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Serval Cats as Pets

Serval Cat Care for New African Serval Owners

Cat Care, how to take care of a catPhoto © Animal-World: Courtesy Alan and Sally Comstock

Serval cats make fascinating pets, with understanding and proper care they can live a long happy life!

The African Serval is a wonderful member of the cat family and can become a very affectionate pet. Keeping Serval cats as pets can be the ultimate experience for avid cat lovers. But these cats take a different mind set than keeping a domestic pet cat, and have special cat care requirements.

That "little bundle of joy" you just purchased will eventually someday accept you as their owner, and you will be a member of their pride. To start your life together however, you need to understand the breed, "African Serval".

You must always remember as an owner of a Serval, that these cats will always be considered a "wild animal." You will never completely domesticate them, though you will come close. You will need to respect the wild side of them, and understand how the wild side will reflect on you. This does not mean they will be aggressive or vicious, but it does mean they have certain characteristics they have developed over thousands of years to help them survive and thrive in the wild. One very important aspect to understand is that you can't yell at a pet Serval. They do not understand that behavior and it can frighten them and will severely damage bonding with them.

Servals that are treated with the love and respect they deserve, will bond with the people that take care of them like no other animal you have ever seen. They will welcome you into their pride and treat you as their pet. You will have years of enjoyment and love. They will treat you like no other cat does. They will chirp when they need your attention. What a joy when your African Serval decides it is time to head butt you into his/her family!

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Responsible Ownership

When you accept the responsibility of caring for any animal like a Serval, you must realize that the animal depends on you not just for food, shelter and medical care, but also depends on you for companionship and love.

Each Serval has their individual personalities and quirks, so each is different. A Serval may bond with you and never bond with another person for the rest of its life. This may make it hard for the Serval if you decide that you cannot care for it anymore. Not many people want to spend decades caring for an animal that they can't have a relationship with. Bear this in mind and realize that a Serval may live up to 20 years. The Serval will depend on you for that length of time. Some Servals may be able to bond with a new owner but that is not guaranteed. Even at best, bonding with a new owner takes time.

  • Re-homing a Serval
    If for some reason you are unable to take care of the Serval, please contact the breeder you got it from, or the Serval community, for help in finding a new home. They understand life changes and are more than willing to help find a safe, friendly place for a cat to go. There is no embarrassment in doing the best thing for your Serval.
  • Back up Care Plan
    Always have a back up plan, in case of a hospital stay or worse. Have a relative or a close friend become the serval's playmate in case you are ill.
African Serval - BubbAfrican Serval - Bubb

Behaviors of Servals

In the wild, cats needed to be smart to survive. By natural selection, the smart cat was the one who lived to reproduce. In turn, each generation has become smarter and smarter. You will suddenly realize this, when your Serval has suddenly learned to open doors. You will need to Serval proof your home, as you would child proof your home.

There are intelligent behaviors these cats instinctively possess, that were developed for their survival in the wild, and will instinctively be part of them as pets. They have a naturally shy and skittish demeanor, yet are very active, and they have focused attention and drive in their play.

Some of their natural inclinations include:

  • Run from danger
    One of the intelligent factors is that wild cats will run from danger. When you run after or chase a Serval, they will think you are trying to hurt them. So they run from, you thinking you are danger. You should never chase your Serval except in an emergency. But even in an emergency, you should try to get the Serval to come to you, by cooing or baby talking, by playing with his/her favorite toy, or by treats. You will have better success trying to get the Serval to come to you instead of you trying to catch him/her.
  • Shy of strangers
    As they get older they may become shy of strangers. They may never welcome strangers, since strangers will not belong to their pride. In the wild, when an unknown male/female wild cat comes upon the territory of another, usually a challenge occurs or one will run. When you have visitors come over, the Serval may go hide and not come out until after they are sure the visitors have left. Do not try to force your Serval out in the open for display. This will frighten your Serval and may do harm emotionally/physically to your Serval. They may learn to not trust you anymore. Make sure your visitors do not chase the Serval, or the Serval may become scared of all strangers and not come out at all.
  • Servals and Children
    Be sure all children are supervised who are around the Serval. If they are afraid of children, they may develop a fear of children that will stick with them permanently. They are very smart and can tell a child's voice from an adult's voice. We do not recommend you have a Serval with small children around. Not only for the well being of the Serval, but also for the welfare of your child. With older children, they may be able to learn about the behaviors of the Serval, and be taught how to behave around them. But this is a judgment that would depend on the individual Serval, and the maturity level of the child.
  • Servals and Other Pets
    Servals usually like other animals. They welcome play with almost any animal once they have time to get accustomed to each other. Once the Serval is close to full-grown however, you should exercise caution when introducing a new small pet, such as a young kitten. They may think that they are a chew toys and hurt them.

