The Savannah cat is one of the most exciting new breeds to emerge in recent years. Created from cross-breeding servals and cats, this hybrid is unique in appearance and temperament. They have a short spotted coat, and despite being tall are not the heaviest domestic feline averaging around 13lbs. A loyal, loving, intelligent temperament and seriously active athleticism make them challenging but fascinating companions.
- The DNA, genetics and history of the serval mix
- Appearance, colors and size
- Is it legal to own a serval hybrid?
- How do Savannah cats behave as pets?
- Are they dangerous or kid friendly?
- Adopting vs buying a kitten
This unusual cat became popular with breeders in the 1990s, and interest in the breed has steadily grown since then. We will show you how these cats change through the generations, and explain some of the legal issues you might encounter.
The Serval Cat
The serval is a wildcat native to sub-Saharan Africa, related to the lynx and ocelot, with similar coat patterns. They have a golden/yellow coats with dark spots and stripes, as well as a small head with large ears. It has a short tail with a black tip, and its camouflage is perfect for its grassy home.
African servals have the longest legs in proportion to their body of any cat. This means that they are able to leap great distances and heights. These long legs are a result of elongated bones in their feet. Servals are agile and able to catch birds in mid-air, as well as digging for prey. A trait they have passed on to their mixed breed progeny.
Because they are so beautiful, humans have long coveted this wildcat. Ancient Egyptians kept them as pets and gave them as gifts. It’s no surprise that people want to keep these beautiful wildcats, but they are very wild. They really are a pet only for experienced owners, and keeping them is illegal in many places. Because of the difficulties with keeping servals, it’s no wonder that breeders tried to find a solution.
A Savannah Cat Kitten Is Born!
The history of the Savannah cat is an interesting story, if not particularly long. Oddly enough, we know the exact day the first kitten was born. It was born on Monday, April 7th, 1986. That year, a breeder, Judee Frank, mated a female domestic Siamese cat with a male serval, and she soon gave birth to the first Savannah cat.
The owner of the first Savannah cat actually gave the breed its name, calling it after the African Savannah, home of the serval. The new kitten soon charmed it’s owner, and breeding began. These cats gained popularity due to their unusual looks and resemblance to their wild serval ancestors.
Crossing the Filial Generations
Savannah cats are almost always described with a filial number, such as F1, F2, F3, and F4 etc. The initial cross is described as an F1 with one serval parent. A filial number simply describes the generation an individual cat comes from, and how many generations away it is from the serval:
- An F1 has a serval parent and a domestic cat or Savannah parent
- An F2 has a serval grandparent, while the rest are domestic cats or Savannahs
- An F3 has a serval great grandparent, while the rest are domestic cats or Savannahs.
So, an F1 is one generation removed from the serval, the F2 two generations, and so on. These first three generations are most like servals, so they are usually larger than domestic cats and share many personality traits.
Filial numbers continue down through the generations, up to F7 and beyond, each becoming more like domestic cats and less like servals. F4 is when the breed is considered a true Savannah cat.
It’s All About The DNA
At first glance, the rule for calculating how much serval DNA a Savannah cat has looks as simple as dividing by two. An F1 should be 50% serval, an F2 25% serval, and so on. Nothing is ever that simple, because backcrossing makes calculating the percentage of serval DNA more difficult. This is simply the practice of mating across different filial generations.
Breeders like to backcross early generations to “fix” as many serval characteristics as possible and make their cats more beautiful and more saleable. Doing this, at the beginning of the breeding line, can help keep that wild look that potential owners want. Ultimately, the lanky long legs and beautiful coat are the reasons people want them!
So, if you cross a serval with an F1, it will contain a higher percentage of serval DNA than a serval crossed with a domestic cat. Because an F1 has 50% serval DNA, this means 75% serval DNA, making these cats very like the serval.
Still With Me?
To keep track of the DNA percentage, breeders add an extra classification to the filial number: A, B, C, or Stud Book Traditional (SBT).
- A: One parent wasn’t a Savannah cat
- B: One grandparent wasn’t a Savannah
- C: A great-grandparent wasn’t a savannah
- SBT: Ancestors have been Savannahs for least three generations.
Once a Savannah is classified as SBT, it is considered a purebred Savannah. Because this takes at least three generations, F4 kittens are the first generation that can be purebred. In other words, they are no longer wildcat hybrids.
What Do They Look Like?
A Savannah looks like no other cat breed and, for some people, they simply can’t resist falling in love with these gorgeous cats.
