African servals, exotic cats as pets

Serval Behavior and Temperament
How Do Servals Differ from Domestic Cats?
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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.

Domestic cats purr; servals have the loudest and deepest purr you've ever heard.

Domestic cats weigh 7-15 pounds; servals weigh 25- 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.

Domestic cats like to play with things and wrestle; serval kittens devote 95% of their waking hours (basically the entire time not occupied by eating or going to the bathroom) to the application of tooth and claw to anything they can get ahold of.



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How do servals differ from domestic cats?

........Servals enjoy water!

Servals display some very unique and often endearing behaviors that set them apart from domestic cats. One of the most distinctive is the affectionate head butt. If you place your face at serval head height, you will receive a loving bang on the forehead from a purring wildcat! I’ve often been awakened in the middle of the night by loud purrs and the endearing bump, bump, bump of a serval saying “wake up and pet me!” with multiple head butts.

Another interesting characteristic is the “chirp” that takes the place of a domestic cat’s meow. A serval’s chirp sounds like a cross between a birdcall and the meow of a very young kitten.

Servals are also known to engage in some rather dog-like behaviors such as playing fetch and tug-o-war. While Sirocco doesn’t seep too keen on the whole fetching idea, he could rival a bulldog when it comes to sheer tenacity in clinging to a favorite toy. They also pant in warm weather or when out of breath, unlike domestic cats that only pant when severely overheated or in respiratory distress.

Oh, and (yes, we are talking about a cat here!) they like to play in water! Many owners will put a kid’s plastic swimming pool in their serval’s outside enclosure during the summer. ..and better keep the toilet lid down!

I live in the Pacific Northwest, infamous for its rainy winters. At first I naively assumed that Sirocco would lose interest in spending time in his outdoor enclosure during the winter months. This did not prove to be the case. In fact, in midwinter I had to lock him out of his enclosure because he would go out in the rain and accumulate copious amounts of mud on his very large paws. Having accomplished this, he would race indoors for just long enough to distribute mud and rainwater evenly throughout my bedroom and its furnishings before bolting gleefully outside again.

This spring I removed the barricade so that Sirocco could once again go outside. Spring weather being what it is, the rain started pouring down on the roof one night as I was watching a movie. I began to reflect that the thundering downpour had lasted for quite some time. This brought me to the realization that I hadn’t seen Sirocco recently. My darkest suspicions were confirmed when a dripping wet spotted head poked through the cat door with a look of great contentment.

Servals also have extraordinary hearing. Their huge ears help them pinpoint the faintest of noises with great accuracy. I can rub two fingers together under a heavy blanket, creating no visible movement and no noise audible to human ears, and Sirocco will pounce on them with unerring precision from feet away.

Servals like to stick their paws into openings like gopher holes or your pockets and fish around for interesting objects.
Wild servals reportedly pounce on prey located in tall grass from up to 12 feet away and catch it almost 50% of the time. This is the highest kill ratio of any wild cat species.

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 is a dream come true.

Here, Sirocco has his leg deep in a gopher hole. This photo also shows the striking black and white markings found on the inside of his legs.

Domestic cats purr; servals have the loudest and deepest purr you've ever heard. The magnificent purr of these spotted cats is something you just have to hear to believe, and it’s all the more special combined with their eyes-half-closed “I adore you” expression.

Domestic cats are affectionate (all myths about aloof cats notwithstanding); servals adore you and wear their hearts on their sleeves. These cats bond completely to you and their love is unmistakable. You do have to earn this affection, but once you’ve earned their trust and love it’s hard to even imagine that this is a “wild” animal.

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 I’m 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.

For me the size of servals is just about perfect. They are small enough so as not to be intimidating; it would be difficult or impossible for a serval to seriously injure me even if it wanted to, and people tend to have reactions such as “How beautiful, can I pet him?” rather than “Will it eat me?”

However, they are quite significantly larger than a domestic cat, which just adds to the magic of having one around. You can’t help but be constantly reminded of just how special and different these wonderful cats are. I don’t say this from the perspective of a person who wants to own something rare; I say it as a lifetime cat lover who still can’t quite believe her good fortune to be living in the very same house with a real, live, purring African serval!

Domestic cats pounce on things; servals unleash a deadly accurate "karate chop" surgical strike at them.

Domestic cats like to play with things and wrestle; serval kittens devote 95% of their waking hours (basically the entire time not occupied by eating or going to the bathroom) to the application of tooth and claw to anything they can get ahold of. Distinct preference is given to things that move, such as their owners!

Expect to spend quite a bit of time teaching your serval kitten to play with toys instead of your hands, feet, and hair. If you can arrange to have an almost full grown but still young and playful domestic cat around the house, and can successfully introduce the two felines, it can really help for the serval to have another cat to play with.

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 you’re thinking; I’ll just put them on the top shelf of my…. No dice. He can jump up there.

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 shelf” 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.

This serval wants me out of her enclosure now! She loves her owner, but wants nothing to do with other humans.
A domestic cat is a surprisingly formidable foe when you are trying to do something awful to it like give it a pill or a bath; servals are bigger, stronger, smarter, and have faster reflexes. (Hint: Train them to accept restraint and handling when they are very, very small.)

A domestic cat is prone to startling and bolting for cover when something scares it, using claws instinctively if necessary to escape; a serval notices the scary thing 3 times sooner, has reflexes of lightning, and thinks nothing of jumping five feet in the air when startled. And need I mention the claws? They are very large and very sharp.... And no, it's not perfectly okay to amputate them (see Declawing)!

Domestic cats are pretty smart; servals are extremely intelligent.

In contrast, this friendly boy invited me in for a cuddle.
Unaltered domestic cats sometimes spray in the house; servals mark their territory up to 46 times an hour in the wild. Servals are much more prone to spraying and litter box problems than domestic cats.

When a domestic cat hisses, fluffs up his tail, or raises the hair along his back, it usually means only one thing: I’m scared, so back off or you’ll be hamburger. Coming from a serval, these behaviors are just as likely to mean I love you and I’m excited that you’re home, or Cool bird, mom, can I chase it?

You have to take precautions to prevent your serval from escaping from the house. That means never leaving windows or doors open, making sure your cat cannot slip out the door as you open it, no cat or dog doors, etc.

Servals are somewhat infamous for swallowing strange things and requiring surgery to remove them. I know of one person whose serval underwent four separate surgeries during his lifetime to remove various foreign objects.

You have to take precautions to prevent your serval from escaping from the house. That means never leaving windows or doors open, making sure your cat cannot slip out the door as you open it, no cat or dog doors, etc.

Unlike most domestic cats, servals chew on things including shoes, electrical cords, baskets, plants, bedframes, etc. Serval-proofing your house can be a formidable task. Servals are also somewhat infamous for swallowing strange things and requiring surgery to remove them.

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© Jessi Clark-White, 2004
How Do Servals Differ From Domestic Cats?