Appearance and Savannah Cat Colours
What Makes a Savannah Cat Different?
While a Savannah Cat is the descendant of an exotic cat known as the African Serval bred to various domestic breeds of cat, the Savannah is a breed all on their own and are not meant to be miniature Servals. While many are initially drawn to the Savannah for their dramatic markings and the thought of owning a larger, exotic-looking cat; there's so much more to the Savannah that make them stand out against other breeds of both domestic and exotic cats. In fact, no where in the Savannah Breed Standard (an official written description of the breed) is size mentioned - other than to state that a Savannah is meant to be a tall cat relative to its' proportions. They can be heavier or average-sized in weight, but look deceivingly larger due to their long legs, neck, and body. Ultimately the personality of a Savannah Cat is what will have one hooked, as Savannahs are very intelligent, active, social, and overall interactive cats. They give us a sense of humor and fill our daily lives with their antics. One will never feel lonely or bored with a Savannah Cat in their home!
The Magnificent Savannah...
The Magnificent Savannah is a presentation put together by the Savannah Breed Section to help novice breeders, cat show judges, pet owners, and Savannah enthusiasts alike understand the overall look and features us breeders are striving to produce. The Savannah is still a very young breed, so we are still working towards these goals in all generations of cats. The overall impression of the Savannah that was decided on is that of a tall, lean, graceful cat with striking dark spots and other bold markings, on a background colour of any shade of brown, silver, black, or black smoke. The Savannah cat is a domestic breed which closely resembles its' ancestral source, the African Serval, but is smaller in stature. Affectionate and outgoing, with exceptionally long neck, legs, and tall ears, the Savannah is both unusual and beautiful. The Savannah is also an exceptionally graceful, well-balanced cat with striking colour and pattern. If you'd like a detailed overview with pictorial examples of the Savannah breed, please click on the picture below.
The African Serval
The Serval (Leptailurus Serval) is a medium-sized exotic cat native to Africa. They have the longest legs in proportion to their overall body-size. Servals have distinctly large ears on their proportionally smaller heads, and are long, lean, and muscular. They range from roughly 20-40lbs full grown, and stand 21-24 inches tall at the shoulder.
Servals are the second fastest cat after the Cheetah, and are known to be inquisitive in nature. In the wild they have a large home-range and hunt small prey animals, such as rodents, birds, frogs, insects, and reptiles.
Servals have bred domestically for hundreds of years. They were known to be worshiped and kept as pets by ancient Egyptians. The Servals used in Savannah breeding programs are home-raised and this contributes to the overall outgoing nature of the hybrid F1. While the Serval has been domesticated for some time, they are still a challenging pet and not for the inexperienced. They need a much larger space for exercise, specialized diets, and often can not be litter trained. Savannahs thus make better pets for the average home. While a Savannah does require exercise and stimuli, they do not require as much space, eat regular domestic cat diets, and will leave their breeders' homes litter trained.
Currently, there are four distinct colours of Servals known, with the most common being different tones of Gold with Black spotting. Solid Black (known as Melanistic), White (known as Leucistic), and 'Servaline' patterning (small freckling from head to toe) also exist, but are very rare.
More on the Colours of Savannah Cats...
Many years ago, the breeders and members of the Savannah Breed Section picked and pulled apart every feature they wanted to work on to create the Savannah Cat into its' own recognizable breed. Four colours were accepted as part of the written standard to represent each colour of African Serval:
Brown (Black) Spotted Tabby
Often abbreviated to BST among breeders for short, or more commonly referred to as "gold" or "golden". This colour is the most common in Savannahs and represents the golden African Serval.
Brown Spotted Savannahs can range from warm tawny tones, golden-yellows, buff, or cooler toned (greyish) browns. Spotting should be defined regardless of tone, though darker toned cats are more likely to keep ink-black spotting.
Frequently, black coloured noses on kittens indicates that overall coat colours may darken with age.
Brown Spotted Tabby is a dominant gene. This means if one parent is a BST, approximately half of their kittens will be as well.
