10 Small Exotic Cats That Are Legal to Keep as Pets
Small Wild Cats as Pets
Exotic pets are a hugely diverse group of animals that range from betta fish to Bengal tigers. Therefore, it is often erroneously assumed that all exotic (or non-domesticated) cats in captivity pose the same threat to the populace as would a lion or leopard. In reality, there are a few small cat species that most people don't even know exist that make reasonable pets for the right owners.
Tigers, lions, and cheetahs often steal the spotlight in wildlife documentaries and zoos, which can become a problem for the unknown small cat species that are in desperate need of public attention due to their threatened statuses in the wild. However, nearly all of the smaller to medium-sized cats that are sometimes kept as pets in the United States are not endangered or threatened. Given their small size and natural history, they are not animals that would seek to prey on humans.
For pet owners expecting the behavior of domesticated dogs and cats, exotic cats might seem like challenging animals. The differences between owning exotic cats and the typical domesticated cat is much like comparing a skydiver to a golf player. However, for more adventurous pet owners, with the right income, living situation, and permits (or laws not regulating the ownership of the animal), they can be exceptionally rewarding. Electing to care for animals like these is life changing, and it is not a decision to be taken lightly.
What to Consider Before Owning an Exotic Cat as a Pet
For those considering an exotic cat as a pet, make sure you do ample research. As a general rule, know that exotic cats:
- Mark their territory by spraying. This can include furniture, walls, and their owner.
- Require large outdoor caging and/or a room dedicated to the animal.
- Should see a vet experienced with zoo animals. This can become a considerable expense. It may also be difficult to find a vet with the proper knowledge and experience for your animal.
- Can have strict dietary needs, some of which can be pricey.
- Range in purchase price from $1500–$20,000.
- Are illegal in most states, or require permits and licensing often not given to pet owners.
- May prevent you from traveling.
- May not get along with any other pets you have.
- Have a very difficult time being re-homed!
Now that we have that out of the way, scroll down and continue reading about 10 small exotic cat species that can be kept as pets.
- Scientific name: Leptailurus serval.
- Native habitat: Sub-Saharan Africa, typically around wetlands and savannahs.
- Size: 21–24 inches at the shoulder. 26–29 inches in length. Can weigh between 20–40 pounds.
- Diet: It mainly eats rodents.
- Lifespan: 10 years in the wild, 20 years in captivity.
What to know about servals
- Servals, which originate from Africa, are probably one of the more popular exotic cats kept in the US.
- Every once in a while, a pet serval (or Savannah cat, discussed further below) will escape from a residence and will be labeled by the news media as a cheetah, which it superficially resembles due to its spotted markings and long legs in comparison to its body. The serval, however, has large pointed ears like a fennec fox and is much shorter than the bigger cat that it shares its range with in the wild.
- People will often take a look at a serval and assume it to be a threat to the life of its caretaker, but this medium-sized cat is only interested in small prey like birds, rodents, and perhaps a small antelope species.
- Servals will flee from the presence of humans and have not been recorded killing any member of our species as of yet.
- As one can guess, a bite from a serval is something that should be avoided. All exotic cats can potentially bite if they feel threatened or cornered.
- Servals are aloof, quiet, and may be tolerant of other pets when raised in the home.
- They are also easier to confine since they are not avid climbers.
- Servals are often used as educational animals; you might have seen them being walked on a leash and demonstrating their amazing jumping ability to an audience.
- Servals are prone to weight gain without adequate exercise and enrichment, so this species needs an owner who'll encourage this.
Video: Serval Cat
Nutrient-dense dry cat food
- Scientific name: Lynx rufus.
- Native habitat: Found throughout North America, from southern Canada to central Mexico.
- Size: 12–24 inches at the shoulder. 18–49 inches at length. Average weight is 21 pounds for males, 15 pounds for females.
- Diet: Varies depending on the region. Smaller prey includes rodents, birds, and fish. Can attack larger prey, such as sheep or goats.
- Lifespan: Average is about seven years. Rarely exceeds 10 years.
What to know about bobcats
Bobcats are a stocky, medium-sized cat native to North America. Bobcats may have the best companion animal personality of all the exotic cats because they bond strongly with their owners. However, the catch is that bobcats actually do possess the strength to kill an adult human (this has not occurred in recent history from what I can find). They are short, but they are muscular, and they do have success hunting fully grown deer in the wild, making one suspect that they can easily and fatally attack humans. Fortunately, this does not seem to have occurred with any captive-bred pet, but it does reveal that this animal should be heavily supervised around children (or kept away from them).
