African servals, exotic cats as pets

Serval/Exotic Cat Care
Serval Housing and Enclosures
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The outdoor enclosure is a great place for the cat to burn off energy, play, and enjoy the outdoors in safety.

Servals cannot be allowed to run loose, even if you live in a rural area!

Enclosures should be designed with the welfare of the cat and the safety of the public in mind

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Servals cannot be allowed to run loose even if you live in a rural area, so the question of how best to accomodate them and meet their needs should be a major decision for a new serval owner. They are extremely difficult to capture if they get loose; they will not return home routinely the way a domestic cat does.

If a serval escapes, it will be likely to be shot by a livestock owner, frightened citizen, trophy hunter, or law enforcement officer. It could also be hit by a car, poisoned, or injured by another animal. You would also be in violation of the law (The Animal Wefare Act does not allow you to let any exotic animal run free) and incur liability for any harm your serval might cause.

I personally feel that the most humane way to keep a serval is with access to both the house and an outdoor enclosure, as they derive a great deal of pleasure from both. The outdoor enclosure would preferably be connected to some part of your house via a lockable dog door. That way your serval can come and go at will, but you can lock him in or out when you need to. The outdoor enclosure is a great place for the cat to burn off energy, play, and enjoy the outdoors in safety. Enclosures should be padlocked for safety.

Checking Local Laws

The first step in your planning should be to find out if there are any specific legal requirements regarding caging in your area. Unfortunately, in some areas one is required to keep the cat in an enclosure at all times. This is an example of laws (usually sponsored by animal rights groups) that actually lower the quality of life for the cats they are supposed to protect.

Some areas have regulations specifying what materials your enclosure must be made with, what type of flooring, minimum dimensions, etc. so check the laws before you build. If you plan to become a USDA licensed exhibitor, you will need to meet the Animal Welfare Act caging standards which include a 6' peremeter fence around the primary enclosure (also required by some local laws).

A fantastic 450 sq ft outdoor serval enclosure, complete with waterfall, pond, stream, grass, trees, and a big tree limb to climb on. The owners spent every weekend for 10 months constructing this facility before getting their kitten.

A great double door entrance to prevent escape as people enter and exit the enclosure.

Double Doors and Other Sercurity Precautions

I hope to eventually put some more specific recommendations for setting up your house/enclosure to prevent escapes. In the meantime, the best and simplest guideline I know of is found in An Introduction to Responsible Private Captive Husbandry of Wild Felines:

"The "Drop Dead Test." To apply this test simply consider what might happen if at any time (such as when opening a cage door) if you were to suddenly drop dead. If your cat could escape, your security arrangements fail the test. FIX IT IMMEDIATELY!" To put it another way, always have a closed door between the cat and the outside world.

My enclosure is divided into two sections with a gate between them. When I need to enter the enclosure, I close the gate between the two from outside, locking Sirocco in the interior section. This provides a "double door" type entry so that there is never a possibility of his slipping out past me as I enter.

I would eventually like to have double door entrances on my home, but since I lack the money to do that right now I have a rule of never opening the doors to the house unless my serval is locked in another room. When he is loose in the house, I lock the doors to remind me should I absent-mindedly try to open them.

Some facilities use "lockout boxes" which are a travel-crate sized cage attached to the side of the enclosure with a sliding door that can be operated from outside the enclosure. Before entering the enclosure, you call the cat into the lockout box and lock him in using the sliding door. This type of arrangement tends to be more popular with facilities housing the more potentially dangerous large cats such as tigers because it allows one to enter the enclosure without being exposed to a loose feline.

Peremeter Fences

Peremeter fences (a secondary fence surrounding your enclosure) are a good idea for many reasons. When placed at least a few feet from the enclosure, they prevent people from sticking their hands and other items into the enclosure. While servals are not inherently dangerous, it is an excellent safety precaution to prevent unauthorized contact with your cat. The fence will also prevent dogs, children, and other creatures from coming right up to the enclosure and harrassing your cat.

