If you’re familiar with zoology or wild animals, you may have heard of the serval cat.
They look similar to a leopard, and you may be surprised to learn that some people have domesticated them and kept them as pets.
While there are many admirable qualities to the serval cat, 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 long legs.
The coats are predominantly shades of tan or orange with black or dark brown markings. The coat pattern helps the cats disguise themselves when hunting in tall grasses.
The website Small Cats of Africa offers an explanation of this exotic cat’s history:1
“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.”
According to the book Classical Cats, “In second-millennium BC Egypt, the serval was an exotic import from sub-Saharan Africa. When it was depicted in Egyptian art, it was frequently as a gift or trade object from Nubia.”2
Some people keep serval cats 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 good reason for this.
The reason? The serval isn’t a domestic house cat with awesome abilities.
Rather, a serval cat is a wild animal with specific needs and inherited instincts that must be nurtured in a specific environment.
10 Risks of Having a Serval Cat
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 keeping a serval cat as a pet.
Please seriously consider all of the following before deciding to bring a serval cat into your home as a domesticated pet:
1. 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 a serval cat to expel all their energy or fulfill their natural instincts.3
As a commenter below this article, J Freed, says, “They are clever. When we moved into our new home, [our pet serval cat] promptly escaped. We got her 3 days later after a tip took us to her location. The enclosures need to be sturdy, provide for their comfort, rough play and safety.”
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2. Serval cats require special diets.
This is not a cat you can feed Meow Mix and assume their nutritional needs are met.
According to one exotic cattery owner who has kept a number of servals since 2012, “A serval cat needs variety in its diet, just like in the wild.”
She suggests a variety of meats “such as chicken and turkey necks/back/legs/gizzards, mice, chicks, beef, a variety of birds such as quail/duck/grouse, and smaller prey such as mice/rats/rabbit.”
Other foods she recommends include “different types of seafood such as cod, salmon, snapper, sardines, basa, shrimp, lobster, crab, shellfish; and eggs, cheese, oils, vegetables and fruits, and grass.”4
3. Serval cats are not your typical lap cats.
Sure, they can be affectionate and are normally not aggressive to humans, but remember that this is still a wild animal.
They have basic, inherited instincts they need to fulfill.
4. Serval cats are considered wild animals, and legislation restricts their ownership in several U.S. states and other countries.
If you decide to get a serval cat and later decide it won’t work, you may find it difficult to relinquish ownership of such an animal.
This is because organizations or individuals receiving the animal will also need to hold the appropriate licenses.
5. Serval cats like to hunt — at night.
Keep in mind that a serval cat weighs an average of 29 pounds.5
Imagine your serval is playing or hunting at 3 a.m. and those 29 pounds land on you in the bed mid-sleep.
6. Servals like to mark their territory.
This includes peeing on household items and you. Yes, you.
Servals may not always take to litter boxes like most domesticated cats, and they will require a much larger litter box than normal.
As someone named Lolo commented below, Lolo’s pet serval cat “did really well with his litter habits, but still enjoyed peeing in/on things in the house. If I told him NO, he would slap me HARD. He was extremely stubborn.”
7. Serval cats 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.6,7
As Lolo again commented, “We had a baby — that’s where it really went downhill. [Our pet serval cat] HATED the baby. He slapped and hissed at us after we handled the baby. We had to keep them separate 24/7. It was exhausting.”
And then, Lolo says, “it happened.” The serval “attacked our baby.”
“The baby had TEETH marks on her temple and next to the eye,” Lolo says. “That was the last straw. He probably viewed the baby as prey and/or as a threat. Regardless, we couldn’t risk our child or visitors. Luckily, we found him a good home.”
8. Serval cats play — hard.
They can knock over large items, scratch and tear furnishings, jump extremely high, and crash into things during their many excursions.
The cats are strong with fast reflexes, and they even use their teeth and claws during play.
Plus, scratches are much worse with serval cats. 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.
“Servals have a bite force at the canine teeth of 172 Newtons, whereas feral domestic cats have a bite force of 56 Newtons,” notes a 2016 Queensland Government safety report. “Because of this higher bite force, servals can subdue larger prey than can feral cats.”
9. Serval cats don’t chase their prey like leopards and other cats in the wild.
They listen and wait until ready, then they jump in the air8 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 nearly 50% kill rate.9 (A domestic cat’s kill rate is more like 10%.)
10. The average life expectancy for a serval cat is around 22 years.10
This is longer than the average domestic cat (15 years11), so you should understand the responsibility of taking care of a wild animal for a long time before deciding to get one.
Should I Get a Serval Cat?
There are many reasons you should reconsider buying a serval cat.
While some of them can be affectionate, they don’t do well with changing families 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 they will fend for themselves.
There are so many cats and other animals waiting for homes in shelters and rescues across the country and the world. So please consider giving one of them a home before taking the risks of serval cats explained above.
If you just adore serval cats and need an exotic cat fix, visit your local zoo or a large cat rescue.
There are also plenty of videos of serval cats. Here’s one of them:
Take some time and read through the comments below this article from people who have experience keeping serval cats as pets.
Sure, serval cats can be great pets for the right families — but please don’t take this decision lightly.
- “Serval (Leptailurus serval).” Cats For Africa. http://www.catsforafrica.co.za/serval-leptailurus-serval/.
- Engels, Donald W. Classical Cats: The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat. Routledge, 2015.
- “About Servals.” A1 Savannahs. https://www.a1savannahs.com/about-servals/.
- “Serval Cat Nutrition.” Facebook post. Sept. 18, 2016. Archived here: https://www.petful.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/serval-cat-nutrition-sept.2016.pdf.
- “AnAge Entry for Leptailurus Serval.” Human Ageing Genomic Resources. http://genomics.senescence.info/species/entry.php?species=Leptailurus_serval.
- Fixler, Hayley. “African Serval Attacks Toddler at Birthday Party.” ABC 57 News. Oct. 29, 2018. https://www.abc57.com/news/african-serval-attacks-toddler-at-birthday-party.
- Saulny, Susan. “What’s Up, Pussycat? Whoa!” The New York Times. May 12, 2005. https://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/12/fashion/whats-up-pussycat-whoa.html.
- Fraser, Andrew F. Feline Behaviour and Welfare. CABI. 2012.
- Canniff, Tessa. “Leptailurus serval.” Animal Diversity Web. 2011. https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Leptailurus_serval/.
- Grzimek, Bernhard. Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia. McGraw-Hill Publishing Company. 1990.
- Pena, Melvin. “How Long Do Cats Live? Facts About the Average Cat Lifespan.” Catster. July 3, 2018. https://www.catster.com/lifestyle/how-long-do-cats-live-cat-health-facts.
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This article on keeping serval cats as pets was originally published in 2012 and is regularly updated. It was last reviewed for accuracy and updated March 21, 2022.