The Unique Language of the Savannah Cat
The Savannah Cat is one of the few hybrid cat breeds currently in existence. It is derived from crossing a domestic cat with a Serval. The Serval is the smallest of the large cats of Africa and is found primarily in the savannahs or plains of Africa, although it can also be found in mountainous regions as well. It is a tall, lanky cat with large ears, a long neck, and a short tail. The Savannah, in spite of its exotic heritage, is considered a domestic breed. However, there are some States, and some countries that consider it wild and therefore illegal to own.
When researching Savannahs, one will come across many unusual terms. For instance, the Savannah is referred to by its ‘F’ generation. The ‘F’ stands for ‘filial’ and refers to how many generations away from the Serval it is. So an F1 is one generation from the Serval (has a Serval parent), an F2 is two generations removed so has a Serval grandparent, and so on.
The other classification you will hear in reference to Savannahs is a letter coding. This has to do with when and where in the pedigree outcrosses (non-Savannah domestic cats) have been used. The reason this is important is because when you are crossing two different species there are usually fertility issues. For instance, crossing a horse with a donkey creates a mule, but a mule is sterile so can never procreate. However, in the feline world, crossing two different species such as the Serval and a domestic cat renders only the males sterile. This meant that Savannah breeders had to continue to cross their Savannah females to domestic males for several generations, until the retained Serval percent was low enough that the males were fertile and could be used to breed the female Savannahs.
The impact of moving away from outcrosses and breeding only Savannahs to Savannahs has been tremendous. One might not think that a cat that has only 3-4% Serval could make a difference in developing a domestic breed that looks like a Serval, but remarkably it has made a tremendous difference, as it seems that by doubling up on the Serval genes on both sides of the pedigree, those Serval traits that are so desired are getting ‘locked in’, producing Savannahs that strongly reflect their Serval heritage.
So back to the letter designations: here it is in a nutshell:
A means that one parent is a (non-Savannah) domestic outcross
B means that both parents are Savannahs
C means that both parents and grandparents are all Savannahs
SBT means that parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents are all Savannahs. It is at the SBT (Stud Book Tradition) level that the Savannah is considered a true breed and potentially eligible for Championship with TICA (The International Cat Association).
One more bit of information: in TICA the Savannah is abbreviated SV and the Serval is abbreviated SZ.
If one looks at an actual Savannah registration you will find a number next to the letter designation. This number represents the number of generations away from the Serval a Savannah is, so reflects to some part the F generation. However, after the third generation the number is always 0 (until reaching SBT) so not always a good clue to the actual generation. Plus, this becomes complex when using certain domestic cats that have no known ancestors, but that is a bit too complicated for the purposes of this article.
The third designation on a registration is another letter – it will be either an S, N, or P. The S stands for species, meaning a species other than felis domesticus or the domestic cat. This designation will stay on the pedigree for three generations then drop off. The N indicates that a non-permissible domestic outcross was used somewhere in the last three generations. The P means that only permissible outcrosses or Savannahs were used in the last three generations.
Phew! That was a lot of information! Hopefully the rest of the topics will be a little easier to understand. The next refers to how close the Savannah is to its Serval ancestor. Savannahs are often referred to as either ‘high generation’ or ‘low generation’. Usually ‘high generation’ means higher Serval percent so F1, F2, F3; and ‘low generation’ means lower Serval percent so F4, F5, F6, etc. However, many assume ‘high’ to mean a higher filial number so that for instance an F5 would be considered a high generation and an F1 a low generation. To help alleviate this confusion many breeders now prefer the terms ‘early generation (EG)’ (F1, F2, F3) and later generation (F4, F5, etc.).
Speaking of generation, there is another term that one may come across, which is the TWiG of a Savannah. TWiG stands for Theoretical Wild Gene and refers to the calculated percentage of Serval genes a Savannah may have. It is a theoretical number because after the F1 level where it is known that half the genes are from the Serval and half from the domestic shorthair it is a toss of the coin as to how many Serval genes get passed down in each subsequent generation.
Now for some easier terms. First is the chirp. The Savannah chirp is unique and heard only in Savannahs as it is a Serval trait. The chirp indeed sounds like a chirp or chortle and can usually be heard in the early generation Savannahs.
The Savannah leap is also unique and comes from its Serval heritage. The Savannah will often spring off the ground on all four legs and come down again on all four legs, as opposed to most domestic cats which leap and land front legs then back legs.
Ocelli refers to the spots on the backs of the Savannah’s ears. The most popular theory behind why a Serval has ocelli is because it appears to be ‘eyes in the back of the head’ thus scaring off intruders or enemies.
Head butts is self descriptive. The Savannah loves to give head butts, which means it literally butts its head against ones head or other body part. Head butts are a sign of affection and usually comes in a series of multiple head butts, rather than just one. A head butt received from a large Savannah has been known to create bumps on the (human) head or knock a slight person (or child) over!
Savannah-proofing a home is similar to baby proofing a home, only whereas babies only crawl a Savannah can jump, which means the home needs to be baby-proofed from floor to ceiling. Just like with baby-proofing, this means removing anything that might be potentially dangerous to the Savannah or potentially an item that will tempt a Savannah to get into mischief. Typically this means removing any knick-knacks such as fragile or breakable items, poisonous items, or any small items that can potentially be swallowed. Savannahs are usually very good at training their humans on how to Savannah-proof a home if not done properly before their arrival!
Savannahs are known for some of their dog-like behaviors, such as playing fetch, playing in water, and walking on a leash. Not all Savannahs participate in all of these behaviors, but they will usually exhibit at least one of these traits. Savannah kittens are also known for their food aggressive behavior, which is exhibited as protecting their food source by growling at or striking out at other animals that might ‘steal’ their meal, or by hovering protectively over their food. This behavior can be quite startling to a new Savannah owner who has never witnessed it before, but for the most part the kitten’s antics are so over the top that most people get a good giggle out of it. This behavior is usually self limiting and kittens grow out of it within a few months’ time at most.
Perhaps the most important trait, not necessarily unique to the Savannah but remarkable in its intensity is the bond a Savannah will develop with its human family. Savannah Cats, like their Serval ancestors often bond with just one person, but that bond is all encompassing, and their loyalty passionate. It is their incredible devotion, their zealous passion, and their stubborn perseverance to get their own way that sets the Savannah apart in the feline world. They are a unique and amazing breed that will take one’s breath away!