The peremeter fence also provides a secondary barrier against escape. I emphasize secondary because a serval could scale a 6' fence in seconds. However, those seconds might be the ones you need to grap an escaping kitty that just slipped out of his enclosure (which should never happen in the first place!).

While You're Away

Depending on how well serval-proofed your house is and the behavior of your individual cat, you may well need to consider confining him to a certain area when unattended. When I am away, I leave Sirocco in my bedroom which is about as serval-proofed as I can get it. That way he has free access between a nice indoor area and his outdoor enclosure, giving him plenty of space. What you do personally while you're out will probably depend on you and your serval.

If he can't be loose unattended (a likely possibility), you will need a comfortable, safe area to leave him. That could be the room in the house that you enclosure attaches to, or if that is not practical you might build a cozy den in the enclosure, or something in between. If you leave him in the enclosure, the den box should be big and solid enough for him to hide in and feel secure, have a comfortable surface to lie on, and have a safe heater for chilly days.

A compromise option you could consider would be to have the enclosure attach to the house like mine does, but have the pet door lead in to a smaller indoor enclosure like a giant dog crate. That way he could come indoors and be in the indoor climate, but not be loose to cause damage. Then when you are home you could open up the indoor enclosure so he could roam the house.

One reader asked about crating a serval while she was away. I really do not feel that it would be humane to lock a serval in a crate all the time while you are gone. These are active, intelligent animals who need exercise and mental stimulation.

My Setup

I have a 7' x 26' dog kennel that I modified for serval use. I put a top on it, planted grass, and put in several tree limbs that allow climbing, playing, and scratching. The logs have bark on them, and sometimes I put catnip on them to enhance their appeal. It's more fun to scratch out there than it is to scratch curtains or my couch! One of my bedroom windows has been replaced with polycarbonate and has a swinging door in it, which connects to a ramp enclosed in wire that runs from my bedroom window to the top of the kennel. It punches through the top of the kennel, where a tree limb leading down to the ground is positioned directly below the opening. This allows free access between the house and the enclosure.

When I first built the tunnel, I replaced the glass window with a sheet of Plexiglass, cut a hole out of it, and reattached the cutout with a hinge, forming an entrance with a swinging pet door. I attached a latch so that I could lock Sirocco in or out as needed. It worked great for a little while until the plastic started ro crack. First the swinging door broke off, then cracks started developing where the plastic was screwed to the ramp.

I did a little more research and ended up buying a sheet of polycarbonate (the stuff used for bulletproof glass) into which I mounted a Magnador brand pet door. Not wanting a repeat of the experience I''d had with plexiglass, I first purchased a scrap piece of polycarbonate and subjected it to every stress I could think of, trying to crack it. I didn't suceed, so I ordered up a sheet of it from Multicraft Plastics. They are a local company, but they said they are willing to ship orders if you can't find this material locally. The piece I used cost about $40.00. I used a Magnador pet door for three reasons; unlike many, it is designed to install in a thin surface (the polycarbonate) gracefully, it had easy latches to lock the door shut, and it was half the cost of many others. The new setup works great and promises to be very durable.

A more recent addition to Sirocco's enclosure is a hanging platform made of driftwood, which is anchored to the top of the enclosure. He also has a small shelter box with a flat top. It is not really made to shelter from the elements, as he has free access to the house. However, it is fun for him to play in and jump up on top of. A Jolly Ball teaser ball hangs by a thick sisal rope (which can be used for climbing and scratching) from the top.

I am using prefabricated chain link kennel panels to expand the enclosure as I can afford it. These panels come in 6'x6' and 6'x12' sizes, and are easily bolted together in various configurations. You can buy them at the big home improvement stores. I like them because they make it easy to expand (I'm about to add another 6'x12' to Sirocco's enclosure), and if you ever need to move you can just unbolt all the panels, throw them in a truck, and reassemble at your new location. I have known many owners who have put a lot of time and money into nice enclosures, only to move and have to start all over.

In accordance with USDA requirements, my enclosure is surrounded by a 6' tall peremeter fence. The enclosure is divided into two sections with a gate between them. When I need to enter the enclosure, I close the gate between the two from outside, locking Sirocco in the interior section. This provides a "double door" type entry so that there is never a possibility of his slipping out past me as I enter.


