warm brown, tan or gold with black or dark brown spots), silver spotted tabby (silver coat with black or dark grey spots), black (black with black spots), and black smoke (black tipped silver with black spots) only. In addition, the Savannah can come in nonstandard variations such as the classic or marble patterns, snow coloration (Point (coat color)), and blue or other diluted colors derived from domestic sources of cat coat genetics.
The overall look of an individual Savannah depends greatly on generation, with higher-percentage Savannah cats often having a more “wild” look. The domestic breed that is used will influence appearance as well. The domestic out-crosses for the Savannah breed that are permissible in The International Cat Association (TICA) are the Egyptian Mau, the Ocicat, the Oriental Shorthair, and the Domestic Shorthair. In addition, some Savannah breeders use “non-permissible” breeds or mixes such as Bengal (for size and vivid spotting) and Maine Coon cats (for size) for the domestic parentage.
A Savannah’s wild look is often due to the presence of many distinguishing Serval characteristics. Most prominent of these include the various color markings and tall, erect ears. The bodies of Savannahs are long and leggy when a Savannah is standing, their hind-end is often higher than their shoulders. The head is taller than wide, and they have a long slender neck.
The backs of the ears have ocelli, a central light band bordered by black, dark grey or brown, giving an eye-like effect. The short tail has black rings, with a solid black tip. The eyes are blue as a kitten (as in other cats), and may be green, brown, gold or a blended shade as an adult. The eyes have a “boomerang” shape, with a slightly hooded brow to protect them from harsh sunlight. Black or dark “tear-streak” or “cheetah tear” markings run from the corner of the eyes down the sides of the nose to the whiskers, much like a cheetah’s. These tear marks also help reduce glare from sunlight, which aids the Savannah’s vision during hunting.
Most F1 generation Savannahs will possess many or all of these traits, while their presence often diminishes in later generations. Being a hybridized-breed of cats, appearance can vary far more than cat owners may be used to. Photos of different generations can be found at the Savannah Cat Club and SIMBA websites.
As Savannahs are produced by crossbreeding Servals and domestic cats, each generation of Savannahs is marked with a filial number. For example, the cats produced directly from a Serval/domestic Cat cross are the F1 generation, and they are typically 50% serval (although if a F1 Savannah is used as the domestic parent, the percentage of Serval blood can jump to 75%). The F2 generation, which has a Serval grandparent and is the offspring of the F1 generation, is 25% Serval. The F3 generation has a Serval great grandparent, and is 12.5% Serval. Earlier generation Savannahs are typically more expensive to purchase due to scarcity. A Savannah/Savannah cross may also be referred to by breeders as SVxSV (SV is the TICA code for the Savannah breed), in addition to the filial number.
Being Hybrids, Savannahs typically exhibit some characteristics of hybrid inviability. Because the male Savannah is the heterozygous sex, they are most commonly affected, in accordance with Haldane’s rule. Male Savannahs are typically larger in size and sterile until the F5 generation or so, although the females are fertile from the F1 generation and so on. As a result, females are usually more expensive than males, especially when sold for the explicit purpose of breeding.
The Savannah can have a tan coat with black or brownish spots, or a silver coat with dark spots, a marble pattern, and many other patterns and combinations, although the TICA breed standard limits member cats to Black, Brown Spotted Tabby, Silver Spotted Tabby and Black Smoke types only.
Temperamentally, Savannahs have been compared to dogs in their loyalty, and they will follow their owners around the house like a canine. They greet people with head-butts or sometimes pounces out of nowhere (many a guest entering a house with a Savannah have been pounced upon in the entryway!) They have a lot of energy and are social animals that do well with both cats and dogs.
Owners of Savannahs say that they are very impressed with the intelligence of this breed of cat. Savannahs have been known to get into all sorts of things; they often learn how to open doors and cupboards, and anyone buying a Savannah will definitely have to “Savannah-proof” the house to prevent their pet from getting into things it shouldn’t! Also, many owners have trained their Savannahs to walk on a harness and do various tricks like fetching toys. Water isn’t a fear of the Savannah cat; they will jump right into the bathtub or shower with people sometimes, and get into pools and streams like their wild ancestors.
Savannahs have been described as friendly, assertive, active, playful and interested in dogs and children. They are commonly compared to dogs in their loyalty, and they will follow their owners around the house like a canine. They can also be trained to walk on a leash like a dog, and even fetch.
Savannahs often greet people with head-butts, or an unexpected pounce. Some Savannahs are reported as being very social and friendly with new people, and other cats and dogs, while others may run and hide or revert to hissing and growling when seeing a stranger. Exposure to other people and pets is most likely the key factor in sociability as the Savannah kitten grows up. It has been rumored that savannahs may even eat other cats, although there is no documented report that this has ever happened.
Owners of Savannahs say that they are very impressed with the intelligence of this breed of cat. An often noted trait of the Savannah is its jumping ability. Savannahs are known to jump up on top of doors, refrigerators and high cabinets. Some Savannahs can leap about 8 feet high from a standing position. Savannahs are very inquisitive, and have been known to get into all sorts of things; they often learn how to open doors and cupboards, and anyone buying a Savannah will likely need to take special precautions to prevent the cat from getting into things.
Water isn’t a fear of the Savannah cat; many will play or even immerse themselves in water. Presenting a water bowl to a Savannah may also prove a challenge, as some will promptly begin to “bat” all the water out of the bowl until it is empty, using their front paws.
Vocally, Savannahs may either chirp like their Serval father, meow like their domestic mother, or do both, sometimes producing sounds which are a mixture of the two. Chirping, when present, is observed more often in earlier generations. Savannahs may also “hiss” a Serval-like hiss is quite different from a domestic cat’s hiss, sounding more like a very loud snake hiss, and can be alarming to humans not acquainted to such a sound coming from a cat. Hissing, and even aggressive behavior which involves hissing, is more frequent in F1 or occasionally F2 generations, and may subside or disappear as the cat is socialized.
Vocally, like their serval parents and grandparents, Savannah cats normally “chirp” instead of meow. Savannah cats have no special care or food requirements; they can eat cat food like any other domestic cat, use the litterbox, and a normal veterinarian is qualified to care for one that needs a checkup or is sick.
Savannahs are considered to have hybrid vigor. Different individuals contain different amounts of Serval and of varied domestic cat breeds, and there are currently no established Savannah breed specific health issues.
Some veterinarians have noted that Servals have smaller livers relative to their body size than domestic cats, and some Savannahs inherit this. For this reason, care is advised in prescribing some medications. Lower doses per weight of the cat may be necessary. In addition, the blood values of Savannahs may vary from the typical domestic cat, due to the serval genes.
There is much anecdotal evidence that Savannahs and other domestic hybrids (such as Bengals) do not respond well to anesthesia containing Ketamine. Many Savannah breeders request in their contracts that Ketamine not be used for surgeries. Some (but not all) experienced Savannah breeders believe strongly that modified live vaccines should not be used on Savannahs, that only killed virus vaccines should be used.
Some breeders state that Savannah cats have no known special care or food requirements, while others recommend a very high quality diet with no grains or by-products. Some recommend a partial or complete raw food diet, with at least 32% protein and no by-products. Servals often require calcium and other supplements (unless fed a natural, complete and raw diet), especially when growing, and some Savannah breeders recommend supplements as well, especially for the earlier generations. Others consider it unnecessary, or even harmful. Issues of Savannah diet are not without controversy, and again, it is best to seek the advice of a veterinarian or exotic cat specialist before feeding a Savannah cat any non-standard diet.