These domestic cats have been meticulously bred to retain as much of their serval appearance as possible. Purebred kittens have crisp and distinct spots on their coat, and they also have dark “tear stain” lines, like cheetahs. These stretch from the inside corner of their eyes to the corners of the mouth. They also display ocelli (eye shapes) on the back of their ears.
They come in four background colors. These include golden brown, silver, smoke and black. Their legs are just a bit longer than we’re used to. The cat’s tail is just a bit shorter, and their ears are bigger.
Savannah Cat Size
Savannah cats fall somewhere on a scale between domestic cats (9-11lb) and servals (20-40lb). Usually, they are around 11 to 30lbs in weight. As you would expect, F1 and F2 generations are the biggest cats, and subsequent generations tend to get smaller.
An F4 Savannah cat size is equivalent to a normal medium or large domestic cat, at around the 11-13lb mark. Make no mistake, they can be very imposing though. Large cats are taller than most domestic cats and, even for lower generations, their long legs and muscular build give the impression of height and size. This means that they look more powerful than domestic cats, even when their weight is comparable.
Are Savannah Cats Illegal In My Area?
Due to their unusual ancestry, some regions have strict rules about owning them. In fact, some places prohibit it completely. If you’re thinking of bringing one home, first make sure you don’t live in a prohibited area. Regions in the United States where all Savannah cats are illegal:
- New York City
Regions in the United States with restrictions on owning Savannah cats:
- Colorado: Only F4 or below permitted
- Indiana: Only F3 or below permitted
- Massachusetts: Only F4 or below permitted
- New York (except New York City – see above): Only F5 or below permitted
While we listed some of the places where they are legal, this can always change. If you are not sure, check with your vet or a local cat breeders association. Please check the rules in your area before you commit to buying one.
Outside the US
Moving away from the US, in the United Kingdom, F2 and lower are legal, while F1s require a special license. If you’re reading this in Australia, all generations have been illegal since 2008. The government’s rationale, and the counter arguments by critics, are a thought-provoking debate.
It covers the rights and wrongs not only of creating wild cat hybrids, but also the problems Australia faces with importing alien species and managing unwanted cat populations at a national level. Because they are illegal in many places, does that mean that Savannahs are dangerous?
Are Savannah Cats Dangerous?
Cats can be unpredictable, especially in the F1 and F2 generations. However, this does not mean that they are aggressive. It means that they might be less easy to live with than your average domestic cat, and they are probably better with experienced cat owners.
Their size means that, if they do scratch or bite, it could cause more damage. There is no research to suggest they are more of a danger to their families than other breeds.
Savannah Cat Temperament
Savannah cat temperament can vary a lot due to their hybrid origins. To add to the confusion, they are a relatively new breed, so people are still learning all the quirks. However, from F4 onwards they are usually regarded as having good temperaments. They have certainly lost most of the wild instincts that make for difficult pets. Earlier generations are less predictable because they have a higher proportion of wildcat in their DNA.
Because they are intelligent and curious, they require lots of mental stimuli. To keep them from tearing up your home, you’ll need a large stash of toys, and you will need to spend a lot of time playing with them. You’ll need plenty of diverting and enriching activities to keep them occupied. Their intelligence and bundles of energy mean that most of them have some common behaviors.
Do They Make Good Family Pets?
This breed can make great pets for the right homes. However, these cats often crave one-to-one attention, so they are perhaps incompatible with raising small children at the same time. But, they are highly sociable and rarely shy of people.This makes them a great pet for older children.
Does the Domestic Cat Strain Affect Behavior?
They can meow like their domestic mothers, or they can actually chirp like a serval, or even a mixture of both, although the chirping usually occurs only during the earlier generations. The breed can also hiss loudly, which can be a surprise the first time you hear it.
Really, it’s difficult to know how much of the behavior is from the mother because the breed is so new. For example, the cat’s generation and socialization play a role. Overall, once they reach the later generations, Savannahs behave like domestic cats.
However, most Savannahs seem to retain the energy, curiosity, and intelligence of their serval forebears. If you introduce kittens to people and other cats, they will grow to be more confident and less afraid of people and new situations.
An Unusual Pet Cat
Savannahs are also incredibly athletic, and can easily jump six feet (two meters) from a standing start. Their rampant curiosity means they’ll use this prowess to explore every possible corner of your house and get into all sorts of mischief!
It’s this combination of wit and playfulness that gives them their bright and entertaining personalities. Their huge personalities make them so beloved by their owners, and the cats usually reciprocate these feelings, too.
These cats often meet their owners at the door when they get home, happy to see them and ready to play. They are one of those breeds often described as a dog inside a cat’s body.They are loyal and loving, and they are also fiercely intelligent. Most are social animals and good with people, children, and other pets.
