As all species of cat are incredibly similar, the starting point is that there are very few differences between the serval and the domestic cat. The biggest difference is going to be the obvious fact that the serval is a wild cat without a 10,000-year history of domestication whereas the domestic cat can bring forward into the present all that domestication which makes them easier to live with.
Although at the moment of birth, a domestic cat is essentially a wild cat requiring socialisation i.e. mixing with people and other pets in order to domesticate them. But they also bring into the world 10,000 years of domestication and so it takes very little effort, provided it is done in the first 7 weeks, in the way of socialisation to make them great companions. In contrast, you can tame a serval and you can to a large extent domesticate this cat, but they will never be the sort of quality companion that the domestic cat is renowned for unless you are the sort of person who puts exotic over practicalities.
You can’t iron out all the wrinkles of the wild cat persona and character through instant domestication. In the serval you are domesticating a medium-sized wild cat and what you end up with after domestication is a cat which is arguably out of place in the human world. They are confined to their homes and they want to get out and often do. The serval needs about 10 square kilometers of space whereas the domestic cat requires about 4 acres. That feeds into their character.
So, the biggest differences between these two species of cat are their behaviour even after the serval is ‘domesticated’.
Other differences will be as follows:
The obvious difference is that the serval is about four times the size of a domestic cat (11 kg versus 3.5 kg respectively). They are longer legged than the domestic cat. The serval has the longest limbs in comparison to their body size of all the wild cat species. Because servals are much larger their heart rate will be lower than the rapid 140-240 bpm of the domestic cat.
Further, on the issue of anatomy, the serval has the biggest ears of all the cats. This is because they do a lot of their hunting by hearing the movements and sounds of small mammals such as rodents in long grass. They judge where the animal is through sound and leap on prey stunning and killing it with their forelegs. They rely on sound more than domestic cats for hunting although both have acute hearing and both rely on sound to a large extent.
The photograph shows the difference in head shape of these two animals. The serval is very slender overall which is also shown in the head shape. If you like slender creatures, you will like the serval. A lot of people like squat, chunky creatures and therefore they like a cat which is diametrically opposite to the serval: the dwarf cat.
The serval only comes in one coat type which is dark, high contrast spots against slightly faint yellowish/brownish background colour. The domestic cat, as we all know, comes in a massive variety of coat types which is due to domestication. The serval relies on their coat for camouflage. The domestic cat does not rely on their coat to protect them through camouflage because they are protected by the human home and their human caretaker. This has allowed the evolution of a wide range of coat colours and patterns over 10,000 years. However, for the first few thousand years all domestic cats were mackerel/spotted tabbies as their wild cat inheritance.
The above points are the differences that I can recall which tells you that both are incredibly similar in about 90+% of their anatomy and behaviour.
I suspect that people want to know the difference between the serval and the domestic cat because they are considering adopting a serval as a domestic cat – a cat companion. That’s why I started off this page with the biggest difference which is how they behave in the domestic environment.
The serval is considered an exotic animal and people like the exotic. Be careful. Temper one’s likeness for the exotic against the practicalities of living with a medium-sized wild cat which has been tamed and somewhat domesticated but will never meet those exacting standards that we require which we receive from the domestic cat.
SOME MORE ON COMPARING: