10 Legal Small Exotic Cats That Are Kept 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 which most people are not even aware 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 of the endangered or threatened status, and given their small size and natural history, they are not an animal 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 sky diver 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.
Before Considering Any Exotic Cat as a Pet, Read These General Rules
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.
- 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.
- Have a very difficult time being re-homed!
Now that we have out of the way, scroll down and continue reading about 10 small exotic cat species that can be kept as pets.
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) escapes from a residence and is 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.
- Often people will 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 animal prey like birds, rodents, and perhaps a small antelope species.
- Servals will flee the presence of the average-sized (and perhaps below) 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 pose this danger 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, not being 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
Wondering what one might feed an exotic cat (or even a domesticated cat?) Many owners feed raw, whole carcasses or wet formulas, but dry food can be included. Orijen Regional Red is a great choice of dry food. The formula includes free range ingredients such as deboned beef, deboned wild boar, deboned goat, deboned lamb, lamb liver, beef liver, beef tripe, wild boar liver, deboned mutton, beef heart, and whole atlantic macker, an amazing assortment of proteins! I feed this and Nature's Variety to my spotted genet.
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 (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 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 captive-raised. Bobcats can even be friends with deer when raised with them since kitten-hood.
They also adore dogs and are highly affectionate. Do not think that bobcats are perfectly harmless, as they can have their aggressive moments, and they should, like the others, 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
Caracals are a type of lynx that much resemble servals when it comes to personality.
- When fully grown, caracals reach a height of 16-17 inches at the shoulder and weigh 30-50 pounds. They are known as the ‘desert lynx’ and are found in parts of Africa and Asia.
- Like servals, hissing comprises a lot of how they communicate, which can sound threatening, yet caracals are similarly or perhaps more well-mannered than servals. This means that they have a somewhat traditional cat-like attitude, and play and interact with their owners on their terms only.
- They are not a pet of which a human can initiate affection at any moment. When caracals do play, they are rambunctious and destructive with average household objects and furniture.
- The life expectancy of caracals is 17 years in captivity (12 in the wild.)
- Like servals, they will eat 2-3 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.)
- These cats possess adept climbing ability, and 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 are good with strangers, but 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.
Ocelots are a small wild cat from South America (although they can occur 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 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-sounding mating 'growl' that can be heard in the video below.
Video: Pet Ocelot
6. Fishing Cat
As the name implies, this cat loves to play in water.
- Fishing cats are not as common in the ‘pet’ trade either, generally only existing 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
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, at only 4-8 pounds when fully grown, and obviously are no public safety threat to humans.
- Given their adaptations to native country, 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 making it a poorhouse 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
Jungle cats are native to Asia, Sri Lanka, Egypt, and they are the largest living Felis species.
- This is another wild cat species used to produce hybrids with domesticated cats (‘chausie’, ‘jungle bob’).
- In the wild, this species lives approximately 12-14 years while living 15-20 years in captivity.
- Jungle cats are also nervous cats 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 populations are in decline.
9. Asian Leopard Cat
- Asian leopard cats are shy and elusive in nature, being 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 the animal 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 impossible to obtain permits. These subspecies are not legal to own as pets and leopard cats are required to have documentation that proves they don't belong to this endangered group.
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)
Are Hybrid Cats Bad Pets?
There are hybrid cats that are more challenging than domesticated cats, and they are certainly not for everybody just like all other pets. This hardly invalidates them as an option for some people who want what they have to offer as pets. Just as border collies are energetic and are not for a person expecting the energy level of a basset hound, Hybrid cats are more 'dog-like', making for a more active and outgoing pet, perfect for fans of dogs, felines, and 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.
A Summary of Exotic Cats as Pets
Litter Box Usage
Social or Well-Mannered?
Asian leopard cat
Likes to eliminate 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. Is 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
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.
Why do small exotic cats pee on walls?
Like some domestic cats, small exotic cats mark their territory by spraying.
I live in Georgia (USA). Is it legal to capture a wild bobcat kitten and tame it?
No, and this is a bad idea.
Are Ocelots big, or small cats?
This is an informal way to describe cats, but they are definitely not big.