By Jessi-Clark White
What cat lover hasnít looked into the eyes of a wild cat at a zoo or in a photograph and secretly wondered how different these creatures really are at heart from our domestic companions? Who hasnít fantasized about reaching out and petting one, and hearing it purr in response? For some people, that dream is a reality. Living with a tame wild cat is an amazing experience which verifies what many have felt deep down; these animals can be every bit as loving and affectionate as a domestic house cat.
However, this dream come true brings with it some very real challenges and responsibilities far beyond those facing the average pet owner.
I am 100% supportive of the right of ordinary people to share their lives with these wonderful animals. But it is also our duty as responsible owners and breeders to ensure that you make the choice to get a serval only if you are fully informed and are prepared to provide a loving, lifetime home.
Servals are much more challenging and time consuming to raise than a domestic cat. In order to end up with a tame, safe, and loving serval that can live in your house, you are going to have to spend a lot of time socializing, training, and housebreaking him. These things donít happen automatically with a serval. And in some cases, things donít work out as you may have hoped. That perfect pet you envisioned may end up spraying all over your house or letting only your spouse touch him; in which case you are still responsible for the catís well-being for life.
Overall, servals are much like domestic cats.... turbocharged! In many ways they act just like the cats you know; they purr, cuddle, pounce, play, jump on things, run if they get scared, etc. Those traits are just magnified. If there is anything domestic cats do that annoys or alarms you, a serval is not for you! On the flip side of this, if you really love cats you may find that a serval can be your best friend.
Domestic cats weigh 7-15 pounds; servals weigh 20- 40. This may not seem all that significant, but when you realize that a 3-month-old Serval is the size of a full grown domestic cat with all the energy of a kitten it begins to strike home. In addition to being heavier than domestic cats, they have a much lankier, lighter build which makes them quite large for their weight. My Sirocco could stand on his hind legs and place his paws around my waist when he was 7 months old and Iím not short! These kitties are heavy enough to hurt when they pounce on you in play, and can leap to the top of the tallest piece of furniture in your house. They require huge litterboxes as well.
Speaking of which, letís make one thing perfectly clear: servals donít come litter box trained! In fact, they may go to the bathroom in ďunauthorized locations even once they are trained. One womanís pet serval sprays her in the face! Before Sirocco arrived, Iíd been adamant: no litter boxes in my bedroom. Now, Iím just content when he actually uses the giant box that so gracefully adorns the floor by my entertainment center rather than peeing on my bed. While litter training can be successful, if you canít live with the possibility that this animal may soil your house or donít have time to devote to litter box training, your decision should probably be to avoid owning an exotic feline.
A Serval kitten is like a domestic kitten on speed! If you have ever raised a kitten you know how playful (and sometimes destructive) they are. Then imagine kittens the size of a full-grown domestic cat, with way more energy! Prepare to be playfully tackled, bitten, clawed, climbed, and otherwise wrestled with by a huge kitten, and make sure you have the training experience to teach your little fireball to be gentle with humans and your house.
Domestic cats jump up on your windowsills and the refrigerator, rarely disturbing household objects; servals jump on your bookshelves, kitchen counters, tables, computer desks, and any other raised surface leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. While supremely athletic animals, servals are entirely lacking the gracefully avoid knocking over objects on the shelfĒ gene. Knickknacks on the bookshelf? Gone, or later discovered buried in the litterbox. Stuff on your kitchen counter? Knocked over and sent flying several feet in random directions.
If you are a fan of stuffed animals, beanie babies, or cute little sofa pillows: beware! They and the serval will not be able to exist in the same room. I know what youíre thinking; Iíll just put them on the top shelf of my. No dice. He can jump up there.
One evening I came home from work to find the blankets dragged from my bed, one of them lying elegantly by the entrance to the litter box. As a thoughtful decorative touch, heíd also removed a German Shepherd figurine from my bookshelf and placed it in the litter box with one ear poking out. One thing Iím quite proud of is the fact that Sirocco isnít very destructive indoors with his claws. For instance, he doesnít claw the curtains. He just yanks the entire curtain rod loose from the wall and drags the curtains under the bed. Good serval.
Servals cannot legally or ethically be allowed to run loose, and can be very difficult to capture if they escape. You will need to plan for a secure outdoor exercise area, and take effective precautions to prevent your serval from escaping from the house or run.
Before getting a serval, find out if there is a local vet who is qualified and willing to treat your serval. Veterinary care can be harder to find and more expensive than for a domestic cat, and the care they require can be different.
Proper nutrition is critical in servals, and you canít get away with just feeding domestic cat food. Stomach contents of wild servals have included rats and mice of various types, shrews, moles, hares, birds, reptiles, amphibians (particularly frogs), crabs, and other creatures identified only as ďunidentified small mammal. There is no one firm standard, but the diet most commonly recommended is one consisting of raw, bone-in poultry and meat, supplemented with vitamins made for wild felines. Under no circumstances should an exotic feline be fed a vegetarian diet.
Servals generally do not adapt well at all to being placed in new homes. They bond completely and intensely once. They become heartbroken if they loose their family. If they lose their original home they probably will not bond to anyone again, and may well not even be tame. This means that if you find yourself in a position where you can no longer keep your serval, he will go from being a loved household pet to being stuck outdoors in a pen without the enjoyment of human companionship for the rest of his life. This should give you pause when deciding whether you will be able to keep this animal for a lifetime. If you are not certain, please donít get a serval.
If your serval defecates all over your new leather sofa, will you keep him? If heís shy and wonít let you touch him, will you keep him? If he doesnít get along with your other pets, will you keep him? If you have a baby, will you keep him? If you have to move, will you keep him? If he never uses the litter box, will you keep him?
There will be problems to overcome, and the main things to keep in mind are that each serval's habits and activity level will be different and every owner's skill at coping with unwanted behavior will vary. You need to imagine a worst-case scenario and ask yourself if you could cope with it and still love and keep your cat. If your answer is yes, than you can consider getting a serval. If not, than you and your would-be pet will be better off if you resist the temptation.
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