Part-wild hybrid cats could be banned by the UK government, after social media helped bring these extreme breeds to popularity.
With their huge size, powerful muscles and spotted coats, hybrid cats are seen by some as the perfect pet for the social media age. But the growing trade raises concerns over animal welfare and the wildlife black market.
Government sources said they planned to review the Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (England) Regulations 2018.
A source said: “During this review we will consider whether there is a need to introduce licensing arrangements for cat breeders including restrictions on the breeding of certain types of cats.” Current UK legislation does not regulate the hybridisation of exotic felids with domestic cats.
Campaigners have argued that breeds that are part wildcat are unsuitable for most pet owners owing to their complex needs, and put pressure on rare felines in the wild because an increased demand for these cats means some breeders resort to the illegal wildlife trade to find wildcats to breed from.
Stryker the cat has 800,000 followers Photograph: Intagram/strykerthecat
Savannah cats, a cross between a domestic cat and an African serval, have become particularly popular on social media owing to their striking look. One such cat, Stryker, has more than 800,000 followers on Instagram. A “luxury cattery” promoting the breed has 44,000 followers.
The savannah cat breed was only recognised in 2001 and since then there has been a surge in its popularity as a trophy pet, with “F1 hybrids” – a cat with a serval as a parent – fetching up to £20,000 a kitten.
According to research by the Wildheart Trust, there are 259 small and medium exotic cats registered as pets in the UK. A large number of these cats are used for breeding, producing hybrids such as the savannah.
A spokesperson for the animal charity said: “Urgent legislative action to make this form of hybridisation illegal will prevent the suffering of individual animals caught up in this trade and mitigate against future threats to wild populations of exotic felids. The Wildheart Animal Sanctuary has over 40 years of experience caring for exotic felids. We see first-hand the physical and psychological damage inflicted on animals at the hands of humans.”
Bengals, such as that owned – and kicked – by the disgraced footballer Kurt Zouma, were created by breeding domestic animals with the Asian leopard cat. While nowadays the breed is established, most are bred with each other rather than wildcats. Many are found dumped at rescue centres because their high-energy personalities are too much for their owners to handle. Those bengals that have a wildcat parent or grandparent could be subject to a ban, but many of the breed are now so interbred that wildcats are far back in their lineage, so experts have said these could still be allowed.
A spokesperson for Battersea Dogs and Cats Home said it supported a ban on breeding hybrid cats in the UK. They said: “In recent years demand has grown for designer hybrid cats such as savannah cats, a cross between a domestic cat and an African serval. Unsurprisingly these cats are not suitable for a domestic home environment, due to their wild cat DNA, their size, and their very strong predatory instincts.
Serval. Photograph: Miki Meller/Alamy
“We have seen so many examples of animals being bred for their looks rather than welfare, causing numerous welfare issues. It’s vital that we clamp down on this practice and stop further animals suffering at the hands of indiscriminate breeders.”
The RSPCA is also calling for a crackdown on the breeding of these cats, because it involves a demand for dangerous wild animals. This has implications both for human safety and animal welfare.
The RSPCA scientific officer Evie Button said: “We have concerns about the breeding, trade and keeping of wild – or ‘exotic’ – animals kept as pets, including those classified as dangerous wild animals, such as servals. We believe that animals should only be kept in captivity if good welfare can be assured and this can be very challenging.
“Exotic pets are wild, non-domesticated animals kept in captivity and so their needs are essentially no different to the same species living in the wild. Some species – like servals – are unsuitable to be kept as pets because their needs are too complex to be met in a household environment.”
She said the charity was pushing for a wider review into the keeping of exotic animals as pets.