Black Silver Spotted Tabby
Often abbreviated to SST among breeders for short.
Silver is not actually a colour, but rather a gene that inhibits pigmentation of hairs. The Silver gene creates a hair that is white at the base and dark at the tip. There is great variation in shades of Silver - from very dark to almost white. The domestic gene that creates the Silver Spotted Tabby colouration was chosen by Savannah breeders to represent the white African Serval. While a white Serval's spotting fades with age, black spotting is preferred on a Silver Savannah.
Tarnishing (golden or 'rusty' tones among the Silver tones) is common in kittens and often fades with age, although some cats may keep the tarnish through adulthood. This is caused by poly-genes from breeding Brown and Silver coloured Savannah parents. Tarnished Silvers can be differentiated from cool-toned Browns by their undercoat. Silvers maintain a white to grey undercoat, while cool-toned Browns will have brown or cream coloured undercoat.
Silver is also dominant gene, meaning if one parent is SST, approximately half of their kittens will be as well. A breeder cannot produce Silver kittens unless one parent is either a Black Silver Spotted Tabby, or a Silver Smoke.
Black / Melanistic
To explain the Black (AKA Melanistic) gene, we must first explain the Agouti gene. This gene controls how colour is deposited on the hair, which creates a hair that is black at the tip, and yellow at the base. The Agouti Gene is what causes the patterns/markings on our Savannahs. Both the Brown (Black) Spotted and Black Silver Spotted Tabbies are “Agouti”.
In addition to Agouti, there is the recessive gene called “Non-agouti”, or Solid. In these cats, the protein responsible for the different colours on the hair shaft is defective, but the underlying tabby pattern (spotted in Savannahs) is still present. This produces a hair that is all one colour, so it is Solid. The Solid colours accepted in the Savannah are Black (Solid Black; Melanistic) and Black Smoke (Solid Silver). These colours represent the Black (Melanistic) Serval, and often have "ghost spotting", which can be seen in bright sunlight.
Black (Melanistic) is a recessive gene. This means both parents have to carry one copy of the gene to have Black kittens. Even if one parent is Black, they will not produce Black kittens unless the other parent carries for it.
Black Smoke / Silver Smoke
Often just referred to as "Smoke".
(Unfortunately we do not have any pictures of Smoke coloured Savannah Cats yet, but hope to in the near future!)
Smoke is the Solid version of a Silver, so both the Silver gene and the Solid / Black gene are required to produce a Smoke coloured kitten. At least one parent must be a Silver or Smoke, and both parents have to carry for the recessive Black gene. Due to all of the genes required to be working together, Smokes are thus an uncommon colour of Savannah Cat.
Interestingly enough, Smokes were not actually "chosen" to represent any African Serval colouration as these genes would never interact in a Serval. Due to the way colour genetics work, once the Savannah Breed Section decided on using the Silver and Black Savannahs to represent the breed, their recessive cousin, the Smoke, was automatically accepted by the cat clubs as well. Visible Spotting is more common in a Smoke over a Black / Melanistic Savannah.
Recessive / Uncommon Colours & Patterns of Savannah Cats
While there are only four accepted colours of Savannah Cats in the Breed Standard, recessive colours and patterns can and do occasionally pop up! Because a recessive gene cannot always be outwardly seen, genetic testing is the only way to be sure of what you will get when you pair two cats together. And sometimes, even if a breeder knows recessive colours could pop up from a particular pairing, they may still breed those cats if they produce other physical features that outweigh the unusual colour (you've got to build the barn before you paint it - right?). A non-standard colour or pattern really only means the cat or kitten cannot compete in Championship Class at a cat show, but it does not make them one bit less of a Savannah!
Examples of recessive patterns occasionally seen in the Savannah breed are the Classic Tabby (AKA Marble) and the Ticked Tabby (Servaline).
Examples of recessive colours occasionally seen in the Savannah breed are Colour Point (Seal Lynx Tabby, AKA Snow), Dilute (Blue being most commonly seen), Brown (AKA Chocolate - not to be confused with a Brown (Black) Spotted Tabby), Amber (AKA Cinnamon), and Charcoal (a modifier on the Brown (Black) Spotted pattern - passed on from Bengal outcrossing).
