Owning a Wild or Exotic Cat; Information, Laws, and Advice

Have you ever dreamed of living with a bobcat or having a pet tiger? You're not alone, and many people share their lives responsibly and safely with such animals. My beloved companion is a African Serval, a very affectionate 33-pound spotted feline. However, this dream come true brings with it some very real challenges and responsibilities far beyond those facing the average pet owner.

A huge number of visitors to my exotic feline site are trying to make very important decisions. Should I get a exotic cat? Is this species the right fit for my family? Can I provide for one properly?

There are a number of things to take into consideration when deciding if exotic cat ownership is for you, and if the answer is yes, which species of exotic cat is suitable for your situation. They include:

  • Your ability to make a lifetime committment to an animal who may cause you considerable headaches
  • Your ability to be a responsible owner
  • Local and Federal Laws
  • Your financial ability to provide proper care and housing for the cat
  • Your level of experience in working with animals
  • Size of the cat
  • Disposition of the cat
  • Endangered Species Status

Owning an exotic cat requires a lifetime committment to a cat who may live to be 20 years old. If your circumstances change, the cat develops behaviors that are unacceptable to you, or you simply grow tired of caring for it, an exotic cat cannot simply be given over to your local humane society. Being placed in a new home is much more traumatic to an exotic cat than to most domestic animals and can cause a major change in their personality. In some cases, they may never accept a new owner. Qualified people willing to take in an adult exotic cat are hard to find, and no, the local zoo will not accept your cat. Large cats such as cougars and tigers are especially hard to place.

Everyone gets an animal with a certain dream in their minds about how that animal will behave, and some people cannot handle it if things turn out differently. For instance, if you want to own a tiger, you probably imagine being able to play with it and cuddle with it. That may happen; but if you undertake this responsibility you have to be prepared for the fact that you might not be able to so much as enter the cat's enclosure safely, even if you raise him from a cub.

If you are interested in getting a small cat like a bobcat or a serval, you probably imagine sharing your household with it, as many people do. But what if that cat grows up to spray everything in sight?

If you've been researching the idea of owning an exotic cat, you've probably discovered how much conflicting information there is. Some sources seem to indicate that living with an exotic cat is no more challenging than feeding your pet goldfish. At the other end of the extreme spectrum, many sanctuaries and animal rights activists paint them as unmanageable creatures that no ordinary mortal could hope to deal with successfully. As is usually the case, the truth lies in a rational world between the two extremes. This site exists to provide realistic and balanced information.

Like all creatures, exotic cats are all individuals, and nobody can tell you exactly how your future cat will act. Generalizations can be made about the behavior of different species, but individual personalities and behavior traits vary widely. As a dog trainer, I have seen puppies with the perfect upbringing turn out dangerously aggressive, and severely abused dogs who were stable and friendly. I have met dangerous Golden Retrievers and unprovokable Pit Bulls. It's the same with cats; you can generalize to a certain extent, but never count on those generalizations.

If you decide that you are serious about getting an exotic feline, one of the first things you need to do is learn the federal, state, county, and city laws regulating the ownership of the species you are considering in your area. Contarary to popular myth, exotic animal ownership is pretty heavily regulated. Laws and permit requirements vary widely from area to area, and owning exotic cats is banned altogether in many places.

The legal issues will become vastly more complicated if you are interested in owning a cat that is endangered. While it is not impossible, the additional laws and permits that you have to contend with makes owning an endangered cat an unrealistic goal for most people.

Owning an exotic cat means having to remain constantly aware of changing laws and of proposed legislation, and being prepared to fight for the continued right to own your beloved pet.

Owning an exotic cat can be quite expensive. You will need to take into consideration the cost of building a secure and spacious enclosure, feeding costs, veterinary costs, the initial purchase of the kitten, and incidental expenses which seem to crop up on a continual basis. The cost of owning a smaller cat such as a serval or bobcat is more likely to be affordable than that of owning a tiger or other large cat. When you get into the large cats you will find that your feeding and enclosure costs escalate dramatically.

A major consideration is the size of the cat. Some species are smaller than a domestic cat, while others reach 500 pounds. The most common species to find in a pet household is the serval, which ranges fron roughly 18-40 pounds.

Owning a small cat is a more realistic goal for most people than a large cat such as a tiger. Large cats are very expensive to feed and house, heavily regulated by the federal government, and of course much more dangerous. Often keepers are unable to safely enter the enclosures of big cats once they mature. This does not mean that these animals are malicious, but a tiger or other big cat can easily injure you even in play. If you see yourself with a "pet" cat, start thinking small.

Cougars are an interesting compromise in size and temperament. They are actually classified as "small cats" even though most people think of them as a big cat. They are large cats and come with all of the duties, responsibilities, and cost of owning a big cat. However, they often have very gentle and affectionate natures; of all the large felines, they are probably the species that you are most likely to be able to have a "pet-like" relationship with after they mature. For those determined to own a big cat, I would reccommend a cougar over any other species, especially over a tiger.

Owning an exotic feline is not for someone who spends their time in fantasyland. If you are one of those pet owners who think their dog is soooo sweet that he could never, ever harm anyone, that all animals love you because you have a "special touch" with them, or that no animal will be dangerous as an adult if you "love it enough" or "raise it right," you have no business owning an exotic cat.

You have to be able to objectively assess the safety of any decision you make, whether it involves handling your own cat, letting a family member or member of the public have contact with the cat, etc. You have to be able to say "I love Tigger with all of my heart and he loves me back, but I can tell from the playful look in his eye that if I walk into his enclosure now he might hurt me, so I choose not to."

It is important to locate a good veterinarian who is willing to treat your exotic cat before you get one. It can sometimes be difficult to find a good, experienced vet who will be willing to treat exotics. Often, vets are uncomfortable around them or dissaprove of keeping them as pets and will therefore refuse to treat them. Many clinics also lack large enough equipment to handle larger felines like cougars or tigers. Veterinary costs for an exotic cat can be higher than those for a domestic animal, especially if your cat develops a serious problem and you are referred to a specialty clinic or university.

If you choose to own an exotic cat, you owe it to your cat and everyone else who owns exotics to be a responsible owner. What constitutes responsible ownership? Some of the criteria, in no particular order:

  • Provides a ample, nutritious diet suitable to the species
  • Provides ample housing for the cat to live in happily
  • Provides shelter and protection from the elements
  • Provides veterinary care as needed
  • Purchases animals from an ethical and responsible breeder
  • Does not neglect or abuse the animal
  • Provides generally pleasant living conditions and has the cat's feelings and best interests in mind
  • Makes a good-faith effort to comply with all applicable laws
  • Takes stringent precautions to prevent the escape of the cat
  • Protects the cat from unauthorized contact or harrassment from members of the public
  • Protects the safety of the public and visitors
  • Makes a lifetime committment to caring for the cat

This article is written and copyrighted by Jessi Clark-White of www.exoticcatz.com. This article may be reproduced in its entirety only; permission is NOT granted to display editied versions. This article may not be used to support the ending of private ownership of exotic pets.

For more comprehensive information on exotic pets and their ownership, visit my website, http://www.exoticcatz.com. You can ask the author and other exotic pet owners questions at our online forum.

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