Do servals eat frogs and fish?

Servals eat frogs and fish.

Yes, servals eat frogs and fish. The serval has a preference for wetland habitats and therefore it is unsurprising that they hunt in water and don’t mind getting their feet wet (Wild Cats of the World).

Captive servals deftly hook live fish out of water and in the wild servals have been seen hunting frogs and water birds. One young male was observed to catch and eat at least twenty-eight frogs of various sizes over a three-hour period and an animal shot in Kenya was found to have a stomach full of crabs.

Reference: Rosevear D.R. 1974 in “The carnivores of West Africa” and Geertsema A.A. 1976 in “Impressions and observations of serval behaviour in Tanzania, East Africa”.

P.S. Servals also use vehicle headlights when hunting. They wait for a vehicle to come by at night or dusk and aided by the headlights are able to spot a prey animal that might be crossing the road and bound after it. They settle down to eat the prey by the side of the road.

Other reference for this information: Lousada A. 1956 Rearing serval cats. And also, Scott K.W. Jnr 1980 in “Headlights as a hunting aid for servals in Ethiopia and Kenya.

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Are servals legal in the UK?

Serval in an enclosure looking out forlornly
Serval in an enclosure looking out forlornly. This is in the USA. Photo: Michael

It is legal for a UK citizen to own a serval PROVIDED they have a licence to do so. The law on individual citizens of the UK (as opposed to organisations) owning wild cat species including the serval is governed by two pieces of legislation (see below). The law regarding organisations such as sanctuaries and zoos owning wild animals is different.

  1. Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 and;
  2. The Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 (Modification) Order 2007.

The first (1) refers to the second (2) which provides a list of animals which are considered to be dangerous in the UK and which require a licence to own them. It is broken down into animal species including Felidae (the cat family). That section is shown below. As you can see, the serval is in the list.

Kinds of cat species considered dangerous in the UK and exceptions.
Kinds of cat species considered dangerous in the UK and exceptions. Image: MikeB. It is legal to reproduce UK legislation!.

Applying for a licence

I will briefly discuss applying for a licence to keep a wild animal in the UK. You apply to your local council. You will need to apply to own a serval. Other animals for which you need a licence would include primates, wild dogs e.g. wolves, certain pigs e.g. wild boar and marsupials.

As I understand it, you will have to convince the authorities that you were able to care adequately for a serval in terms of funding, feeding, facilities, general knowledge in the caretaking of a wild species and so on. There will no doubt be regular inspections, probably annually. In addition, there will be a fee to pay annually I suspect. I don’t expect the licence to be rubberstamped. There will be demands and I expect them to be quite steep.

P.S. As a matter of interest, in the USA, there are 3 different approaches to the ownership of wild cat species depending upon which state you live:(1) you can own a wild cat species without licence and without interference by the state (2) you cannot own a wild cat at all and (3) a compromise, which is you require a licence with inspections which is what occurs in the UK.

A further point that I would like to make is that I find the UK law very strange. For example, to allow people to own the black-footed cat without a licence is ridiculous in my opinion. This is the fiercest wild cat species of them all. To own one without facilities would be madness in my opinion. And there would be negative conservation issues as well.

RELATED: Fierce black-footed cat – the most successful feline predator

If you have any questions, please leave a comment and I will do my best to provide a prompt and accurate answer.

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Reproduction and development of serval cats

Young tame male serval at A1 Savannahs around 12 years ago
Young tame male serval at A1 Savannahs around 12 years ago. Screenshot.

For the serval, estrus (the recurring changes brought on by reproductive hormones) lasts about 4 days. During this time a male and female can stay together. Gestation (pregnancy) is about 74 days. The serval usually has two kittens. Servals are polyestrous (go into heat several times a year) and the location in Africa dictates when the young are born1continued below video…

….For example in:

  • Botswana – births takes place in the wetter months and in
  • Ngorongoro Crater – they take place near the end of the dry season.

Normally serval births occur one month before the “peak breeding season” of murid rodents (the family of mammals called Muridae that include mice and rats). This ensures a plentiful supply of food.

The shortest interval between births is 184 days or at the very best, two litters per year. The den is located in dense vegetation or perhaps a disused burrow.

Below is a female and her melanistic cubs which is interesting. Both are black due to melanism caused by a genetic mutation. The same mutation that creates the black panther (melanistic big cats such as the leopard and jaguar).

 
The time table from birth onwards can be set out as follows:

Age of kitten/catWhat Happens1
BirthBlind and weighing about 250 grams (you can see exactly how this looks in the video above). The fur (once cleaned and dry) is soft and woolly and greyer than that of the adult serval.
9-13 daysEyes open – during these earlier days of life the mother’s movements outside the den are limited allowing her to nurse her young. After a while she gradually reverts back to her usual range.
One monthMother brings food back to the den (the still photo of Cameron in the video was taken when he was about 5 weeks of age). Mothers obviously spend more time hunting which occupies most of the day. The mother’s activity levels are dramatically increased as she has to travel over greater distances, 2x normal levels, on a daily basis to catch more prey.
1 month+Kittens have a desire to accompany mother on hunting trips. Mother doesn’t agree! Hunting starts at 6+ months.
6 monthsPermanent teeth acquired.
6+ monthsKittens begin to hunt.
1 yearAdults chase them and drive them away from the natal area. Usually males leave to find their own home range before females who may leave a few months later than males.