The video below shows just how lovable a naturally solitary, bold, top-level predator like a bobcat can become when it is raised in captivity. Bobcats can even be friends with deer when they have been raised with them since they were kittens.
They also adore dogs and are highly affectionate. Do not think that bobcats are perfectly harmless, as they can have their aggressive moments. They should, like other wild cats, have a large outdoor cage to retreat to during the periods when they become moody. Being escape artists, these cages should be sturdy and well-designed with a top.
Video: Dangerous Bobcat Protects a Deer
3. Caracal Cat
- Scientific name: Caracal caracal.
- Natural habitat: Native to Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and India. Often prefers dry areas.
- Size: 16–21 inches at the shoulder. 29–31 inches in length. Males can weigh 26–40 pounds, females can weigh 19–29 pounds.
- Diet: Usually eats, small mammals, birds, and rodents. Occasionally hunts larger prey like antelopes.
- Lifespan: 16 years in captivity, 12 in the wild.
What to know about Caracals
- Caracals are a type of lynx that resemble servals when it comes to personality.
- They are known as the desert lynx and are found in parts of Africa and Asia.
- Like servals, they mostly communicate by hissing, which can sound threatening. However, caracals are similarly, or perhaps more, well-mannered than servals. This means that they have a somewhat traditional cat-like attitude. They play and interact with their owners on their terms.
- They are not a pet where you can initiate affection at any moment. When caracals do play, they are rambunctious and destructive with average household objects and furniture.
- Like servals, they will eat two to three pounds of meat a day.
4. Canadian and Siberian Lynx
The Canadian lynx is a thickly-furred feline with a range that stretches across the northern parts of North America (Canada, Alaska, and some parts of mainland US.)
- Scientific name: Lynx canadensis.
- Natural habitat: Lives across Canada and the northern US.
- Size: 19–22 inches at the shoulder. 31–39 inches in length. They can weigh between 11–40 pounds.
- Diet: They mainly eat snowshoes hares.
- Lifespan: 14 years in captivity.
What to know about the Canadian lynx
- These cats possess adept climbing ability, and they prefer to be at high points in the home.
- Unlike a bobcat, they may not form a devoted relationship with their human, but their temperamental fits are less severe. They have been described as easygoing, and they are good with strangers, but they are not as eager to go on walks.
- Due to their extravagant coat, they shed prominently. Their enclosures should be designed to accommodate a climbing animal.
The Siberian lynx is a bit different from the Canadian lynx.
- Adult Siberian lynxes reach about 24 inches at the shoulder and weigh 40-80 pounds (weights vary with gender).
- These animals are very energetic and playful, love walking on a leash, and have a dog-like personality. Their active nature may require a spacious house with no breakable valuables present.
- Scientific name: Leopardus pardalis.
- Natural habitat: South and Central America.
- Size: 22–39 inches in length. Males can weigh between 15–34 pounds, females can weigh between 15–25 pounds.
- Diet: Mostly small mammals, birds, fish, insects, and reptiles.
- Lifespan: Up to 20 years in captivity.
What to know about ocelots
- Ocelots are a small wild cat from South America (although they can be found as far north as Texas).
- They have large glassy eyes and beautiful markings, making their appeal as a pet obvious.
- Famously, an ocelot was kept as a pet by Salvador Dali. However, they are now rare in the pet trade and are very difficult to acquire (if it is still possible).
- Ocelots are also, in comparison to the other wild cats, more challenging to maintain as pets. Unlike the more relatively social cats, ocelots will not pay attention to disciplinary commands and have a pungent odor.
- Ocelots emit a disturbing mating growl that can be heard in the video below.
Video: Pet Ocelot
6. Fishing Cat
- Scientific name: Prionailurus viverrinus.
- Natural habitat: South and Southeast Asia.
- Size: 22–31 inches in length. Weighs between 11–35 pounds.
- Diet: They mainly eat fish.
- Lifespan: Up to 10 years in captivity.
What to know about fishing cats
- As the name implies, this cat loves to play in water.
- Fishing cats are not very common in the pet trade. They are generally only held in USDA licensed facilities because they are a felid tag (a wildcat advisory group) managed species. Kapi'yva Exotics maintains the only private collection of these animals (they are accredited by the Zoological Association of America).
- The 2008 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species lists fishing cats as endangered. They have been introduced to the private pet trade in other countries, however (probably through illegal or unethical means).
- Due to their uncommon presence as pets, there is little information about them available.
7. Geoffroy's Cat
- Scientific name: Leopardus geoffroyi.
