The serval cat is a beautiful animal that some people keep as an exotic pet. While you may be able to acquire a serval cat from a breeder, they are considered wild cats. To own a serval cat, you must create a large, secure outdoor enclosure and provide a warm environment year-round. They will need to feed on whole prey food items and require veterinary care from an experienced exotics vet.
It is important to understand the risks involved in owning a wild animal. Ownership of a serval cat is illegal in many locales and requires licenses, permits, and inspections in others. You must check with local laws to know which will apply. Serval cats are also difficult to re-home if you can no longer care for the cat.
Weight: 20 to 40 pounds
Length: 2 feet
Coat Color: Golden yellow to buff with black spots and stripes
Eye Color: Brownish to greenish
Life Expectancy: Up to 22 years in captivity
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Characteristics of the Serval Cat
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History of the Serval Cat
The serval cat is from Africa where tall grass and bushes can camouflage this tall cat allowing it to sneak up on its prey. They are known to resemble cheetahs but have shorter tails than their larger cousins. They typically hunt where they can hide and stay near water. In the wild, they are solitary and cover a home territory of around 7 miles. African serval cats are not on the endangered species list.
Having the longest legs of any cat (in proportion to their bodies), servals are agile jumpers as well as experienced diggers. They can catch birds over five feet in the air and dig into the ground to catch their prey.
Servals make a variety of noises or vocalizations: a high pitched cry to call other servals, growl, a spitting noise, purr, and more.
Serval cats have been kept by humans since the ancient Egyptians and are depicted in their art. However, they are not 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 restrictions on the ownership of wild cats and exotic animals.
Breeders have also been crossing 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 outdoor enclosures are a must for these highly active and solitary cats that roam at least seven miles a day in the wild. Being nocturnal, they are more active at night and have been known to jump out of fenced areas or dig out under fences. An outdoor enclosure needs to be completely fenced in on all sides with a top and the sides should go down a few feet deep into the ground, A simple dog run will not suffice. A pool of water is also important for drinking, swimming, and perhaps even allowing your serval cat to catch its own fish.
Serval cats can bond with humans, especially if they are bottle-raised and hand-fed. Typically, they are a one-human cat and bond for life. You will need to spend time with the cat, playing on its level, eye-to-eye. They can be affectionate but require patience and a gentle hand in training. While you can try to socialize a serval, they will often remain shy of strangers and can be frightened by visitors.
These cats are usually shy during the day and more active at night. Servals can be very active in play and if you bring a serval into the house, it should be in a serval-proofed cat room that doesn't have breakable objects, wires, or other hazards.
While servals can be litter-trained, be aware that urinating on objects is part of their natural way of marking their territory. For safety when walking your serval, you will need a special serval harness since they are not built like domestic cats.
You will need to have a plan in place for someone to care for your serval cat if you take a vacation, need a break, or develop your own health problems.
Common Health Concerns
Ensure access to a veterinarian who can care for exotic pets. Servals need the same annual immunizations and dewormings as domestic cats.
While many pet servals are declawed in the interest of preventing injury to humans, this is a practice that can result in an infection. It also makes the serval vulnerable in a confrontation with other animals. One common veterinary emergency for servals is swallowing foreign objects, which can become lodged in their throats or difficult to pass.
Diet and Nutrition
In the wild, servals eat whatever is available, which makes replicating its ideal natural diet difficult. You may not necessarily have access to everything Africa has to offer wild servals, but rodents, rabbits, birds, fish, insects, reptiles, and frogs are usually on the menu of its varied protein sources. Whole prey should be offered but do not be alarmed if your serval eats so fast that it regurgitates everything right back up due to clogging its throat. It may attempt to re-eat the regurgitated food if has not started fermenting from its stomach acid.
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. When feeding them, a game or puzzle that makes the cat problem-solve will enable the meal to be more rewarding and counts as an enrichment activity in their daily routine.
Add feline supplement to the food as well, such as one formulated specifically for servals. A formulated pelleted diet is acceptable for adding to its diet but should not make up the bulk of any meal.
Serval cats are affectionate and loyal.
Servals are a long-lived breed.
Servals require a diet of a large variety of whole prey protein items.
Due to its wild nature, this breed is not recommended for families with small children or other pets.
It requires an large, outdoor, temperature controlled, fully enclosed enclosure.
Ownership is restricted in several states.
Where to Adopt or Buy a Serval Cat
Whether caught in the wild or bred in captivity, these animals, by their very nature, are wild and requires a skilled, responsible owner who can meet this cat's very 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 to adopt or buy a serval, contact the Feline Conservation Foundation for more information.
More Cat Breeds and Further Research
For further detailed research on the breed, talk to other serval cat owners, reputable breeders, and exotic cat rescue organizations. Be sure that you understand the local laws that apply to this breed.
If you are interested in similar cats, look into these breeds to compare the pros and cons:
Otherwise, look into the many cat breeds that are available.
Leptailurus serval. International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Red List of Threatened Species. 2019.
Driscoll, Carlos et al. The taming of the cat. Scientific American. 2009;300(6):68-75.
Captive Wildlife Safety Act - What Big Cat Owners Need to Know. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. 2007.
Ward, Ernest. Ingestion of Foreign Bodies in Cats. Veterinary Centers of America.
Leptailurus serval. Animal Diversity Web. University of Michigan Museum of Zoology.