Bonding with Your Serval

Teach your pet Serval to trust you with food, toys, play, patience, and no negative responses. When you are trying to become friends with your Serval one of the best things is to feed them directly from your hands. This will teach trust. They will learn you are giving them something good when you are reaching for them.

Another way to bond with the Serval is, lay down on the floor with the cat and their favorite toy. Standing will reflect as you being the predator against them. Play with them so you are not towering over them like you would be if you are standing up. When you are level with them, eye-to-eye, they are more at ease and they will soon become comfortable with you, no matter if you are standing, sitting or laying down.

You must remember you must be patient. It may take a while for them to bond with you. Never yell at your Serval. This will teach them to run and be frightened when you are around. Never force yourself upon them. And never physically hold them against their will. They will learn to run from you instead of coming to you.

Housing Serval Cats

Your Serval will need a cat room in the house, and a large pen outdoors dedicated only for the Serval. Throughout the home, always remember to keep the windows closed. "I had two Servals flying through the house and ejected themselves through a screen window. Luckily they decided to chase lightning bugs, so it was easy for a rescue."… Sally

They like to paw at mini blind cords and drapery cords. The cords should be pinned up out of their reach because they will jump up to play with them and may get them wrapped around their neck, which can be very tragic.

They are capable of jumping on anything that you have in your house. They like being perched on tall pieces of furniture and on shelves. Anything that is on a shelf or piece of furniture that is breakable should be put in a case or cabinet. Cabinets should be high enough to be close to the ceiling. Also watch out for the top of the refrigerator.

  • Indoor Cat Room
    This room will serve as a den for your Serval, especially when you are away from home, or when the need arises for the Serval not to roam your home. You need to make the room "Serval-proof", meaning free of dangers. Make sure there are no electrical wires, dangerous chemicals, etc., no glass or other fragile knickknacks that could be shattered leaving dangerous shards, no places where a Serval could get their leg caught resulting in a sprain or break, no open electric outlets, no indigestible materials, etc.
  • Outdoor Cat Pen
    The outside enclosure should be long as a run, and it should provide adequate shelter from the elements. An ideal outside enclosure would be attached to the house, with an enclosed "catwalk" to give the cat access to the inside of your house. The outside enclosure should be Serval proof as well. A Serval can jump 10 feet straight in the air from a stand still. The outside cage should have a roof to prevent the Serval from jumping out of its cage.

Litter Training Servals

African Serval - Spunk-EAfrican Serval - Spunk-E

When the Serval is small you can use a standard litter box. When they get bigger you will need a larger box, approximately 16 inches in width, 24 inches in length and 18 inches in height or even larger to give them enough room. Be sure to keep the box clean. Using two litter boxes, one for urination and one for defecation, can help a great deal. Servals will refuse to urinate in a box that has been defecated in. You must keep these litter boxes clean every day, after each use.

Here's is a list of the basics for teaching your Serval to use the litter box, its maintenance, and some other important things to know:

  • Train to litter box
    When you receive your kitten from a breeder, the kitten will most likely all ready be litter trained. But you must show your kitten where the litter box is in order for him/her to release himself. A Serval will use a litter box to urinate and defecate if they are taught to do so. They do not naturally cover up like domestic cats do.
  • Do not yell to train
    Don't ever yell at your kitten, this will start you two off in a bad way and will create problems. In the wild they use one or two spots in their territory and tend to stick with those spots. The Serval will use the litter box as their spot if they know that is the spot.
  • Train using repetition
    If you see the kitten going in the wrong spot you should pick it up and bring it to the litter box. You should not scold the Serval for this. You may need to show your kitten the litter box several time, but once they recognize this as their spot, they will faithfully use it.
  • Maintenance
    The litter box must be cleaned daily, and change the litter once a week. They may occasionally urinate or defecate elsewhere. When you discover this is happening, you must clean the spot thoroughly. NO AMMONIA cleaning products, this will only encourage your Serval to use this place over and over again. Rather clean the area with an enzyme-based odor remover such as "Nature's Miracle" and then use "Feliway" on the spot to discourage this behavior.
  • Litter box and other domestic cats
    If you have domestics, do not allow them to use the same box as the Serval. This will only deter the Serval from using its own litter box. If your domestics have urinated on carpets, upholstery or furniture, so will your Serval. You must thoroughly clean those areas with the above mentioned and forbid your domestics in those areas. If you are having a problem with the Serval using the wrong spot consistently, contact me and I will be happy to give some suggestions to eliminate the problem.

