Bengal breeder Judee Frank crossbred a male Serval, belonging to Suzi Woods, with a Siamese (domestic cat) to produce the first Savannah cat (named Savannah) on April 7, 1986.Judee Frank’s Savannah attracted the interest of Patrick Kelley, who purchased one of Savannah's kittens in 1989. Kelley was one of the first enthusiasts who worked towards establishing a new domestic breed based on the Serval / domestic cat cross. He approached many Serval breeders to help in the development of this new breed, and finally garnered the help of breeder Joyce Sroufe to work with him in taking the steps needed to have the new breed recognized.
In 1996, Patrick Kelley and Joyce Sroufe wrote the original version of the Savannah breed standard, and presented it to the board of The International Cat Association (TICA). In 2001, the board accepted the breed for registration.
Savannahs are considered one of the larger breeds of domesticated cats. The savannah's tall and slim build gives the appearance of greater size than their actual weight. Size is very dependent on generation and sex, with F1 hybrid male cats usually being the largest. F1 hybrid and F2 hybrids are usually the largest, due to the stronger genetic influence of the African Serval ancestor. Male Savannahs tend to be larger than females. Early generation Savannahs may weigh 20 to 30 lbs, with the higher weight usually attributed to the F2 or F3 males. Later generation Savannahs are usually between 12 to 20 lbs. Because of the random factors in Savannah hybrid genetics, there can be significant variation in size, even in one litter. F1 savannah cat "Scarlett's Magic," owned by Lee and Kimberly Draper of Bella Gattini Cattery in California and Oklahoma, was recognized in October 2009 by Guinness World Records as the "tallest domestic cat" in the world.
The coat of a Savannah depends a lot on the breed of cat used for the domestic cross. Early generations have some form of dark spotting on a lighter coat, and many breeders employ "wild" looking spotted breeds such as the Bengal and Egyptian Mau for the cross to help preserve these markings in later generations. The International Cat Association (TICA) breed standard calls for brown spotted tabby (cool to warm brown, tan or gold with black or dark brown spots), silver spotted tabby (silver coat with black or dark grey spots), black (black with black spots), and black smoke (black tipped silver with black spots) only. In addition, the Savannah can come in nonstandard variations such as the classic or marble patterns, snow coloration (point), and blue or other diluted colors derived from domestic sources of cat coat genetics.
The overall look of an individual Savannah depends greatly on generation, with higher-percentage Savannah cats often having a more "wild" look. The domestic breed that is used will influence appearance as well. The domestic out-crosses for the Savannah breed that are permissible in TICA are the Egyptian Mau, the Ocicat, the Oriental Shorthair, and the Domestic Shorthair. In addition, some Savannah breeders use "non-permissible" breeds or mixes such as Bengal (for size and vivid spotting) and Maine Coon cats (for size) for the domestic parentage. A Savannah's wild look is often due to the presence of many distinguishing Serval characteristics. Most prominent of these include the various color markings and tall, erect ears. The bodies of Savannahs are long and leggy—when a Savannah is standing, their hind-end is often higher than their shoulders. The head is taller than wide, and they have a long slender neck. The backs of the ears have ocelli, a central light band bordered by black, dark grey or brown, giving an eye-like effect. The short tail has black rings, with a solid black tip. The eyes are blue as a kitten (as in other cats), and may be green, brown, gold or a blended shade as an adult. The eyes have a "boomerang" shape, with a slightly hooded brow to protect them from harsh sunlight. Black or dark "tear-streak" or "cheetah tear" markings run from the corner of the eyes down the sides of the nose to the whiskers, much like that of a cheetah. These tear marks also help reduce glare from sunlight, which aids the Savannah's vision during hunting.