Considering a Serval Cat? Know the Risks of Having One


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.Should I get a serval cat?
  • 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:

Photos: Tambako the Jaguar/Flickr

book-cover-smallest1Do you have a serval cat? Tell us about it in the comments below. If you enjoyed this article, you’ll love Pets Adviser’s email newsletter. It’s free to sign up, and you’ll be among the first to get alerts about major pet food recalls. New subscribers also get instant access to our 40-page ebook, which has “secrets every cat and dog lover should know.” Learn more here.


From Around the Web

  • 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 ?

  • 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.

  • 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..