With their lithe, slender bodies and attractive spots, Savannah cats have charmed the Internet, garnering 1.1 billion views so far on TikTok alone. But these hybrids between a wild African cat and a domestic cat are also controversial, with bans against owning the pet in certain U.S. states.
The first Savannah kitten—named Savannah, after the African savannah—was born on April 7, 1986, in Phillipsburg, Pennsylvania, to a Siamese mother and a serval father. Servals, spotted and striped cats that weigh between 20 and 40 pounds, are widespread throughout southern Africa. The exceptional hunters use their supersize, radar dish-like ears to locate prey amid the tall grass, and long legs to pounce.
By 2001, the Texas-based International Cat Association began registering the breed, and the Savannah cat gained in popularity.
For one, their exotic look fascinates people, says Carlo Siracusa, associate professor of clinical animal behavior and welfare at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. He compares the Savannah’s allure to that of the Bengal, a popular hybrid with a rosette coat pattern inherited from its wild Asian leopard cat ancestors. “It’s like you’re bringing a piece of wildness in your apartment or your home.”
While people are initially attracted to the exoticism of the cat's looks, "what most come to love most is the Savannahs' intelligence, bond to their humans, and playfulness," which makes them almost dog-like companions, according to the International Cat Association's Savannah Breed Committee, via spokesperson Paige Dana.
“They're beautiful,” says Bruce Kornreich, director of the Cornell Feline Health Center at Cornell University and cardiologist in the Department of Clinical Sciences. "I understand why people love them.” But also understands “the rationale for why there might be some sort of legislation involving ownership.”
Wariness around keeping a cat with wild roots is why the Ohio-based Cat Fanciers’ Association, the world's largest registry of pedigreed cats, hasn’t recognized the breed. (Read why people love owning exotic pets.)
“The CFA has a policy that we do not accept cats that have wild blood in them. We don’t want to promote that type of breeding,” says Teresa Keiger, an all-breed judge for the organization.
Welfare concerns to mother and kittens
There are also major health and welfare concerns in breeding two different species, experts say.
“This cross is between cats of nearly 9.4 million years since a common ancestor,” says Leslie Lyons, a professor at the University of Missouri specializing in feline genetics. “This is a more evolutionarily distant cross than humans breeding with a chimpanzee.”
The American Association of Feline Practitioners cites numerous health and welfare reasons for their opposition to wild and domestic cross-breeding, including danger to the health of the domestic mother and kittens.
Because male servals are up to four times the size of a domestic cat, this can cause pregnancy complications, with the smaller mother giving birth to kittens “bigger than her body was naturally meant to carry,” Tammy Theis, founder and executive director of The Wildcat Sanctuary in Sandstone, Minnesota, says by email.
She, as well as the kittens, may not survive the encounter, says Steve Crow, a board director of the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy, the U.K.’s largest cat registry, which does not register hybrids. The mother may also be regarded as prey and scratched, bitten, or even killed by the male cat, Crow says by email.
The new generation
Savannah cats are categorized—and often priced by breeders—according to how far they are genetically from their wild ancestors. An F1 (F for “filial”) means the cat has one serval parent and one domestic parent, so one generation away from the wild. An F1’s kittens would be F2s, with a serval grandparent, so, two generations from wild, and so on. An F1 can cost over $16,000, while an F5 ranges around a thousand dollars.
Savannah cat breeders often own servals, which are legal to own in 29 U.S. states, with 21 of those requiring a permit.
The legality of owning a Savannah cat varies, with some places requiring the cat must be a certain number of generations away from the wild.
Though the felines are banned in New York City, New York State allows people to own F5 and later generations. The cats are outright illegal, regardless of their generational status, in Hawaii, Rhode Island, Nebraska, and Georgia, as well as the entire country of Australia.
Know your pet
Some early-generation Savannah cats can weigh up to 24 pounds, and their size and closeness to their wild heritage can sometimes make them a challenging pet.
For instance, because most wildcats are solitary, with their own territories, early-generation Savannahs may have a hard time adapting to domesticity, Siracusa says. (Read why you should never release pets into the wild.)
"The F1 is significantly more intense in reactions, and more determined to get their own way when set on something," adds Dana, from the International Cat Association.
"Because they are so resistant to change and so intense as personalities, they simply are not suited to a lot of homes."
Like servals, “Savannah cats can be territorial, especially males,” a behavior that can be reduced by neutering or spaying, says Sabrina Kong, a veterinarian in the San Francisco area who helps run a website on Labradoodles.
“They possess strong hunting instincts, often displaying stalking, pouncing, and chasing behaviors,” which can be channeled into play and exercise.
Many still end up being more than their owners can handle.
“I can’t keep up with the surrender calls on small hybrids now,” Theis says, noting that 90 percent are due to the animal not using the litter box.
In addition to litter box issues, hybrid cats may "urinate and defecate in unfavorable places, marking their territory,” Crow says.
Owners may also find that not all vets are prepared to treat their unusual pet.
“Many vet clinics, even our hospital here at Missouri University, are not prepared to handle and maintain the health care of a wild felid, which jeopardizes both the cat and the animal care staff,” says Lyons.
Rabies vaccination also poses issues because it is not clear whether these vaccinations work in wild animals, Crow says. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, there are no typical injection-type rabies vaccines licensed for use in the U.S. for wild or hybrid animals.
Kornreich has seen two Savannahs in his clinical practice, and says their demeanor was like many cats when they come to the vet—a bit stressed and suspicious.
“We had to be careful and measured in our approach, and they were pretty wary of me,” he says.
Savannahs are often beloved by their owners, such as Tommy Wilde, a Texas-based founder of the wildlife website Floofmania, who was given a Savannah cat, Oscar, as a birthday gift when he was a child.
Oscar was an F3 Savannah, “which means that he was 12.5 percent serval,” Wilde says. “I sometimes felt like I had befriended a wild lion when Oscar walked up to me outside in the yard, which was pretty cool,” Wilde says via email.
Wilde adds Oscar was “cuddly and sweet,” a cat who “enjoyed playing with his humans.”
Dana adds that later-generation Savannahs are perfect for people who want an interactive companion.
"I cannot imagine our home without Savannahs, and my two children have grown up with their Savannah nanny cats sitting over them, and now playing with them and cuddling with them," she says.
A threat to native wildlife?
Problems can arise when Savannah cats get outside. In 2013, an F2 Savannah in Detroit got away from home and was shot and thrown in a trash can, likely perceived as a wild animal.
In addition to that public perception, some people and governments consider escaped Savannahs to be “a greater ecological risk with respect to its impact on other native species,” Kornreich says, since they're bigger than house cats and superior predators. (Read about outdoor domestic cats’ effect on wildlife.)
In 2008, Australia declared Savannah cats illegal to own, a preemptive move based on concern that their serval genes would make them more efficient hunters of native fauna.
Overall, Savannah cats aren’t going away, and there are ways to own them responsibly—with plenty of oversight on how they're bred and sold, Siracusa notes.
“There is a demand, people are going to do it anyway—so better it’s regulated."
Editor's note, May 24: This story has been updated to include information about welfare and veterinary concerns related to Savannah cats.