Feeding Pet Servals

Servals need more nutrients than a domestic cat. In the wild, Servals feed on primarily on rodents and small animals, as well as birds. A diet in captivity needs to be similar for them to get adequate nutrition. One of the most important things is that they get enough calcium in their diet of 54mgs per animal while kittens, tapering off to about 45 – 49mgs per pound for an adult of three years. Much of their calcium will be from the bones of an animal.

Recommended Serval diets consist of raw, bone-in poultry, meat, and fish supplemented with vitamins made for wild felines. This includes, chicken in all forms (quarters, necks, thighs, wings and ground chicken) turkey necks and ground turkey, any cut of beef and ground beef, as well as canned fish like tuna, salmon, jack mackerel. You can also offer treats of such things as cheese, beef jerky, fruits like strawberries, cherries, oranges, and bananas, lettuce and tomatoes, and macaroni and cheese.

  • Food for kittens
    Feeding your kitten basically takes the form of fine foods rather than whole. Kittens up to about 6 months will need ground meat, offered in combination with wet food. A mixture of ground raw turkey mixed with powdered dry IAMS works well for small kittens. You may want to feed them regular cat food but most types are not well suited to these cats. Use only premium cat food kibble such as IAMS or Orijin, which is 75% meat based. Some kittens, as young as 6 weeks, can chew on a whole chicken wing.

    At a later date, you may decide to feed your Serval ZuPreem® Exotic Feline Diet Canned, or "Mazuri". However, many breeders don't like this approach and especially have concerns with Mazuri. "My male Serval had developed stones due to the salt content of the Mazuri."… Sally Comstock
  • Food for kittens at 6 months
    By the time the Serval is about six months old they may be eating as much as a full can of food per day or a combination of dry and wet food. By this time they will be able to chow down on whole IAMS kibble taking the place of the powdered kibble.
  • Food for mature cats
    When your kitten starts to mature, you may give him a chicken leg or neck. Remember to remove the skin from the leg. This will only cause a chubby Serval in the future. When the Serval reaches maturity, you will be feeding the raw chicken with bones and all. Do not feed cooked meat. Most meat contains high levels of phosphorus and if not consumed with the proper amount of calcium will cause small or brittle bones and other problems. Exotic cats need the correct ratio of the two minerals to be able to utilize the calcium for bone growth. It is best to let the Serval eat as much as they want but, do not leave the food out for more than a couple of hours.
  • Amount of food
    An adult will eat between 1 and 3 pounds of meat a day. It is normal for Serval cats to eat a lot one day and less the next day but if you see that they aren't eating you should have them checked at your vets. Vitamin supplements must be considered. A feeding of grass once a week should be done for the digestive system.
  • Water
    Be sure to have plenty of clean water for them to drink. Having several water bowls around in the house works well. They like to play in water so make sure that you keep the toilet lids closed. This is also best due to the chemical cleaners we use for the toilets.
African Serval - Spook

Serval Play

Servals are very playful, as you will soon find out. They will bring things to you for you to throw to them. They are natural retrievers and they love playing fetch. Some Servals will play fetch for hours. Because they love water, it is not surprising to see your Serval peek-a-booing you when you are in the shower. They will enjoy having a kiddy pool in their outside cage. They have fun cleaning their toys. At night, if you have more than one, they will often start playing and chasing each other around the house, even bouncing off of the walls while you try to sleep.

  • Serval cats and toys
    Servals love playing with toys. When they are young, toys that are made for domestic cats will be fine. But when they are older, those toys are too small and they will destroy most of them quickly. Some toys may be so small that they will swallow them and choke or block their intestines.

