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.


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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Leave a Comment

  • Renee & Tiffany Noel Harvey

    OUCH uses teeth and claws that come out during Play. Terror sets in to think about 40LBS. pounce on me during the hunt night. Yikes!!! No Kitty Kisses here!!!

    • David Deleon Baker

      I have to admit I’d be pretty scared too. They’re cute and all, but I’ll stick to my domestic housecat, thank ya very much.

  • Spgera Tol

    Speedy Gonzalez and the Gay Cat

  • urban sidhe

    “Domesticated” You Keep Using That Word… I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means…

    Funny Part Over… Domesticated Means That This Pet Is No Longer Wild. They Can’t Survive In The Wild. They Are Fundamentally Different From Their Wild Counter Parts. Go And Look Up The Domesticated Silver Russian Fox And Why they Can’t Be Used In The Fur Trade.

    The Word You Are Looking For Is Tame. These Animals Are tamed, ie Use To Humans.They Are Very Unpredictable And Dangerous. A Wild Animal Is A Wild animal.

    • Jewel Markess

      Are our cats fully domesticated? 1. They are not fundamentally different from their wild counterparts –
      watch any small wildcat video e.g. European wildcats and you’ll see very
      similar pattern of behavior. Our cats are still actively predatory. 2. They can easily survive in the wild, sure they need mothers to show them to eat their kill, but the same is true for wild cats. Ferals lifespan may be shorter, but the same is true for any wild animals. 3. They have to be socialized as kittens or they’ll go wild. 4. Anywhere they live close to small wildcat sub-species, they interbreed with them and with other sub-species of Felis Silvestris they produce fertile offspring. With others, e.g. Servals or ALC the males would be infertile, but the female will still be fertile. 5. For most of their domestication, they were primarily mousers at a barn, modern indoor-only cat isn’t that old. 6. They aren’t predictable, even the sweetest cat can suddenly attack if something got it off – look up “redirected aggression”, these attacks can be vicious.

      I do understand the difference between tame and domesticated, but the Servals sold as pet have been bred in captivity for generations much like Russian domesticated foxes. Yes, our cats are easier to take care of than Servals as they are far less likely to spray if neutered, they use litter boxes, accept to more than one person, but mainly – they are smaller. If you have a cat, think of all the times your little kitty accidentally scratched you, and then imagine if the claws had been 5 times bigger. BTW – my cousin has her hands scarred because her cat communicates by biting – hard, drawing blood every time. She loves the little monster, but if it had been bigger, she’d not have a hand by now.

    • Streck

      This Guy Definitely Knows What He Is Talking About Because He Capitalizes Every Single Word.

    • Mixalis Konstantinidis

      Lions are “wild” animals (aka living in the wild) but apparently they have a high mortality with most of ’em having difficulty reaching 2 years of age. Their population in Africa is wildly decreasing over the past 20-25 years with estimations of around 80%, because of various human related (mostly) factors. Humans were complete savages 2,5 million years ago, living exactly how most of these so called “wild” animals live today. Life and everything in it, is unpredictable… stop going in every non mainstream “domestic” species/hybrids you people can find and bitch about. Let people domesticate whatever animal they want, at one point every single “domesticated” animal today was a “wild” animal. At the end of the day let people get their faces torn off if they want to, it’s not your facial integrity at stake.. so who cares ?

      • Cheyenne Vervoort

        Except we already have too many domesticated animals to take care off and thousands are being killed every day because people refuse to adopt but rather shop or want an exotic wild pet as a statement. There’s no need for more domesticated animals than we already have because we’re clearly showing we can’t even properly take care of the domesticated animals we already have.

        • Mixalis Konstantinidis

          I don’t think anyone of us is in the position to reply as to where there is or isn’t a need. As long as there is demand there should be similar supply – that’s it.

        • Maureen

          Thousand of cats are killed every day because their owners refuse to have them neutered not because a few people want to buy a specific breed. If everyone who purchased a shelter cat had it neutered, very few cats would be put down in shelters. So put the blame of pet overpopulation where it belongs please, on the owners of domestic cats and not on the owners of purebreds. Most people who want a cat can’t afford the cost of a purebred ($600-$1200) so purebred sales aren’t going to impact adoptions. A few years ago I purchased a Maine Coon, a 3 year old retired breeding queen (well, she was free but I had to pay shipping and vet bills which came to $600). Like her predecessor (also a Maine Coon) she follows me everywhere and interacts with me in a way none of my domestic cats ever did. That interaction, that awareness of me, make the cost of the cat worth it.

