A wild-domestic hybrid is the result of breeding a wild species of animal with a similar domesticated animal species, most commonly a cat or dog. A number of different cat or dog hybrids have been created, including Bobcats, Savannah cats, Bengal cats and wolf-dog hybrids. Of these, only Bengal cats have been permitted to be imported into Australia.
People breed wild-domestic hybrids because of the way they look, their value as status symbols and to sell them as companion animals. Unfortunately, animals that are bred or sold on the basis of their appearance rather than their suitability, behaviour and ease of care, add to the unwanted companion animal problem in Australia. The difficulty in caring for hybrid animals also places them at increased risk of becoming stray and establishing themselves as invasive pests.
Fads and trends in pet breeds
Fads in unusual pets such as hybrids result in increased demand in the short term for these animals. Sadly, the population of animal shelters is greatly affected by fads and trends. One indication of this is the popularity of breeds featuring in movies, such as Dalmatians (101 Dalmatians), Malamutes and Huskies (Snow Dogs, Eight Below), French Bull Mastiff (Turner and Hooch). The breed suddenly becomes very popular, large numbers are bred and purchased, then as people tire of the animal and find it too difficult to look after they dump, surrender or abandon it. The high value or apparent desirability of such animals is no guarantee that they will not be surrendered. Wild-domestic hybrids can cost several thousand dollars; Bengal kittens, the only cat hybrid currently available in Australia cost around $1000, yet the RSPCA has received a number of Bengal cats into its shelters.
Care of hybrid animals
Pet owners are not required to demonstrate any knowledge or experience of animal keeping prior to purchasing animals. While most people pick up basic pet care through a variety of channels, where animals require specialised care there is a need for a higher standard of knowledge and experience in order to ensure the animal’s welfare. There is no current mechanism to ensure that potential hybrid owners are aware of, and can provide for the needs of these animals.
Specific management issues with hybrids can include the following:
- Hybridization is unpredictable in terms of the behaviour and temperament of offspring. It can result in behavioural problems and extremes of temperament.
- There have been numerous accounts of problems handling hybridized animals. Savannah cats, Bengal cats, American Bobtails, and Forest cats have all been cited as showing difficult or aggressive behaviour.
- Feline hybrids tend to be larger than domestic cats and can exhibit a wild temperament, so require careful handling. In the US, it is reported that some parent stock are declawed to make handling easier. The size and temperament of wild-domestic hybrids increases the potential for serious scratches and bites.
- A diet of commercial pet food may not adequately meet the needs of wild-domestic hybrids. Nutritional research does not exist for hybrid species, what is known is based only on limited breeder experience.
- Where breeding takes place with a very limited gene pool and there is a strong emphasis on maintaining visual appearance through breeding, genetic problems emerge. The high prevalence of genetic disorders in registered breeds of both cats and dogs is evidence of the inherent danger of selective breeding for specific characteristics.
- Mating a domestic animal with a wild animal can constitute an animal welfare problem in itself. There are often problems with mating especially where there is a large size differential. Because the animals are of different species the female will often fail to accept the male. Almost all Fl or F2 males are sterile due to genetic problems, therefore Fl fertile females are taken and then bred to F3 or F4 hybrid males from other litters. A high proportion of offspring from F1 may be stillborn. Even healthy offspring without the desired characteristics have an uncertain fate and may be euthanased where breeding is conducted with a commercial imperative.