    Toys that are made for medium to large sized dog work well. It is fun going to the pet store purchasing dog toys for your cat. Just sit back and watch the reaction when the clerk says, "awww, you buying toys for your dog?", and you reply, "no, buying toys for my cat."
  • Chewing kittens
    Serval kittens like to chew like a puppy. It is a good idea to have plenty of toys that they can chew on. The hard plastic is preferable. The soft plastic can be eaten, which is definitely not good. If you provide them with plenty of toys, they will be less likely not chew on things that you don't want them to destroy or things that may hurt them. If they begin chewing on electrical cords, a good solution is to spray the exposed cords with bitter apple spray (available at pet stores). This will discourage them. Re-apply frequently as needed. This also works on other items that they may chew such as decorative pillows. As they mature they usually do not chew very much.

Harness Training Servals

If you want to be able to take your Serval places with you, you should have your Serval wearing a harness at an early age. Always use a harness, and never trust a collar. They can get out of a collar within seconds. When you start harness training, they will think this is fun and will not cooperate at first. But with time and patience they will start to understand that this is a routine humans prefer.

It is a good idea to put the harness on them and let them walk around to get accustomed to having the straps around their body. Then you should put the leash on the harness and let them run freely in the house or their cage. Keep an eye on them and do not leave them alone with the harness attached. They may get it hooked on something while jumping and choke.
After they are accustomed to the harness and leash with no tension you should hold the leash lightly so that they get accustomed to having tension on the leash. Every once in awhile put the leash on it and guide him around the house. Then you may want to take them out for short walks around the house, near your doors so if there is trouble you may have a fast entrance into the house.

Make sure that they cannot get out of the harness at all. Servals are contortionists when they want to get out of a situation. If something scares them and they try to get out of the harness to run, you may not be able to grab them quickly. They won't really be trying to run away from you but rather they are trying to run away from something that scares them or that they are uncertain of.

At all costs, try to prevent the animal from getting loose. When they get loose outside, in an unfamiliar environment, they get scared and they may even be scared of you under those circumstances. A Serval on the loose can cause a stir in the neighborhood. And someone may think that it is dangerous and shoot it. Strangers who try to catch it will just frighten it more. This situation should be avoided at all costs. Servals can be caught but it can be an ordeal.

Serval Discipline

When you find your Serval doing something that you don't want them to, it is best to reprimand them with a firm "No". Squirting them with a water pistol works. Servals learn to understand that a water bottle means a definite NO! If they play too rough, such as biting too hard, a firm "No!" and a light tap on the head will discourage them. If it does not work, walk away and quit playing.

Servals are very smart and also very stubborn, so it may take several repetitions in order for them to learn that you are not going to let them have their way. Just remember, don't yell at your Serval, as they do not understand that type of communication.

Serval Health Care

Serval cats are pretty hardy, but it's important to be prepared should your pet cat get sick. For safe measure, if there is any reason that you suspect that your Serval is ill, the best thing is to take it to a veterinarian. Your pet Serval can't tell you what is bothering them so you have to be the one to look for signs of illness.

Things to look for include indicating illness include drastic mood changes, vomiting, diarrhea and straining while urinating. Particularly, you should be wary of diarrhea (watery stools). In a young cat, this can dehydrate them in a few hours and they may need fluids intravenously. If you see diarrhea more than twice in a row, it would be prudent to have a veterinarian check out the Serval. Treatment is usually easy and quick once the vet determines the cause of the diarrhea. Diarrhea can sometimes result from a change in diet. But this usually goes away quickly.

There is also some routine medical care, and some optional considerations when keeping Serval cats as pets, including:

  • Vaccinations
    Serval cats require the same vaccinations that domestic cats do. Make sure your veterinarian uses ONLY vaccines made from killed viruses. Exotic cats may become sick and die if live vaccines are used. This is very important.
  • Spaying or Neutering
    Both males and females will spray once they reach sexual maturity if they are not altered. Altering is best done at between 4 and 6 months. Consult a qualified veterinarian regarding this.
  • De-clawing
    When keeping Serval cats as pets, there is a question of whether or not to de-claw the cat. You can discuss this with a qualified veterinarian. There are opinions both for and against this practice. Some breeders suggest that the Servals be de-clawed, and may do this prior to selling their kittens. This can save you from too friendly a playtime, and save your furniture as well. Remember these are wildcat claws and can do plenty of damage.

    On the other hand, de-clawing is a very extensive and painful surgery for the cat, and there is a risk of infection. Some breeders feel that a pet serval, with proper training can learn to refrain from using their claws, saving both the keeper and the furniture from damage.

Written In conjunction with Sally Comstock of Hilltop Cattery, Pennsylvania

Author: Sally Comstock, Clarice Brough CCS

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