 
Females become sexually active at just over one year of age. Servals live for about a maximum of 20 years in captivity and for half that in the wild. During her lifetime and in the wild a female serval may raise to 16 – 20 offspring1.

Update May 19th 2022: I feel I should add a few details to the page. Sometimes during oestrus, the male and female serval travel and rest together. If the kittens die or are removed soon after birth captive servals are able to give birth to 3 or 4 litters a year. Under normal conditions the shortest interval between births is, as mentioned above, 184 days. The birth den is usually dense vegetation. Sometimes females can make use of a disused burrow which has been dug by an aardvark or porcupine. When the kittens are about a month old the mother brings food back to the den.

Mothers normally restrict their movements when they have very young kittens and gradually expand their foraging as her offspring grow. Females must step up their hunting efforts to feed their young and they spend a large part of their day finding food. They spend about twice as much time hunting as normal and their resting time is reduced substantially. They have to travel much further to catch more food. It is believed that they double their food intake by doubling the normal distance travelled which amounts to 2.5 km per day when engaged in this extra activity.

Reproduction and Development of Serval Cats – Source:

1. Wild Cats Of The World by Mel and Fiona Sunquist page 147. ISBN: 0-226-77999-8 Published by The University of Chicago Press. page 147.

Some more on the serval.

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Serval lifespan

The serval lifespan in the wild is possibly about 10 years while in captivity servals have been known to live for 20 years. The oldest serval mother was a female at Switzerland’s Basel Zoo. She raised her last litter when she was 14-years-of-age. The shorter lifespan in the wild means that females could potentially raise 16-20 young throughout their lifetime. Servals may become sexually mature when they are just over a year old. The information about the lifespan of servals in captivity comes from two sources: H. Wackernagel (1968) in A note on breeding the serval cat at Basle Zoo. Also, BA Tonkin (1972) Notes on longevity in three species of felids. The former is also the source for the oldest reproductive serval information.


Serval in an enclosure looking out forlornly
Serval in an enclosure looking out forlornly. Photo: Michael

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Serval Adaptations

The serval is one of the more specialised wild cats. This means that it will have adaptations to improve survivability. The serval has the longest legs compared to overall size of all the cats. More precisely the serval’s feet are elongated. The metatarsals in the palms and soles add to the servals height to the shoulder which is about 60 centimetres. This is 20 centimetres taller than the otherwise similar sized ocelot. The serval is 12 centimetres taller than the caracal (also a great jumper by the way).

Serval jumping onto prey
Serval jumping onto prey. Image in the public domain on Pinterest.

These long legs assist in two ways:

  • The raised height above the ground allows the cat to better pick up sounds of small prey animals in long grass. The serval is a long grass hunter. It detects the sound of its prey and locates their position accurately on sound alone;
  • The long legs create greater leverage. This gives the serval great jumping power. They are awesome jumpers. You may have seen them in videos making vertical jumps from a standing position to around 9-10 feet. This jumping strength allows them to jump precisely onto prey in long grass. You’ll see videos and photos of that skill as well.

The serval also has huge oval-shaped ears, perhaps the biggest ears of all the cats. They are designed to pick up the sound of small prey animals hidden in undergrowth. The serval has much larger ear bullae compared to the caracal which reflects its keen sense of hearing. The auditory bullae are the middle and inner structures which convert sound waves to nerve impulses which are read by the brain.

The serval has long, mobile toes and strong curved claws. These help in hooking small prey animals; its favourite.

The fact that the serval feeds on small prey such as the Vlei rat and four-striped grass mouse has resulted in a further adaptation: a more lightly built skull and less powerful jaws. They don’t need strong jaws such as those of the jaguar which feeds on turtles and caiman.

The serval has a shorter than normal tail compared to most other wild cat species as it is a ground hunter. You’ll see long tails on cats that rely on great balance to stay safe such as the snow leopard (icy escarpments) and margay (trees).

Serval pounce onto a small prey animal it has heard in long grass
Serval pounce onto a small prey animal it has heard in long grass. Picture in the public domain.

These are the special adaptations of the leggy, big-eared serval. The coat is a classic tabby-style camouflage; dark spots, which is somewhat typical of all wild cats although the patterns vary considerably between the species. Note: black servals (melanistic servals) are not uncommon in the Aberdare Mountains of Kenya. This is due to a genetic mutation and is not an adaptation to improve survival in my opinion.

