Serval Cat: Breed Profile, Characteristics & Care

Appearance, Personality, History, Care, & Helpful Information for Pet Owners

Close-up of a Serval

Danita Delimont / Galio Images / Getty Images

The spotted serval cat is a long-legged African wild cat that can be kept as an exotic pet, but it needs a lot of room to play and a diet consisting of whole prey. To keep these cats healthy and happy, serval owners must provide large outdoor enclosures in locations that stay warm year-round. Ownership of a serval cat is illegal in many places. Licenses, permits, and inspections are required in others. Check your local laws before seeking a breeder and an exotic animal veterinarian.

Breed Overview

Personality: Independent, aloof, intelligent, athletic

Weight: 20 to 40 pounds

Length: 2 feet

Coat Length: Short Hair

Coat Colors:  Golden yellow to buff with black spots and stripes

Coat Patterns: Spotted

Eye Color: Amber

Lifespan: Up to 22 years in captivity

Hypoallergenic: No

Origin: Africa

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Click Play to Learn More About the Wild Serval

Serval Cat Characteristics

The serval cat is better adapted to life in the wild than in humans' homes. Although it's not extremely vocal, it can make a variety of noises that may concern neighbors, including high-pitched cries, growls, and spitting hisses.

Having the longest legs of any cat (in proportion to its body), the serval is an agile jumper and avid digger. It can leap to catch birds over five feet in the air and dig to find prey like ground squirrels. This tall, active hunter needs more room to roam than most households can offer, and the challenge of fulfilling its dietary needs is daunting.

The serval has little interest in being stroked or cuddled. Because of its large size (up to 40 pounds), naturally wild temperament, and aloof personality, this cat is not recommended for homes with kids or other pets. A serval can bond well with one person and become emotionally attached to an extent that re-homing the animal would cause it deep distress.

Affection Level Medium
Friendliness Low
Kid-Friendly Low
Pet-Friendly Low
Exercise Needs High
Playfulness High
Energy Level High
Intelligence High
Tendency to Vocalize Medium
Amount of Shedding Low

History of the Serval Cat

The serval cat hails from Africa where tall grass and bushes camouflage this stealthy hunter, allowing it to sneak up on its prey. Servals resemble cheetahs but are smaller and have shorter tails and larger ears than their cousins. In the wild, servals are solitary and inhabit a home territory that spans about seven miles.

Serval cats have been kept by humans since the ancient Egyptians and are depicted in their art. However, they have never been fully domesticated. Breeding stock arrived in the U.S. over a century ago, and you may find serval cats that are many generations removed from African imports. Even such domestically-bred servals are subject to ownership restrictions per exotic animal laws.

Breeders have crossed serval cats with domestic cats to produce hybrids, such as the Savannah cat. A Savannah might be a better option than a serval if you like the look of the serval but need a tamer cat that is easier to care for.

Serval Cat Care

Large, secure outdoor enclosures are a must for these highly active and solitary cats that roam several miles per day in the wild. Servals have been known to jump out of fenced areas or dig out under fences. An enclosure needs to be fenced on all sides (including the top), and the fencing should extend a few feet underground,

Provide a pool of water for drinking, swimming, and perhaps even allowing your serval cat to catch stocked fish.

A serval is not a suitable house pet because of its large size, high activity level, and tendency to jump. Not only will it threaten breakable objects and wires, but it can also be harmed by them. In addition, a serval cannot be fully litter-trained. Urinating on objects is their way of marking territory, and that includes furniture and walls when they are confined to human houses.

While many pet servals are declawed in the interest of preventing injury to humans, this is a painful practice that can cause infections and makes servals vulnerable in confrontations with other animals such as aggressive dogs).

Common Health Problems

A common veterinary emergency specific to servals is swallowing foreign objects, which can become lodged in their throats or difficult to pass. Servals are ravenous eaters, so they often get food lodged in their throats, which prompts them to regurgitate and re-consume it. If regurgitation is unsuccessful, a serval is at risk for choking.

If you decide to own a serval, ensure access to a veterinarian who can care for exotic pets. Servals need the same annual immunizations and de-wormings as domestic cats, but ordinary small animal vets will be reluctant—or unwilling—to treat servals since they are technically wild animals.

Appearance

Servals are larger and taller than domestic cats, reaching up to two feet tall at their shoulders and weighing up to 40 pounds.

These sleek and slender cats have relatively small heads with large, rounded ears. Servals have long necks which, when combined with their long legs, have earned them the nickname "giraffe cats" among those who observe them in the wild. Servals' tails are shorter than most cats in relation to their bodies.

Servals' coats are generally golden with black spots and lines and spots that occasionally connect to form lines. Their bellies are white, and their eyes are amber.

Diet and Nutrition

Ideally, a pet serval's diet should contain a variety of animal prey—preferably living—that it can pursue and devour as it would in the wild. Rodents, rabbits, birds, fish, insects, reptiles, and frogs are usually on the menu in Africa.

Servals use their sight and hearing more than their sense of smell to find their prey. They often play with their food before eating it. Servals are highly intelligent cats that appreciate games or puzzles that make meals, and their daily routines, more rewarding.

A formulated pelleted diet is an acceptable addition to a serval's diet but should not make up the bulk of any meal, or the animal's health will decline.

Where to Adopt or Buy a Serval Cat

Whether caught in the wild or bred in captivity, servals are wild animals and require a skilled, responsible owner who can meet this cat's exacting needs.

It is legal to own a serval in 16 states in the U.S. You can own a serval without a license in North Carolina, Alabama, Nevada, and Wisconsin. You can obtain a license to own a serval in Texas, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Maine, Montana, Idaho, North Dakota, and South Dakota. In all the other states, serval ownership is illegal.

If it is legal to own a serval where you live, and you are looking for a reputable source for adopting or buying a serval, contact the Feline Conservation Foundation for more information.

Serval Cat Overview

Unlike most pets cats, servals are wild animals and must be owned with that fact in mind. They are large, active, and independent felines that require a diet of whole animals, preferably ones that are alive. The reasons not to own a serval arguably outweigh the good points.

Pros
  • Beautiful and exotic

  • Long-lived

  • May bond well with one person

Cons
  • Unusual dietary needs

  • Not recommended with kids or pets

  • Requires a large outdoor enclosure

More Cat Breeds and Further Research

If you’re interested in similar breeds, check out:

Otherwise, check out all of our other cat breed profiles

FAQ
  • Can you have a serval cat as a pet?

    You can own a serval as a pet in some states, but a permit is usually required.

  • Do servals make good pets?

    Servals do not make good pets and do not thrive in captivity, They are expensive and challenging to care for.

  • Are servals the same as savannah cats?

    No—a serval is a wild animal that can sometimes be owned as a pet, and a savannah cat is a hybrid (mix) of a wild serval and a domestic cat. Savannah cats are an official breed of pet cat that is legal to own.

Watch Now: 11 Wildly Exotic Animals That You Can Have as a Pet

Article Sources
The Spruce Pets uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Driscoll, Carlos et al. The taming of the cat. Scientific American. 2009;300(6):68-75.

  2. Captive Wildlife Safety Act - What Big Cat Owners Need to Know. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. 

  3. Ingestion of Foreign Bodies in Cats. Veterinary Centers of America.

  4. Leptailurus serval. Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology.