African servals, exotic cats as pets

Serval Training
Restraint and Leash Training
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The ability to train is an essential skill for a serval owner.

Modern animal training methods make the process fun for both the animal and the trainer.

Positive reinforcement based methods developed by dolphin trainers get great results on servals and other exotic pets.

Restraint and Leash Training

When I first got Sirocco, he refused to be held, with brief exceptions made at bottle feeding time. Any attempts to restrain him turned him into a spinning, jumping, biting, clawing ball of spotted fur. I hasten to say he wasn't being mean; I just don't think he'd been held much. He took restraint as an invitation to wrestle and then as an unpleasant thing to escape from at all costs.

Servals can be trained to walk on a harness and leash.
After a few scratched arms and bruised feelings, I found that simply trying to coax him to hold still in my lap stood a 100% chance of failure. I didn't think just grabbing him and holding on was a good idea. Aside from the fact that it would have turned me into a human hamburger, I think it would have made him form negative associations with me. But this issue needed to be worked out while he weighed 5 pounds, not 40. I put his harness and leash on him. Surprising how long that activity takes when your subject cannot be held still and regards the harness as a perfect serval toy!

With the harness attached, I gripped the leash and was introduced to the incredible agility of serval kittens! As soon as he felt the harness restrain him even slightly, he jumped straight up in the air, spun, bit the leash, rolled over on his back, get the idea. I just hung on. At intervals he stopped briefly to catch his breath. I greeted this behavior with gentle petting and praise. I was trying to reinforce this behavior and give him the idea that I was the good person there to comfort him and save him from that horrible harness.

Slowly the intervals between fighting grew longer, and after a while he accepted being restrained with the harness. Physically holding him still wasn't working. This posed a problem, because the day after I got him he got runny eyes. My vet, kind and considerate person that she is, provided me with a tube of antibiotic ointment to be placed in the spotted destroyer's eyes no less than 3 times a day!

This required the development of special reflexes allowing me to A)Catch the serval, B)Put a towel over the serval, and C)Wrap the serval securely in said towel. With only a spotted head showing I was able to medicate his eyes while trying to ignore the pitiful chirping of a very frustrated serval. This procedure turned out to be a blessing in disguise, and even if your serval doesn't require medication I would suggest "towel therapy."

He was able to struggle to his heart's content, then give up and decide that being held wasn't so bad. I took the opportunity to medicate his eyes, look in his ears, pet his head, and generally let him know I wasn't such a bad human. And I made a special point to never let him go until he was quiet and had stopped struggling. After a few days, his struggles faded and he started to get a very contented look on his little face when I petted him.

These steps eventually led to phase three, actually holding my serval! With him on his harness and leash, I would pick him up and hold him and try to cuddle him. At first when he struggled, I would restrain him not with my hands but by holding his leash very close to his harness. Once again, I had him fighting the harness, not me. When he gave up and stopped struggling, I reinforced that by letting him go! Being an intelligent little critter, he soon learned that holding still was the best way to get released.

After a while I was able to stop holding on to his harness and start actually holding on to him. By this time his struggles were mild enough to be contained, and he would settle down quickly. I NEVER let him go during a tantrum. He accepted that he would have to hold still in order to be released, and I started holding him for gradually longer and longer periods of time before letting him go. Over time he started enjoying being held and realized that it's the perfect way for a serval to get kisses and head scratches.

Thanks to this process I have a serval that is trained to the harness, thinks I'm stronger than he is, sits still when I hold him, and allows me to medicate him, clip his nails, etc. The staff at my vet's office comments on how good he is, with one person recently remarking that he's better behaved that the domestic cats they see there!

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© Jessi Clark-White, 2004
Teaching Your Serval to Accept Restraint