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Serval seized by the police from a home in Putney because the owner didn’t have a licence

A one year old serval has been seized from the owner by the police because he didn’t have a local authority license to keep her. He lives near Putney in a place called Roehampton which is actually quite close to me and on the outskirts of London, UK. He was given the serval by somebody else and he says that he was in the process of applying for a licence. He also claims that he wasn’t trying to evade having a licence.

Zena a yong serval treated as a pet in the UK
Zena and James Brown’s partner? Photo: James Brown.


He is disgusted that his serval, who he has named Zena, was taken from him because his cat wasn’t a problem and he believes that the law needs to be changed. He can’t see how it can be better for the cat to be put into a cage and taken to a secure facility, ripping her away from her human family.

Zena will be taken to some sort of wildlife sanctuary in the UK so James Brown, her owner, won’t see her again. He has petitioned online to see whether he could gather some support to get her back but so far without success. Zena will be checked out medically before being relocated. The police turned up at 6 am at his home. They were tipped off by a neighbour who saw Zena in the window.

Zena does not look like a domestic cat, as you can imagine, despite being a young serval. They are quite noticeable and definitely look like an exotic animal, indeed, a wild cat species. The previous owner had given her up not realising how much effort it would take to provide for her. This supports my argument, one that I have made several times on this website, that people who want to adopt a serval should go into it with their eyes wide open as to the demands and the legal requirements. Very few people have the means in terms of time, commitment, space and finance to do a credible job of looking after a serval.

It is also believed that Zena was taken from the wild. If that is the case it’s also reinforces my belief that the whole process of treating a serval as a pet in the UK very much goes against conservation of this animal. It shouldn’t be allowed at all in my opinion but you can do it if you have a licence. The government sets out the specific law and a list of cats that you can keep provided you have the correct licence from your local authority – see below:

The Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 (Modification) (No.2) Order 2007 list of cats considered dangerous in the UK for which you need a license from the local authority
The Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 (Modification) (No.2) Order 2007 list of cats considered dangerous in the UK for which you need a license from the local authority

To get a license you’ll have to demonstrate that you have the means, know-how and facilities to look after a wild cat to a decent standard. It won’t be a pushover.

As for James Brown he wants the law changed and he will take the matter as far as he can he said. He is particularly annoyed because his daughter had become attached to the cat.

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Is it legal to own a serval in Texas?

If you are an individual, by which I mean you are not a commercial or non-profit enterprise, as specified by the regulations, then it is legal to own a serval in Texas provided you have a “certificate of registration” (i.e. a license) for the serval “issued by an animal registration agency”. In other words, you will need a certificate from the authorities. You don’t have to ‘own’ the serval. You simply have to do harbour it, control or have custody of it. Having custody of a serval does not necessarily mean that you own the animal. It means that you possess it at a certain time. Therefore, you will need a licence as specified if you are in possession of a serval. Certain listed enterprises e.g. zoos don’t need a certificate and you can read the list by visiting the law which is here. Scroll down to Sec. 822.102. APPLICABILITY OF SUBCHAPTER.

Serval
Captive serval. Image by SH Kim from Pixabay

The certificate of registration is not transferable and is valid for one year after it was issued unless it has been revoked. The government agency which issued the licence may charge a fee to cover the costs of administering the process. The fee should not be more than $50 for each animal registered. And it should not be more than $500 for each person no matter how many animals are being registered.

You will need to fill in a special form as provided by the government authority. I won’t go over what you need to state in the application because the form will guide your through questions. When obtained the certificate will need to be displayed prominently at the place where the animal is kept. A copy of the certificate will need to be filed within 10 days with the Department of State Health Services. I expect this information to be on the application form.

The person who has ownership or custody of a serval in Texas will need to take out a liability insurance policy of not less than $100,000 “for each occurrence for liability for damages for destruction of or damage to property and death or bodily injury to a person caused by the dangerous wild animal i.e. the serval.

As a person with custody of a serval or servals you will need to allow local authority staff to enter their premises or home where the animal is kept to inspect the animal and the enclosure where the animal is kept if that is the case. They will also inspect “records relating to the animal to ensure compliance” with the law.

Lanky serval
Lanky serval. Photo: Tambako The Jaguar on Flickr

There are other specifications and conditions with which you have to comply which you can read about by clicking here (note: sometimes links to other websites break. If this has happened, I am sorry. Search for the statute by copying and pasting its title which is below). The link takes you to the actual law. That is the statute created by the politicians of Texas. The statute is called: HEALTH AND SAFETY CODE. TITLE 10. HEALTH AND SAFETY OF ANIMALS. CHAPTER 822. REGULATION OF ANIMALS.

My belief is that the question the title has been asked by an individual by which I mean a single person or couple, probably a citizen or citizens of the state of Texas. If that is correct then you will need a certificate of registration in order to have custody of, including ownership of, a serval which is described as a dangerous wild animal under the above-mentioned statute.

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