Savannah Cats vs. Servals: They’re Not the Same!
Servals and savannah cats are not the same. A serval is a wild animal, native to Africa. On the other hand, a savannah cat is a hybrid of a wild serval and a domestic cat. Crosses between small wild cats and domestic breeds are not novel. In fact, Bengals (a cross between a domestic cat and an Asian leopard cat) rank as The International Cat Association’s (TICA) top breed. The opportunity of having a pet that looks like a fierce wild cat but has the temperament of a sweet house kitty is quite alluring. Is this balance possible? Here, we’ll look at the key differences and similarities between savannah cats and their wild cousins.
What Is a Serval?
Slender, small, and lanky, servals (Leptailurus serval) stand out as feline beauties even though their coats keep them camouflaged on the African savannah. Servals are the ultimate pouncer, powered by their long legs. After a couple of derivations through Portuguese and French, their name means “the wolf that hunts the stag.”
Servals have the biggest ears and longest legs in proportion to their bodies of any species in the cat family (Felidae).
Fun Fact: If our ears were in the same proportions as a serval’s ears, they would be as big as a dinner plate!
With a beautiful tawny coat, decorated with spots and stripes, it comes as no surprise that they became so popular. Yellow eyes are emphasized by a dark line streaking from the ears down to the nose, similar to a cheetah. Their gigantic ears both look charming and help them on the prowl. Long legs and a slender body are another good identifying factor. Finally, they have a beautiful yellow tail with several black rings.
A medium-sized cat, servals weigh between 18-40 lbs. Their shoulders stand about two feet high, and they are about three feet long. Additionally, females tend to be smaller and more slender than males.
Native to the African continent, servals are more commonly found in the sub-Saharan countries.
Home on the Grassy Range
While servals are found in 34 different countries, they have their favorite habitats. These wild cats love the grass – especially grassy areas by the river. These ecosystems are distinct with long savannah grasses and reeds. Servals don’t just enjoy the riparian plants… These cats love playing in the water! Additionally, if there are water and prey available, servals have even adapted well to agricultural land.
All members of the Felidae family are carnivorous and the serval is no different. Its diet is primarily small rodents, though it will also eat birds, amphibians, reptiles, and invertebrates.
The serval’s long legs and large ears are key to its hunting strategy. These cats are most active during crepuscular hours (dawn and dusk). They will listen and wait for prey before subsequently going for the dramatic pounce. And dramatic it is! Serval can leap 9 feet into the air to snatch a bird. Long, flexible toes allow them to swiftly hook a frog out from the reeds.
Quite the solitary animals, these cats will rarely be seen in groups. They will mark their territories with scents and scratches, and they mostly give each other space. Male and female home ranges will overlap, and while they will come together to breed, they soon go their separate ways. The female will usually have 2-3 kittens, and she acts as the sole care provider for the young. She’s a good mother too! In fact, females hunting success increases while she has cubs, perhaps because she must be on the hunt more often to feed the hungry mouths.
What Is a Savannah Cat?
In contrast their wild cousins, savannah cats are bred to be pets. While they do have serval blood, domestication has made them very different animals.
A History of Hybrid House Kitties
Humans have long been fascinated with wild cats. So it comes as no surprise that there have been many attempts to breed domestic cats (Felis catus) with species of wild cats. Besides servals, breeds that humans have attempted crosses with include: caracals, Asian leopard cats, fishing cats, and ocelots. The goal of any cross is to capture the aesthetic of a wild cat with the disposition of a house kitty. These attempts have had varying amounts of success.
The savannah cat, however, is one of the success stories. The first hybrid was bred in the 1980s. The kitten was named Savannah, giving the breed its identifier. However, it wasn’t until 2001 that the breed was accepted by The International Cat Association (TICA).
Savannah Cat Generations
It can be quite challenging to breed wild cats with house cats. While more savannah cat breeders are developing respectable practices, the initial cross is rare. More commonly, the relationship to a serval will be more distant. These are tracked by filial generations. For example, an F1 savannah cat has a serval cat as a parent, and an F2 savannah cat has a serval as a grandparent. In general, generations F4,5,6 are easier to find. And easier to afford. The F1 and F2 generations can be some of the most expensive kittens in the world as the rapper 2 Chainz discovered on his show.
Price isn’t something to mess around with. If you are interested in getting a savannah cat, experts warn that you shouldn’t be suckered in by a “deal.” Often, if the cat is much less expensive, there were too many shortcuts taken in the breeding process. A good tip is to make sure the breeder is TICA registered. This can result in long-term health issues for savannah cats. Do your research before investing in your potential kitten!
Besides their alluring appearance, one of the reasons for the savannah cat’s popularity is their dog-like character. These kitties form close bonds with their family. They will greet you at the door, play fetch, and even go on leashed walks! They even will come when called! Notorious for being mischievous and high energy, don’t be surprised if they knock around knickknacks, learn to turn on the faucet, or open doors! And remember serval’s amazing jumping ability? This isn’t lost on the savannah cat. They can jump incredible horizontal and vertical distances. They love cat trees and bookshelves!
Related but Different
While savannah cats do have serval blood, they are domestic while servals are wild. This is an important distinction to remember. Wild animals have a distinct set of needs that are met through distinct habitats, diets, and behaviors, and are not suited to life in a living room. On the other hand, with the domestic influence of a house cat, savannah cats can make an excellent pet and life-long friend.