- Natural habitat: Southern and central South America.
- Size: About 24 inches in length. Typically weighs between 4.4 and 11 pounds.
- Diet: Eats small animals like rodents, lizards, and insects.
- Lifespan: Longest living on record lived 20 years in captivity.
What to know about Geoffrey's cats
- Geoffroy's cats are small cats native to the southern and central regions of South America.
- Geoffroy's cats are one of the smallest wild cat species on Earth. They are only four to eight pounds when fully grown. They are obviously no threat to humans.
- Taking their native region into account, they can survive extreme heat and cold conditions.
- They are also relatively rare in the pet trade, and their gene pool is unfortunately limited in captivity. This particular cat is used to make an extremely rare hybrid called the safari cat (discussed below).
- The Geoffroy's cat's CITES status is Appendix 1, meaning their trade is strictly regulated, but allowed. Despite their extremely small numbers in the wild, they are being phased out in zoos due to lack of room for small cat species. Private owners can assist.
- This is a cat that, like the ocelot, can be rather timid and less social. Therefore, this animal is a poor pet choice as it would require a lot of privacy and little noise pollution. These shy cats can become aggressive in addition to their nervousness, and these qualities may amplify when they reach sexual maturity.
8. Jungle Cat
- Scientific name: Felis chaus.
- Natural habitat: Can be found in the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, and southern China.
- Size: 14 inches at the shoulder. 23–30 inches in length. Can weigh up to 35 pounds.
- Diet: Mainly eats small mammals such as rodents and hares.
- Lifespan: 15–20 years in captivity.
What to know about jungle cats
- Jungle cats are native to Asia, Sri Lanka, and Egypt. They are the largest living Felis species.
- This is another wild cat species used to produce hybrids with domesticated cats (specifically a chausie or jungle bob).
- In the wild, this species can live for approximately 12–14 years. It can live 15–20 years in captivity.
- Jungle cats are also nervous animals that are uncommon in captivity like the ocelot and Geoffroy's cat.
- They are also fragile cats that would require privacy in a quiet household (or be maintained in a well-sized outdoor enclosure for most of the time).
- They are not endangered, but their population is in decline.
9. Asian Leopard Cat
- Scientific name: Prionailurus bengalensis.
- Natural habitat: Can be found throughout South, Southeast, and East Asia.
- Size: Is roughly the same size as a domestic cat.
- Diet: Mostly eats small prey like rodents.
- Lifespan: Up to 13 years in captivity.
What to know about Asian leopard cats
- Asian leopard cats are shy and elusive in nature since they are nocturnal and wary of people. They are also poor house pets and do best with substantial time to themselves (and their own large enclosures). They can still be tame enough to interact with their caregivers, but only if they are frequently interacted with.
- Asian leopard cats are responsible for the existence of the very popular Bengal cat. Bengals are legal in most states, depending on the generation.
- Some subspecies of leopard cat are endangered and require permits that are difficult to obtain. These subspecies are not legal to own as pets. Leopard cats are required to have documentation that proves they don't belong to this endangered group.
10. Cat Hybrids
A cat hybrid refers to any animal that is bred between a domestic cat and a wild cat. Most hybrid species are artificial, meaning that they have been intentionally bred by humans. However, some species have been bred naturally.
Hybrids tend to become more domesticated with each generation. A first generation hybrid will still very much be a wild animal. They may be aggressive, not sociable, and mark their territory (your house) with urine. If you decide on getting a hybrid cat, keep in mind that you are still getting a wild animal.
Cat hybrids have presented a sort of gray area in legal pet ownership. In some states, such as California, a hybrid cat is considered a domestic animal. Therefore, it is legal to own. Laws vary by state, so be sure to do your research if you are interested in a hybrid. You may need a permit, or they may be banned outright.
List of Exotic Cat Hybrids
- Savannah cat or Ashera cat (serval x domesticated cat)
- Chausie (Jungle cat x domesticated cat)
- Jungle bob (Jungle cat x pixie bob, which is a domesticated cat breed)
- Bengal cat (Asian leopard cat x domesticated cat)
- Safari cat (Geoffroy's cat x domesticated cat, usually Egyptian Mau or ocicat)
- Machbragal (Fishing cat x domesticated cat)
Are Hybrid Cats Bad Pets?
There are hybrid cats that are more challenging than domesticated cats, and they are certainly not for everybody. This hardly invalidates them as an option for some people who want what they have to offer as pets. Hybrid cats are more dog-like, making for a more active and outgoing pet. This is perfect for fans of dogs, felines, and those that like the challenges that come with the husbandry of non-domesticated animals.