These colours and patterns are all fairly uncommon, and combinations can occur. Below we have some examples of recessive colours we have seen at Savvy Paws over the last 10+ years.
Seal Lynx Spotted (AKA Colour Point)
Often referred to as a "Snow" Savannah Cat. This non-standard colour is being created by a partial albinism gene, resulting from a mutation that affects tyrosinase - an enzyme involved with melanin production. The mutated enzyme fails to work at normal body temperatures. Kittens are often born completely white as the womb is nice and warm, and like a Dalmatian puppy, they get their markings and spots later. Many Savannah Kittens born with the Seal Lynx colouration can even take months to fully realize their pattern.
Many breeders feel this colour properly represents the white African Serval, however, many also feel the gene would be too complicated to bring into the Savannah Breed Standard. Just as the colour Smoke was automatically accepted due to Silvers and Melanistics (Black) being part of the Standard, many more colours would automatically be accepted by the cat clubs should the Snow colour be accepted due to the various ways all of these genes naturally interact with each other.
Often lovingly referred to as a "Marble" (like a marble cake), or "Blotched Tabby" in some regions. Cats with the Classic Tabby pattern are often born with a nearly entirely black torso, and develop bold, swirling or circular smudges that almost resemble a bullseye pattern over many months. Because the Savannah is dominantly spotted, often Classic Tabby patterned Savannahs will also have spotted tummies, and freckling on their face and legs.
Classic Tabby is actually a pattern and can come in many colours. The example used here is a Brown (Black) Classic Tabby, but they can come in Silver, Smoke, Black, and every other colour of the kitty rainbow. This pattern is also recessive, however, the exact genes behind the expression has not been narrowed down yet, thus it cannot be tested for.
Blue Spotted Tabby (AKA Dilutes)
The Blue colouration comes from a gene that dilutes other colours. It turns black to grey, red to cream, and chocolate to lilac. The dilute gene is also recessive, and can affect any coat colour. The two most commonly seen in the Savannah breed is the Blue Spotted Tabby (dilution from Brown/Black Spotted Tabby), or the Solid Blue (dilution from Black/Melanistic).
Blue kittens can start out looking deceiving Silver at a young age, but the two colours are very different in overall expression. Silvers have a pale white to steel grey base coat and bright white undercoat, with dark grey-to-black spotting. Blues have creamy coloured undercoats and lighter grey markings. The easiest way breeders can differentiate when kittens are very young is by comparing tail tips. A Black Silver Spotted kitten will have a black tail tip, while a Blue will have a lighter grey coloured tail tip. This trick can also be used to tell Smokes apart from a Solid Blue.
Savannah Cats VS Bengal Cats
Please enjoy the below diagram we've made displaying some of the physical differences between a Savannah Cat and a Bengal Cat. While many people may initially see the two breeds as being very similar, the Savannah and Bengal are descendants of two completely different breeds of exotic cat.
The Savannah (as mentioned earlier) is the descendant of the mating of an African Serval to various domestic breeds of cat. The African Serval is an tall, elegant-looking breed of exotic cat with tall ears, angular features, small hooded eyes that protect them from the harsh African sunlight, and a long body and neck to match their height.
The Bengal Cat is the descendant of the mating of an Asian Leopard Cat to various domestic breeds of cat. The Asian Leopard Cat is a small, stalky breed of exotic cat with short ears, rounded features, and large round eyes to help them see in the darker forested areas they reside. They can have long bodies, but their legs are much shorter in comparison to the African Serval.
In actuality, the only thing physically similar about the breeds is their colouring. While Savannahs and Bengals do have different colours accepted in their written standards, they are commonly seen in golden-brown tones. They both may appear spotted, but the Savannah is meant to have solid round spotting flowing in horizontal lines starting from the stripes across their shoulder blades, while the Bengal is meant to have two toned, or even three toned spotting called "rosettes".