The cost of the enclosure really depends on the materials you use and whether you are paying someone to build or doing it yourself. You can get a lot of extra "milage" out of a smallish enclosure by adding platforms and tree limbs to climb on. My enclosure, materials, and everthing connecting it to the house probably cost about $1,500 doing all building myself and using a lot of free materials inside it like driftwood and tree limbs, plus another couple hundred for a peremeter fence when I got my USDA permit. If that sounds like a lot of money, I should point out that I didn' t spend all that at once; I started with a smaller kennel that I had purchased for my dog but never used, built the attachment setup in stages before getting Sirocco, added an extension to the kennel as he grew, added things as they were needed, etc. I know other people who have easily spent $10,000 on their enclosures.
Little Topanga explores his new home.

More Information on Enclosures

I will expand this section as time permits. If you own a serval, please share your enclosure designs and ideas with me so they can be added to this site!

The Feline Conservation Federation (FCF) has a nice article on Housing Design for an Exotic Feline.

Samantha Martin of Amazing Animals had a harrowing firsthand experience with a serval escape. "My current serval is bottle raised from 3 weeks...totally a house pet from day one. He jumped out the second story screen to get a bird. (We now have all screens reinforced with wire mesh). He went from a total loving housepet, to a complete wild animal the moment he got outside. It was like he did not know me anymore. Luckily the whole back is fenced in and we managed to get him in by luring him with a live chicken (the chicken was not harmed) but he went for it. My life flashed before my eyes."

Escape-proofing your house; a word to the wise

Submitted by Sara Comstock

We built a new sunroom on the back of the house from Four Seasons. Real nice all glass, the windows had full screens. The screens looked strong enough-wrong! Our two oldest servals were chasing each other throughout the house as normal, up and down the stairs, bounce off the dining room wall and run back up the stairs. Well, with this new sun room, they thought, yippeee we can slide across the new wood floor, bounce off the window and run right back up the stairs. Except when they went to bounce off the window, they both shot thru the screen!

Being their mommy, I could sense something was wrong, I had that horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach something was just not right. I ran downstairs calling their names, they usually chirped back, but this time they did not. I searched the house and could not find them, I went into the new sun room and there the screen was out laying in the back yard!

You need to serval proof your home. Your home becomes their den and you as their parent need to make sure that your home is the safest place for a serval to be. I now have heavy fencing SCREWED into each window frame of the new sunroom.

If you think your serval will not run, please do not think. They still have and will always have in our life time, a wild streak in them. It is their nature of the breed.

This story had a happy ending, as Sara was able to catch her beloved servals thanks to a tip from a neighbor.

What about invisible fencing?

A reader of my webside wrote and asked me if I thought her existing invisible fence system could be used to contain a serval.

I would never consider using an invisible fence system for a serval. For one thing, invisible fence systems keep the animal within a given area, but do not prevent people and other animals from entering. You absolutely do not want people to be able to approach your serval without your presence. If they are bitten or scratched, you could be sued and your cat seized and killed.

Even if you trust adults in your neighborhood, kids do nasty things. I know of one case where a serval was tied in its owner’s yard, and a neighborhood child known for pestering animals came over and started teasing the serval and pulling on his tail. Eventually the serval bit the child. He was seized and had the good fortune to be placed in a sanctuary rather than destroyed, but the owners lost a beloved pet and the serval lost his beloved humans. These are also valuable animals and would be prime targets for theft.

While a serval would easily be smart enough to learn invisible fence boundaries, you have to keep in mind that they have strong wild instincts for self-preservation. They have lightning reflexes and move with incredible speed and determination when startled. If your serval were to be frightened by a loose dog entering the yard to chase him, a neighbor running a lawn mower, etc. I don’t think an invisible fence would stand the slightest chance of containing him. He would probably bolt right through the boundary and be scared into running even faster when he got shocked. The learned behavior of avoiding the boundary would most likely go out the window the instant his survival reflexes were triggered.


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© Jessi Clark-White, 2004
Serval Housing and Enclosures