African servals, exotic cats as pets

Serval Behavior and Temperament
Servals and Kids - Are They Compatible?
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I have received many inquiries about the compatibility of servals and other exotic cats with children of various ages. There are varied opinions on the safety of having children and servals living in the same household, and there is really no way to give a firm "yes or no" answer. The more chaotic and uncontrolled the household, the worse the situationis for a serval. Every person must make a decision based on their own situation. I can, however, point out some of the key factors to take into account, and present input from experienced breeders and owners.

Some primary factors to consider are:

  • The safety of the children
  • The safety, comfort, and quality of life of the cat
  • Increased risk of escape when children are involved

Serval breeder and owner Sara Comstock says “There have been heated discussions amongst owners and breeders regarding having children along with a serval. One must realize that each household is different. Each child and each serval is different. You cannot generalize here, as what works for one owner will not work for another. Having children and servals together depends upon the upbringing of both. The success or failure of this endeavor will depend on the temperament of both the child and the serval. It is the parent's responsibility to ensure both the child's safety and the serval's welfare. Remember that responsibility is the key to any type of relationship."

She says it is possible to safely own a pet serval with children, if the children are old enough and mature enough to understand and respect the "wild" side of the serval. It is the parent's responsibility to know their children. Comstock notes that in too many cases, the serval reaches maturity, starts feeling his/her oats, becomes unruly or aggressive, and the parent will decide to get rid of the cat for the safety of the children. "Far too many servals have been fostered or placed in zoos or sanctuaries because children were involved. I have witnessed this situation over and over again. "

In my opinion, if you take on a serval in a household with children, or if as a serval owner you decide to add a child to the family, you have two vital responsibilities. You must provide for the absolute safety of the child, taking no chances on allowing an injury to occur. Second, you are responsible for your serval's well being for life, and you need to accept the fact that you need to ensure the child's safety without using that as an excuse to get rid of your cat.

Serval owner Mark Hayes advises "If a child is high strung, unruly, rough, or doesn’t listen well, do not bring a serval into the household." He suggests asking yourself "Is the child mature enough to understand that a serval can be a wild cat? Will the child respect and take responsibility for the serval? "

Mark feels that most people can't handle a serval, and even fewer can handle a child and a serval. Therefore he says that for most people the answer is no, but there are always exceptions that will go the extra mile to make to it safe.

On the other hand, owner KJ Buckley takes a somewhat more optimistic view, saying "There are many families with servals and children. Kids are smart and usually do really well with exotics, especially with good parents who teach them about the cat's behaviors."

Children can be very frightening to an exotic cat. One childless owner recounted an experience that left a lasting negative impression on their serval: "She was Ok with everyone until she was about 6 months old... the our next door neighbor brought his granddaughter for a visit. The little girl got SO excited at seeing this spotted cat lounging on our bed, that she began to jump up and down and SQUEAL. E'Leisha (Serval, not visiting child) immediately hissed and ran away to hide under a skirted chair... and absolutely HATES all small people to this day." This owner observes that a "small person" who is easily excited is not good for any exotic cat.

Safety Precautions

Owner KJ Buckley has some practical suggestions for parents, pointing out that one would need to train the child about unsafe toys, i.e., small rubber balls and plastic 'animals' that have small feet that can be chewed off, stuffed toys that may have 'button eyes', and the other dangerous items that a serval can accidentally ingest.

He knows of a new serval owner who was not aware that his nieces were leaving toys in the serval enclosure and the servals were consuming them. Then there's the cloth bedding that may or may not be a problem. He says some exotics love to make swiss cheese out of towels and comforters, so the child would need to keep a close watch on the serval's environment.

Buckley also emphasizes that you would also have to teach the child about the importance of not opening doors and letting the cat escape, as well as making sure that they don't bring in their friends, because if someone outside the home got bitten, then you could get sued and your cat could wind up dead.

He says that as far as safety of the child, a #1 rule would be not to 'play' with the cat during feeding time. Depending on the child's age and size, turning his/her back on the cat is not a good idea because it may decide to romp and play on the child's head and this could take the child by surprise and possibly hurt. So, teaching your child to face the cat at all times is a good idea.

I used to train dogs, specializing in animls with aggression problems. Whenever I would advise the owners of an aggressive dog on child safety, I would emphasize one point above all others: you must make it physically impossible for an incident to occur, by keeping locked doors between the child and the animal and so forth.

Future Children

If you want children at some point after you get your serval, or even think there is a chance of accidentally becoming pregnant, some advance planning needs to be done. Servals and small children are usually incompatible, and it is not acceptable to simply get rid of the cat. If you think children are on the horizon, the wisest choice may be to get a beautiful domestic cat and wait until your kids are grown up to get a serval.

Serval breeder Sandi Cossette suggests that young married couples who intend to have children in the near future to have a plan for their cat when the time comes. “Too many younger people are getting these cats and then when the new baby comes they feel they need to get rid of the cat and have a hard time finding a home for it. The poor cat feels very unwanted."

Realizing that it probably won’t be safe for the serval to live with your child for at least a few years, how do you plan do cope with the situation? Is your house large enough that the serval can be confined humanely to one area, while your baby resides in another?

As your child gets old enough to start opening doors, you’ll need to think about security. Can you lock the doors to your serval’s area so that your child cannot accidentally release him?

Age Issues

Sandi Cossette of Cossette's Exotics doesn’t recommend having an exotic cat around children under 5 or 6 years old and even then, she advises that contact should be supervised. She says that the quick movements of young children can tempt the cat to want to chase and grab them, and notes that young children usually do not know how to handle a cat properly and could get unintentionally rough with the cat, with the cat reacting roughly in kind.

Hayes says he doesn't think it's safe to leave young children alone with any animal that can overpower them. He notes that there are many cases of friendly family dogs attacking a child when the parent leaves the room. Animals can see the child as a toy or be frightened of him. They cannot rationalize the child means no harm.

Sara Comstock feels that a mature child of 13 would probably be able to take on the responsibility of knowing and understanding the serval. But once again, she emphasizes that it is the responsibility of the parent to teach the child respect for the serval.

Comstock explains that supervision is a must, even if the child is 13. The child and the parent must take on the responsibility of knowing the serval's needs and attitudes. Training the child should start before the serval comes into the house. Training such as, respect and responsibility should be in researching the breed, via books, discussion groups and the web. In this way, they, both the parent and the child, will know what precautions they need to take in being owned by a serval. Research is the key in possessing a serval. Knowing the maturity of your child, is the key to having a happy, healthy serval.

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© Jessi Clark-White, 2004
Servals and Children