Indoor vs Outdoor Living
Savannah cats love to be around people. They often have no desire to stray far from their owners. Many will adjust to life indoors, provided you supply plenty of entertainment, toys, and lots of time. However, they are enthusiastic athletes. Sometimes it can be hard to satisfy their impulse to run and jump indoors. When this happens, they can become bored and destructive.
The best way to help them burn off their energy appropriately is by letting them roam outside. Sometimes, this simply isn’t possible. Perhaps you live next to a busy road or somewhere dangerous for cats, and their leaping ability means they can escape your backyard in the blink of an eye. What can you do?
Well, there’s a quirky compromise to be had.
Lots of Savannah cat owners report successfully teaching their pets to walk on a leash outdoors, like a dog! That way, they can burn off their energy while safely supervised. Bet it’s fun taking the cat for a walk, too! It is really important that Savannahs get plenty of exercise, not just for to combat boredom, but also for their health. Savannahs have some unique health issues that you should know.
Savannah Cat Health And Care
The biggest problem with Savannahs is creating the first F1 hybrid, the one between a domestic cats and a serval. Domestic cats and servals have different gestation times, so this can result in a high number of aborted pregnancies, stillbirths and deaths in early infancy. Once these hurdles are overcome, most Savannah cats enjoy pretty good health. However, we should mention two conditions.
Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM)
Savannahs seem more vulnerable to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) than their moggy counterparts. Cats with HCM have an enlarged heart, which can impair function and result in sudden cardiac arrest.
In an ideal world, all pedigree cat breeders would have their breeding cats regularly checked for HCM. Unfortunately, there is no requirement for them to do so. You will need to make sure your kitten’s parents have had these checks carried out, and ask for proof from the vet.
Hybrid Male Sterility (HMS)
Early generations of male Savannahs suffer Hybrid Male Sterility (HMS). HMS means that males are born with incorrectly developed testes. Accordingly, they remain infertile in at least the F1 and F2 generations. Very, very occasionally a fertile male is born in the third generation but, generally, the F4 generation is the first to produce reliably fertile males.
In fact, Savannahs are proving a valuable species for scientists at Texas University. They are trying to understand HMS and show how it keeps all species distinct rather than seeing infinite numbers of hybrids cropping up all over the place.
HMS doesn’t really affect the health very much, and neutered male cats still have a good life with the right family. It certainly does affect their price!
Savannah Cat Lifespan
Estimates on life expectancy vary. However, most reports tend to put them between 15 to 20 years.
The Adoption Option
Savannah cats are still pretty rare, owing to the biological challenges of creating them, and the short time they have been accepted as a pedigree. However, it’s not completely unheard of to find one for adoption every now and then.
If you wish to go down the rescue route, you might have to register your interest with local agencies. Then, brace yourself to be a little patient. Of course, you can also find a kitten from a breeder, but this might cost you some money. This ranges from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand.
Savannah Cat Kittens
When you have found a kitten you like, you will need to ask lots of questions. Alarm bells should ring if they try to sweep your concerns under the carpet. Firstly, make sure that the breeder has carried out health tests on the parents. Secondly, check that they are knowledgeable about the breed.
Why Such A High Price?
Well, they can be very, very expensive, mainly because they are still uncommon. However, some generations and cats are more affordable and comparable to other pedigree breeds. F4 and F5 kittens usually cost between $1,000 and $2,000. F8 cats tend to go for around $600 – $700.
You can expect to pay a premium for kittens of any generation who have inherited especially serval-like features. That’s because the serval patterns are what everyone wants! HMS can also have an effect on the price.
The Effect of HMS
In the F1-F3 generations the males are usually sterile. This means that female kittens are much more valuable than males. In reality they are usually kept or promised to other breeders before they are even conceived. F1 to F3 females are rarely found for sale.
From the F4 generation onwards, the value of female kittens drops. This continues as they become further removed from their serval relatives. In contrast, the males become fertile, so their value actually goes up. Strangely, it’s easier to find an F3 on the market than an F4 kitten.
Pros and Cons
Getting a cat is a big decision, especially when it’s a rare breed.
- These cats are big and active
- They need lots of attention, time, and toys
- Savannahs might become destructive if left alone too regularly
- They can be prone to health problems
- The breed might not be suitable around small children
- Savannahs are fun and interactive
- They will play with you to your heart’s content
- These cats love to spend time with you
- You might be able to walk them on a leash
Personally, for someone with lots of time and space, I think this breed can make awesome pets. Savannah cats have big and boisterous personalities matched with that wildcat look and, as long as you check a kitten’s history or check with a vet, few of the major health issues that can affect some pedigree cats.