Bengal Cat Colors
Updated in 2022: Our original article was written in 2005. In this update, we have: updated many statements on the various standard colors, expanded our explanation of uncommon colors and why we do not encourage them, added a description of the pattern effect known as charcoal, and explained how leopard cat agouti (Apb) affects color.
Bengals come in many different colors. The three most common breed-accepted colors are brown, snow, and silver. However, we also now have a recently accepted agouti pattern effect that sometimes alters the appearance of color - charcoal. Therefore, all colors come in a charcoal version of that particular color. Breeders who know with certainty their cats' color and agouti genetics can use a punnet square to predict the possible outcome of an upcoming litter. Testing is inexpensive and easily accessible. In the United States, it can be done through UC Davis or Wisdom Panel.
The Brown Color Spectrum
While there are no official subcategories of the brown Bengal, the brown coat has the widest variety of shades. Think of the color brown on a spectrum with grey at the coolest end and orange at the hottest end. A Bengal's coat can fall anywhere within that spectrum, and as long as it has a black tail tip, it's considered a brown. Even though we don't officially break down the browns, Bengal breeders have many terms we use to discuss the different colors of brown.
The coolest-colored brown Bengals essentially have a grey coat with jet-black markings. Often these cats have at least one copy of the leopard cat agouti gene called Apb although this is not essential. This distinct contrast makes these attractive cats. Ultimately, Bengal breeders would like all of their cats to have black contrast on their faces, and Apb helps to get there.
After the cool brown cats, there are sandy browns - cats that aren't exactly grey, but still very cool in coloring. I've worked a lot with these shades of cats because I often find their structure to be wilder than the hotter-colored cats. While certainly, the skeletal genes and the color genes are not attached, it's interesting to observe how some traits frequently show up together.
Adding more and more warmth to the coat, we will get cats with tawny or yellowish tones. We really like this coloring on cats. This coloring is often incorrectly called a "wheaten sorrel" by Bengal breeders, however, true sorrel is caused by the color cinnamon. Tawny brown Bengals often display varying degrees of countershading pattern.
This is our favorite shade of brown. It is a step above tawny, but definitely not highly rufoused orange. This is the background color of many leopard cats. We love this color because it provides depth on the finished coat. The struggle is obtaining it with the leopard cat's black and white on the coat as well. In a perfect world, that would happen overnight; however, getting true black and white on the coat consistently remains a challenge.
The brown spectrum ends with highly rufoused cats. "Rufoused" means the coat has reddish/orange tones. These hot-colored cats - sometimes referred to as "hot sorrel" are ideal for many people. The struggle for the breeders is to keep the contrast on the hot cats. Often their pattern becomes less defined with age as the black lightens to brown or dark red and the markings become less contrasted. As a personal observation, we have found many of the highly rufoused cats to be more domestic in their skeletal structure than their cooler litter mates.
The Snow Color Spectrum
In order to help people understand snow genetics, one can compare them to crossing petunias. When white petunias are crossed with red petunias, the plants produced from these breedings will have pink flowers. The blending of the genes for white and for red results in an intermediate form.
The Seal Lynx
In the petunia analogy the Seal lynx points are white petunias.
The Seal Sepia
The Seal Sepia color comes from an outcross to Burmese. Seal Sepia kittens are born with a visible pattern, and their eyes can range from green to gold. Within the sepia series, some cats can almost look like a yellow-brown, while others, like the one pictured on the left, have a definite snow-like color with sepia markings. While they were originally thought to have the best contrast, all of the snows, if bred well, can result in good contrast. Often the sepia-colored cats have coats that most closely resemble the colors of the snow leopard as there is a gray-yellow tone in a snow leopard's base coat to allow it to blend with the rocks while they aren't covered in snow.
Seal Sepias are the red petunia in the petunia analogy. They are the darkest of the snow series.
Silver was introduced to the breed by outcrossing to the American Shorthair. Much controversy surrounded the inclusion of silver as an acceptable color as it does not occur in any wild cat species. However, the popularity among breeders and pet buyers ultimately resulted in the inclusion of the silver color. The Silver Bengal has a silvery gray to almost white base coat with dark gray to black markings. Silvers can have what breeders refer to as tarnish, brown tips on their silver coat, which is not desirable in the color. This tarnish is linked to the rufous tones found on brown Bengals. The silver coloring is caused by the inhibitor gene. This gene prevents any yellow bands of pigment from occurring on the hair, which would create a brown coat. The inhibitor gene is dominant, meaning a Bengal with one copy will be silver.
Charcoal is not a color. It is a pattern that may affect color. Genetically, it is referred to as a pattern effect. Charcoal is the display of a mask and cape pattern. Charcoal MAY display when one or more leopard cat agouti genes are present. Agouti is what signals the hairs to display a pattern or not. Cats with agouti have one of the following patterns: ticked, classic, striped (mackerel), or spotted. Cats who do not have agouti do not have a pattern; they are solid. Dr. Chris Kaelin, Stanford geneticist, discovered that the leopard cat agouti gene is different from the agouti gene that is present in most domestic cats, the felis agouti gene. Because leopard cats and felis cats would not breed in nature, their DNA doesn't always understand one another's codes.
Something about mixing leopard cat agouti with felis-derived genetics causes an irregular alteration of color and pattern. In its most extreme form, it creates a mask on the cat's face and a cape down its back.