Many sites often state that all hybrid cats make bad pets—this is utter nonsense. This claim is perpetuated by organizations that oppose all animals (typically with an exception for domesticated animals) in captivity for ideological reasons, regardless of whether or not the animal thrives.
Hybrid cats consist of many species and many generations—it is ludicrous to state collectively that every feline falling under the definition of a hybrid exotic is a bad pet when there are even some hybrids that have such low percentages of wild blood that they are unmistakably domesticated cats with a bit more personality and interesting fur patterns.
What States Allow Exotic Pets?
Here is a quick rundown of which states allow you to own exotic pets. Please check with your state and local laws before looking into owning an exotic cat.
- Alabama: There are no permits required for private ownership. However, bobcats are specifically outlawed from being imported into the state.
- Arkansas: Ownership of animals like bobcats are allowed, but a person can't own more than six. If the animal was obtained out of state, the owner must have proof it was legally obtained.
- California: All exotic pets are banned. However, hybrids are allowed since they are considered domestic animals under California law.
- Delaware: A permit is required for wild cats, including hybrids.
- Florida: Small exotic cats are allowed with a permit.
- Indiana: Exotic cats are allowed with a permit.
- Iowa: Certain cat hybrids are allowed.
- Kansas: This state allows exotic pets that are not considered to be dangerous, which includes small cats.
- Maine: Certain wild animals may be owned with a permit.
- Massachusetts: A hybrid with a domestic animal may be allowed
- Mississippi: The state allows the ownership of small cats like ocelots and servals.
- Missouri: You can own a small exotic cat with a permit.
- Montana: A small exotic cat may be owned with a permit.
- Nevada: There are no regulations on owning a small exotic cat in this state.
- North Dakota: A permit is required for non-domestic animals.
- Ohio: Certain species, like a bobcat, may be owned with a permit. Other animals, like servals, are banned as pets.
- Oklahoma: You may own an exotic pet with a permit.
- Pennsylvania: You may own an exotic cat with a permit.
- Rhode Island: Certain wildlife may be owned with a permit.
- South Carolina: Local animals like bobcats require a permit. There are no regulations on non-domestic animals from out of state.
- South Dakota: A permit is required for an exotic cat.
- Tennessee: There are no regulations on small wild cats.
- Texas: A permit is required for exotic pets.
- Wisconsin: Some species may require a permit. If the animal is brought in from out of state, they will need a veterinary inspection.
How to Rehome an Exotic Cat
If you manage to get a hold of one of these animals as a pet, you may find yourself overwhelmed. Many owners get surprised at how much work (and money) these cats require. Many owners make all the preparations they can, but they may find themselves way over their heads. This happens with common domestic pets. It certainly happens more frequently with exotic pets.
If you find yourself in this situation, it is in the best interest for the animal that you find it a new home. It is recommended that you contact an animal sanctuary. These organizations frequently take exotic pets from owners who can no longer take care of them. Contacting an animal rescue agency is a good idea as well.
A Summary of Exotic Cats as Pets
Litter Box Usage
Social or Well-Mannered?
Asian leopard cat
Likes to go in water.
Fair, can even be toilet-trained, but some spray.
Bonds strongly with owners and other pets it's raised with.
Will shred furniture if not de-clawed. Should have baby-proofed house.
Excellent, likes going in water.
Sheds and climbs. Has high energy.
Fair, with work.
Yes, will climb on and chew furniture.
Eats 'furry' things (socks, underwear.)
Exotic Pets That Look Like Cats But Aren't
- Spotted Genet (rusty, small-spotted, large-spotted)
- Binturong (bear cat)
- Asian Palm Civet
Have You Considered Any of the Cats Listed Here as a Pet?
Questions & Answers
Why do small exotic cats pee on walls?
Like some domestic cats, small exotic cats mark their territory by spraying.Helpful 43
Is it legal to own a Geoffroy's cat in New York State?
No, all non-domestic cats are illegal except for F5 and lower hybrid cats.Helpful 37
I live in Washington (USA) is it legal to capture a wild ocelot kitten and tame it?
Ocelots are rare in the U.S. and I highly doubt you can catch and keep them legally in any state.Helpful 36
Are Ocelots big, or small cats?
This is an informal way to describe cats, but they are definitely not big.Helpful 32
where does the Asian leopard cat live?
They live in South East Asia. Specifically, they can be found in China, Eastern Russia, Indochina, India, the Philippines and Sunda Islands.Helpful 30
© 2014 Melissa A Smith