Choosing a pet can, and should, be a big decision. Pets aren’t just objects to adorn our homes and be left alone; they are thinking, feeling, loving members of our families. While some fall into our lives through relationships or the need to extract an animal from a bad situation (i.e. the “I found him on the street” kind of dog), other pets are chosen after months or years of deep thinking and careful planning. Many responsible pet owners want to choose the perfect companion for their children, or that best fits their needs, lifestyle, and wallet. But this planning phase isn’t just about finding an animal that fits your life; it’s about ensuring you are capable of giving that animal a life worth living in return.
Often, the search for the perfect pet does not stop at the average retriever or tabby. Sometimes people are searching for themselves in an animal (albeit probably not consciously). Others seek rare breeds with specific physiological or behavioral characteristics. Others still aspire to invite the wild into their homes.
Considering more tigers exist in captivity in the U.S. than in the entirety of their wild range, it’s no surprise that demand for unique and exotic pets is on the rise. The motives for acquiring these animals range from a simple show of status (a high content exotic could cost you tens of thousands) to an attempt at reconnection with nature. While most would agree that keeping a tiger in a house is both cruel and a recipe for disaster, opinions on so-called “cat hybrids” are a little murkier.
The most familiar of these hybrid breeds are the bengal, a cross between a domestic feline and an Asian leopard cat, and the savannah cat, mixed with the African serval. These breeds can have varying degrees of wild DNA, but in the exotic pet scene those with more wild genes are often coveted and sought after. There are also several lesser known breeds of hybrid cat such as the French Chausie and American pixie bob. “Low content” varieties of hybrid cats also exist: cats whose wild relatives lie several generations back, but still much more recently than Mr. Sprinkles the orange tabby.
Low content or high, hybrid cats of any kind are a large step away from “normal” felines. Even just plane old domestic cats can be a bit too wild at times. Cats wriggled their way into human civilizations more recently than other domestic animals, and many of their behaviors are still a mystery to us. Cats also more or less domesticated themselves when they entered cities to hunt mice and other vermin, and people saw the value of their predatory services. Unlike dogs, cats did not learn to hunt or cooperate with people necessarily, and only recently have they become so popular as indoor companions. While many cats are affectionate and people-centric (e.g. the one sitting on my lap as I write this), most seasoned cat owners would admit that certain cats seem to want nothing to do with their human caretakers, spending most of their time hiding in the dark recesses of their home or snoozing high up out of reach.
If even fully domestic cats are not completely sold on the human lifestyle, is it any surprise wild cats can present a host of more serious problems? Higher content hybrid cats (25 percent or more wildcat) are much more likely to display traits of their wild relatives. Some of these include destructive habits such as scratching and spraying. While most behavioral problems in common house cats won’t lead to more than a ruined couch, bad behavior in a large hybrid cat could spell doom for your security deposit. Hybrid cats such as the savannah also require constant attention in early stages of development to keep them from turning feral and dangerous.
It’s questionable whether human homes are even capable of meeting the needs of exotic animals. In the wild, servals (a svelte African cat that resembles a small cheetah and supplies the wild genes of the savannah cat) inhabit large tracts of land and fish for their dinners. Is an animal with a complex wild heritage going to be content with stuffed mice and canned food served on a plate? Professionals wildcat caretakers, such as those with Big Cat Rescue insist that these hybrid animals are, at heart, wild and thus require a zoo-type enclosure to meet their needs at the very least.
Hybrid cats may be beautiful and mystifying, but it’s safe to say they are not for everyone. Much like the past and continued popularity of wolf dogs, the hybrid cat trend is one that carries dangers for both humans and animals. If you’re considering one of these cats, or any exotic animal, the first and most important step is to do the homework. Ensure that your wants and needs can’t be met by adopting one of the millions of homeless animals found in shelters. Or consider breeds that only resemble wild cats such as the Abyssinian or Egyptian Mau. And always consider the animal’s side of the deal — are you going to give your companion the contented and fulfilling life it deserves? In most cases, it may be best to leave the wildcats in the wild.