Many people call leopard cat agouti (abbreviated Apb which stands for Agouti Prionailurus bengalensis) charcoal. Apb, on its own, cannot produce charcoal. All leopard cats are homozygous for Apb. Leopard cats do not display charcoal patterns. For Apb to accurately be called charcoal, the mask and cape pattern would need to consistently display when Apb is homozygous - Apb/Apb. The charcoal pattern does not consistently display when a cat is Apb/Apb as evident by leopard cats and by our F1 Gayzette Anatolia who is Apb/Apb and not charcoal.
It takes BOTH Apb and undetermined felis-cat-derived genes to create the pattern effect that we call charcoal. When breeders say their cats carry charcoal, it is not a genetically correct statement. What they most likely mean is their cat has one copy of leopard cat agouti or Apb. When mixed with unknown felis-derived-genetics, Apb is capable of producing a charcoal pattern effect.
Brown charcoals are genetically brown and display the mask and cape patterns. Their agouti genetics may be either Apb/Apb. Apb/a or even Apb/A. It is not the agouti genetics that determines whether or not they are charcoal but whether or not the cat has a mask and cape.
A mask is the darkened coloration on the nose bridge and around the eyes; the cape is the black marking along the spine down through the tail.
Charcoal patterns will express in different intensities and for this page, we purposefully selected cats with very obvious masks and capes. We always feel traits are best understood when seen in their extremes.
This beautiful brown charcoal comes from Rebecca Bosch of Vom Kristallberg.
Snow charcoals come in all three colors of snow: lynx, mink, and sepia. Many people like the charcoal pattern with the snow colors because they really add a pop to the eye color. Without charcoal, it is not typical to see the aquamarine color of a mink or the blue eye color of a lynx on a cat with such a dark face.
Because the seal series of color darkens with time and exposure to temperature change, the degree of darkening will increase from kittenhood and will vary based on one's location.
This stunning seal mink charcoal was bred by Randall Ramirez of LeopardTico and lives with quite a bit of sun exposure in Costa Rica.
Silver charcoals have really pushed the silver Bengal forward as they add considerable contrast. The mask and cape do not always display as noticeably on a silver charcoal, although it is possible as demonstrated on this striking silver charcoal owned by Monique Peden of Sierra NV Bengals.
How Leopard cat Agouti (Apb) Impacts Color
Leopard cat agouti can affect color even when it is not creating a charcoal pattern effect. At Quality Bengal Kittens, we use leopard cat agouti (Apb) to intensify pigment and create more depth and vibrancy to the color. Our goal is to create cats that look like small forest-dwelling wildcats. Their colors are much more vibrant than the muted colors of felis cats from which the domestic cat has evolved.
The pair of brown cats is mother and daughter. The mother cat (top photo) is A/A; she has two copies of felis-cat-derived agouti. The daughter (lower photo) is Apb/A; she has one leopard-cat-derived agouti gene and one felis-cat-derived agouti gene. Our experience has been that when a cat has one copy of leopard cat agouti and does not have felis-derived modifiers, a rich vibrant version of the colors displays.
We have seen this in the snow series of cats as well. The two snow cats collaged are also offspring - a daughter and a son - of the light brown cat at the top of the collage of brown cats. Both of the snow cats pictured are seal sepias. The sepia cat on top does not have a copy of leopard cat agouti; her agouti genetics are A/A. The sepia cat on the bottom of the collage has one copy of leopard cat agouti; he is Apb/A. Again, his color pigment is more intensified, like a leopard cat, yet he does not display the charcoal pattern effect.
We believe that unlocking the deep black, crisp white, and warm brown color spectrum on one Bengal cat will require leopard cat agouti. Our cats with the best representation of the full leopard cat spectrum all carry one copy of Apb.
Because leopard cats are Apb/Apb, we would one day love to achieve an Apb/Apb SBT Bengal whose colors are as rich and vibrant as a leopard cat and who does not have the dusky cast that leopard cat agouti (Apb) often puts over the entire coat when mixed with felis-derived genes.
Less Common Colors and Agouti Patterns
Bengals come in a few more colors and agouti patterns; however, most of these less common varieties are not accepted by all registries and are not a standard color for the Bengal breed.
The dilute color blue is the most common "uncommon" color. Dilute has been in the breed from the beginning as at least one of the hybrids Jean Mill received from Dr. Centerwall carried one copy of the dilute allele.
A handful of breeders have purposefully introduced red, chocolate, and cinnamon; admittedly, we do not understand how this offers any benefit to the breed.
In addition, non-agouti, which is solid, has been around from the start and is being bred for by breeders as well. Solid can come in any of the colors above, but the most frequent color is black. Solid cats are a good test of a breeder's accomplishments of whether or not they are producing cats that are identifiably Bengal without a pattern. Unfortunately, the majority of solid Bengals cats are not identifiable as Bengals unless you see their ghost pattern. The solid cat pictured, bred by Elesha Zacharias of DreamOn Bengals, is one of the rare few with obvious Bengal elements to its face.
Our opinion of non-standard colors and agouti patterns is that they do not benefit the breed. Most of them are developed for novelty reasons, so breeders will have something different to sell. Once something becomes popular, everyone wants to have it so that they can sell more kittens of that trend for a higher price. When genes are recessive, they must be doubled upon in order to display; therefore, linebreeding takes place for breeders to achieve more of the current trend faster. This does not benefit the health of the cat. We have seen this happen in a more extreme form in dog breeds. One can read further about it in the following article on how following trends impacts a breed's health.