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The serval cat is a wild animal from Africa.

If you’re familiar with zoology or wild animals, you may have heard of the serval cat. They look similar to a leopard, and I was surprised when I learned that some people domesticated them and kept them as pets.

While there are many admirable qualities to the serval, there are also risks involved with keeping one as a pet.

What Is a Serval Cat?

A serval is a cat native to the African grasslands typically found south of the Sahara Desert. The cat has a lean body and the longest legs and largest ears of any cat breed.

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Their coats are predominantly shades of tan or orange with black or dark brown markings. The coat pattern helps the cat disguise itself when hunting in tall grasses. The serval is a solitary animal that can live around 20 years. A subspecies of the serval is considered endangered, per the San Diego Zoo.

Small Cats of Africa offers an explanation of this exotic cat’s history:

The Serval was the symbol of the Italian Tomasi family, princess of the island of Lampedusa. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, wrote the famous Italian novel IlGattopardo. Despite being known as The Leopard in English, the Italian title actually refers to a serval. The Serval’s North African range is near Lampedusa.

The San Diego Zoo adds that ancient Egyptians worshiped the serval for its grace and power.

Some people keep them as exotic pets today, but they are limited in number. Most servals can be found at zoos or large cat rescues, and there is a reason for this. This isn’t a domestic house cat with awesome abilities; a serval is a wild animal that has specific needs and inherited instincts that need to be nurtured in a specific environment.

Risks of Ownership

As explained above, this isn’t the superman version of a pet cat. The serval is a wild animal, and for this reason several states have prohibited their ownership or required specific licenses to contain one. There are many risks surrounding the ownership of this animal, and you should seriously consider all points below before making the decision to bring one into your home as a domesticated pet.

  • Serval cats need zoo-like areas to explore, swim, hunt, run and occasionally climb. These habitats can be expensive to create, and keeping too small of an area or an interior-only option will not allow this cat to expel all of its energy or fulfill its natural instincts.
  • Servals require special diets. This is not a cat you can throw the Meow Mix at and assume its nutritional needs are met.
  • These cats are not your typical lap cats. Servals can be affectionate and are normally not aggressive to humans, but remember that this is still a wild animal. It has basic, inherited instincts it needs to fulfill.
  • Servals are considered wild animals, and legislation restricts their ownership in several U.S. states and other countries. If you decide to get a serval and later decide it won’t work, you may find it difficult to relinquish ownership of such an animal as organizations or individuals receiving the animal will also need to hold the appropriate licenses.
  • These cats like to hunt — at night! Keep in mind a serval weighs an average of 40 to 50 pounds on the high end. Imagine your serval is playing or hunting at 3am and those 40 to 50 pounds lands on you in the bed mid-sleep. Talk about startling!
  • Servals like to mark their territory. This includes peeing on household items and you. Yes, you.
  • The average life expectancy for a serval is 20 years. This is longer than the typical domestic cat, and you should understand the responsibility of taking care of a wild animal for a long period of time before deciding to obtain one.
  • Unless your serval has been raised and bottle-fed by humans from early in his life, he will not take to a new owner well.
  • Servals are not recommended for households with young children. They play using their teeth and claws, and they may be too rough with children or view them as toys or prey. This is not likely, but it is possible.
  • These cats play — hard. They can knock over large items, scratch and tear furnishings, jump extremely high and crash into things during their many excursions.
  • Some servals are declawed when domesticated, but this is not recommended. If there was ever a time you needed to find another home for your cat or sign him over to a sanctuary or zoo, chances are they have other servals on the premises. While the servals may not fight, they will fight over food if they feel the need (especially during winter). Your declawed serval will be at a disadvantage.
  • Servals may not always take to litter boxes like most domesticated cats, and they will require a much larger box than normal.
  • The cats are strong with fast reflexes, and they even use their teeth and claws during play.
  • Servals don’t chase their prey like leopards and other cats in the wild. They listen and wait until ready, then they jump in the air and land on their prey. Once they hold them or incapacitate them with their weight, they usually deliver a fatal bite to the neck. Servals are considered the best hunters in the cat world, with a 50 percent kill rate. (A domestic cat’s kill rate is 10 percent, in case you’re wondering.)
  • Scratches are much worse with servals. Their strength is much higher than that of a normal cat and even if they don’t mean harm, they can cause it simply by playing.
  • These cats are more likely to chew and eat anything. Cue the vet trips!
  • Servals are also high-energy and curious cats. Your house must be secured, similar to baby-proofing, to ensure their safety.
  • Servals will dig for their prey. If you have smaller animals in the home, such as hamsters, guinea pigs or rodents, the cat will find creative ways to get to them using his paws.

Should I Get a Serval Cat?

There are many reasons you should reconsider buying a serval. At the end of the day, this is still a wild animal. While some can be affectionate, they don’t do well with changing owners and need space to fulfill their natural instincts. Don’t confuse space with efficiency; just because you have multiple acres doesn’t mean you can just drop a serval onto the property and he will fend for himself.

There are so many cats and other animals waiting for homes in shelters and rescues across the country and the world, so consider giving one of them a home before taking the risks explained above. If you just adore servals and need an exotic cat fix, visit your local zoo or a large cat rescue. There are also plenty of videos on the internet of cats, servals and everything in between. Here’s one of them:

Photo: Tambako the Jaguar/Flickr

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