While the domesticated cat has lived around humans for thousands of years and is easily one of the most popular pets on Earth, some owners prefer to keep felids that are considered "exotic." Caring for these unique creatures may bring about a sense of pride and accomplishment because these pets can be very challenging to care for or require specific accommodations.
The bond between a human and an animal that might not be as initially receptive to human interaction is, therefore, more precious, and when these cats are rare in captivity, caring for one is an even bigger privilege. Here are the rarest exotic cats that some people have as private pets.
- Species Name: Acinonyx jubatus
- Native to: Nepal, Bhutan, India, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Myanmar.
- Diet: Birds, fish, monkeys, deer, and rodents. Sometimes they prey on domestic livestock.
- Husbandry: They should be kept outdoors although they are sensitive to extreme temperatures.
- Rarity: Very uncommon, although there is availability.
Clouded leopards are beautiful, medium-sized stocky cats that are beginning to become more available to private zoo owners. They are extremely expensive, with some having gone for around $20,000. Despite their name "leopard", they are significantly less dangerous and less sizable than leopards in the genus Panthera.
These cats are highly arboreal, and they should not be in cold temperatures or in environments over 85 F. Clouded leopards are highly prized for their appearance but much more manageable size.
- Species Name: Felis margarita
- Native to: The Sahara Desert, including the countries of Algeria, Niger, Morroco, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
- Diet: Small animals such as snakes, sand voles, gerbils, hares, and birds.
- Husbandry: Sand cats are small enough to be indoor pets but have some have challenging personalities.
- Rarity: There are a limited number of people who own sand cats.
Sand cats are occasionally owned as pets by people who are capable of importing them. There are also a limited number of sand cat breeders that typically will not sell to people who do not hold a USDA license. They are currently still rare in captivity outside of zoos.
Sand cats are one of the smallest wild cats in the world (next to the black-footed cat). Some sand cat owners report that they spray, although this might be ameliorated with spaying and neutering.
Sand cats, despite their small size and close resemblance to domesticated cats, can be challenging pets for the typical pet owner. Some individuals can behave aggressively and prefer little if any, human contact. Other sand cats may bond well with their owner but be leery of other people. Sand cats may hiss often in their communication.
They are not a cat for those who prefer the friendliness of domesticated cats. Some can remain calmer with a lot of socializing, although some may never feel confident around people.
- Species Name: Panthera onca
- Native to: South America, portions of Mexico, and the United States (Arizona and New Mexico).
- Diet: Large animals, including tapirs, capybaras, porcupines, caimans, and deer.
- Husbandry: Large cats that are kept in outdoor enclosures only.
- Rarity: Moderately uncommon.
Jaguars are true "big cats" and are extremely dangerous. There is a reason they are not often worked with "hands-on" compared to lions and tigers. They are also less often available than those species, with most owners of jaguars being licensed zoo owners. Jaguars need to be cared for in a similar fashion to other big cats like lions and tigers, with the same level of precaution, although they will also need a cover for their enclosure to prevent escapes.
- Species Name: Leopardus pardalis
- Native to: Central America, South America, and the United States (Texas and Arizona)
- Diet: Mostly small to medium-sized rodents like mice and agoutis, as well as reptiles, birds, crustaceans, fish, and larger prey like monkeys and lesser anteaters.
- Husbandry: This smaller cat can be kept indoors, although they scent mark and benefit from their own enclosure like other exotic cats. They should have places to climb and enrichment that provides a place to swim and dig is ideal as well.
- Rarity: Extremely rare and possibly no longer obtainable.
The famous artist Salvador Dali once cuddled with his traveling companion, an ocelot named Babou, who he described as being like a regular cat, proving that at least one member of this species was a forgiving pet. In the '50s and '60s, they were once relatively common exotic pets. These cats have a ferocious-sounding growl that is actually a mating call as ocelots, despite their appearance, can be relatively affectionate when well-socialized as kittens.
Sadly, while a few owners might remain from earlier times, they have been mostly erased from availability in the private trade as they were once endangered. However, the last time they were assessed, they were Least Concern. They are still a protected species.
- Species Name: Panthera uncia
- Native to: Central Asia, the Himalayas, Bhutan, Nepal, Siberia, Mongolia, and China.
- Diet: Blue sheep and other ungulates, also marmots, hares, pikas, voles, birds, and other small animals.
- Husbandry: A larger cat that is kept in an outdoor, appropriately-sized enclosure with adequate places for it to climb.
- Rarity: Extremely rare
Snow leopards used to be rarely available but are now even rarer, and when or if one is for sale, they would be extremely expensive. Two snow leopards were actually purchased for Carole Baskin of Tiger King fame by her missing husband Don Lewis in 1998. These exquisite animals are obviously lovers of the cold and that would need to be accommodated for them.
Despite their stockiness and the name "leopard", they are known to be somewhat docile and are not as dangerous. They also should have levels to climb on in their enclosure, as this is a cat that lives on cliffsides.
- Species Name: Prionailurus viverrinus
- Native to: India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand, Java, and Pakistan.
- Diet: Fish, shellfish, small animals, and domesticated animals.
- Husbandry: Requires a water source. Generally kept in outdoor enclosures.
- Rarity: Uncommon, but consistently available.
As the name implies, fishing cats love to hunt and eat fish, and this is often what they are fed in captivity, although they also eat other small animals. A water source, however, is an excellent form of enrichment for them, as well as any of the other methods used for carnivores and medium-sized cats.
Fishing cats are sometimes owned by people who have private zoos but are extremely rare as pets only. They can be regularly available in limited quantities although not often to the general public.
- Species Name: Acinonyx jubatus
- Native to: In modern times, cheetahs are found in 25 African countries and there are small numbers of critically endangered cheetah in Asia.
- Diet: Small and medium-sized ungulates such as antelopes, hares, and birds.
- Husbandry: Cheetahs require large enclosures and access to places to run at top speed. They are particular about social arrangements and are sensitive to stress.
- Rarity: Extremely rare in the United States
Cheetahs are known to be somewhat easy to handle despite being one of the larger cats because of their thin stature and shy temperament. In fact, historically, cheetahs were often kept as "pets" primarily for sport hunting. Unfortunately, cheetahs are very hard to breed in captivity, requiring certain social structures (males form social groups and females are solitary) and ample space. For this reason, despite their extensive presence in captivity, they were often wild-caught, and this proved to be unsustainable over time.
Cheetahs are compromised in the wild with low genetic variability. In captivity, cheetah owners are uncommon because of how hard they are to breed and the unethical nature of removing them from the wild. There are a few owners of cheetahs in the United States who own private zoos, and some cheetah owners who live in countries with lax laws. There are places where cheetahs can be obtained and imported for a substantial fee if the person seeking one gains approval from those facilities.
- Shoemaker, A.H., Maruska, E.J. and R. Rockwell (1997) Minimum Husbandry Guidelines for Mammals: Large Felids American Association of Zoos and Aquariums
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2022 Melissa A Smith