  • Ragdoll Mommy

    Beautiful. I’d own one maybe…….

  • Jewel Markess

    A good balanced factual article. I don’t own nor plan to own Serval, my two regular tabbies from shelter is enough for me, but I read about them a lot because I find small wildcats and their behavior fascinating – not to own, but just to learn about. I like it how your article gives the facts objectively.

  • Alex

    I heard that the domestic cat actually had the best success rate in hunting because they take larger gambles. They take larger gamble because they know they will be fed by their human counterparts. I learned this at the big cat rescue by the way.

    • Scott Kelly

      Alex, don’t believe anything you hear at Big Cat Rescue or in the very least, take their information with a grain of salt. They spread lies as fact, in order to benefit themselves. If you believed what they say, both the Serval and Savannah (A hybrid cat that is the result of a Serval crossed with a Domesticated House Cat) will eat dogs, cats and even larger prey like deer. This is not only a lie, but preposterous and impossible. That is just one example of MANY MANY MANY lies in which they use as propaganda. I don’t blame you for believing them, if you only hear lies told as truths, that is what you come to believe. If you do your research on Big Cat Rescue, you’d be very surprised at what you learn. Infact, you’d wonder how they’re able to stay in business at all. At first, I thought it was a wonderful organization that homed displaced cats, until I learned the truth. Anyway, I don’t want to detract, the above article seems to be a well written balanced article. If anyone is considering a Serval as a pet (if legal in your area) please do LOTS AND LOTS of research. I personally did 3 years of research before I purchased a Savannah Cat. I’m really glad I did my research and didn’t just buy one because they’re pretty. It enabled me to be prepared for their nuances, prepare my home (essentially baby proofing) for him to have a safe place to live, free of dangers resulting from their intrinsic curiosities. It also allowed me to weigh the pros and cons and proper care. That all being said, my Savannah is the sweetest cat I’ve ever owned. He’s much more loving and affectionate than my Siamese who is also very loving, I didn’t think it was possible lol. They develop a much stronger bond than most cats would, which is why they don’t necessarily re-home well, some do without any problems at all, but in general, they bond very strongly to their humans and other household animals in the family (again, this is a commitment for the lifetime of the cat, so if you can’t commit to 20 or so years, this probably isn’t the right choice for a companion pet). My Savannah has bonded super strongly to my Siamese and they routinely play, groom and sleep together. Sorry for getting long winded, I just really think it’s important that the right information is out there. I’m not saying that Servals or Savannahs are the right pet for everybody, definitely do your homework, read forums and facebook groups etc. to get real life experiences by people who live with these animals daily, not propaganda by anti-exotic pet groups. In the right home, both cat and human (owner seems like such a wrong word to use, perhaps steward would be more appropriate? lol) can flourish so well together. But in in the wrong home, both will be miserable. Just please, please, please, anyone considering either of these great cats as a pet, please do your homework which will entail more than a few days of internet browsing and take into consideration changing life conditions, as they don’t like too much change. Like I said, I did my research for 3 years before I finally decided a Savannah would be a good pet for me.

      • Karen Oakes Branch

        Sounds like you realy did your work on obtaining knowledge of the spieces,which I wish more folks would do! Good for you!

  • London

    Ive had a serval for 6 years now…great pet. I did take him to parks a lot and had him socialize a lot so that he wasnt aggressive and he was bottle fed since he was born. I havent had any problems with him. our daughter came one year after him and he gets along fine. You can tell the difference in his attitude now and back then. He is more detached and independent then before….and he doesnt randomly attack anymore as of 2 years ago. You do have to spend a lot of money on maintenance like housing he has an outdoor and indoor kennel he is mostly inside though because of the heat. Doctor visits are expensive, you should find a vet before you buy a serval. There are pro’s and con’s but overall he is very tame and loves everyone its rare that he acts out. He does not play well with other pets aside from our 4 golden retrievers. Specially other cats and dogs. So he gets walked but no park visits because he gets aggressive with other animals.

  • StephG

    I have a maine coon and was considering buying a serval. I’m not sure whether this has put me off or not.. More research needed I think..

  • Vicky

    I would love to have one

  • Jasmine Brown


  • Danny Sanchez

    Serval and F1 savannah breeder

  • Christopher Evans

    I have a liter of African Serval Kittens . Any inquiry I will respond Promptly with current and comprehensive information. Kittens are bottle fed & hand raised with human exposure & T.L.C.! Testimonials available. Health Certificate, Origin Papers, & post-purchase support. U.S.D.A. & U.S.D.I. Licensed breeder. Licensed for international sales.