There are many misconceptions regarding ‘wild’ and exotic cats as pets. ‘Big cats’ include lions, tigers, cougars and leopards, but sometimes the medium and smaller-sized non-domesticated felines are lumped into the group. This occurs because the general public often has little understanding about what actually defines a wild animal and the subsequent danger to humans associated with them.
Technically yes, but the ability to do so is rapidly diminishing as animal rights activists and the legislators that support them push laws to restrict or ban it. Most of the big cats that are private pets are owned by people with USDA APHIS licenses. This means they are regularly inspected in accordance with the Animal Welfare Act and these licenses are only given to exhibitors, breeders, and research facilities as the USDA only regulates commercial businesses. Whether or not big cat ownership is legal strictly depends on your state laws. Most states have banned unlicensed ownership of big cats.
The subject of keeping not only big cats but exotic pets in general is a controversial topic. Every person has their own standard for what species they approve of keeping in captivity. Much of the general public and nearly all animal rights activists believe that big cats shouldn’t be kept in captivity because they roam large distances in the wild. As a large majority of people who feel this way approve of keeping ‘domesticated’ cats and dogs as pets, it should be noted that cats and dogs also roam spaces larger than the perimeter of a house when living in the ‘wild’. Wild animals migrate mainly to find food in order to survive. It is well known that you should never feed wild animals because you can actually change their migration patterns as they’ll decide to stick around.
Committing to the care of a big cat is obviously a big undertaking. All big cats must be kept outdoors in pens that are large enough to accommodate their activity level for permanent living, as most captive cats will be spending most of their lives in the enclosures. To account for this, cage furniture should be arranged in a dynamic and interesting fashion. Big cats that swim should have access to some form of a pool. The cage should be large enough to provide various forms of enrichment. Big cats should be able to run at full speed for at least a couple seconds, climb (if they are a climbing species) and have an area to conceal themselves. For security, perimeter fencing is highly recommended to prevent escapes or unwanted visitors. The USDA also has a requirement for this. Cages for big cats should include a lock out cage where the animal can be crated for transport and veterinary care.
All cats are carnivores and big cats require large amounts of meat. This can be a significant expense to the owner. In addition to pieces or entire whole carcasses, a commercially-prepared diet from a dealer like Mazuri and various supplements will ensure that the cat is receiving the nutrients it needs. Many private owners use road kill, however sometimes this can endanger the cat’s health due to parasites. Meat can also be obtained from discarded pieces at the butchers and from hunters. Some big cat owners practice fasting days for their animals while others do not.
Contacting big cats is another controversial topic. As the risk of severe harm or death from a big cat can never be completely eliminated, being inside the enclosure or petting the animals presents a danger for the owner and the cat, should it need to be killed in order to save the owner. The benefits of interacting
with a big cat is that it will be less likely to instantly attack a human in the cage. One of the most common ways that people in zoos accredited by the American Zoological Association (AZA), the accrediting body for major zoos that strictly prohibits non-protected contact, die from captive big cat attacks, is when non-socialized cats attack keepers cleaning their enclosures when a lock out cage door fails or is negligently left ajar. All big cat owners should be prepared in the event that their cat attacks someone. Hoses and fire extinguishers are non-lethal means of discouraging a cat away from a human. Lethal means of destruction (guns) should also be present in the event of the worst case scenario, and the owner should know how to use it.
This is an extremely important aspect of caring for all cats (including domesticated cats) and will make a profound difference in the animal’s wellbeing. Regardless of how large the enclosure is, a cat needs something to do in order to keep its mind stimulated and its body active. Captive felines should be ‘working’ for their food at least a few times a week (this can be accomplished with putting the food item in a difficult location, treat dispensing devices or training sessions) and be offered sensory enrichment in the form of unique scents, toys, and textures. Feeding food items like carcasses can offer enrichment.
Big cats are non-traditional pets for a reason. Unfortunately, due to their extremely demanding needs that most people can’t meet, people believe it should be illegal for everyone. Owning a big cat can be done properly and strategically as long as the owner is realistic, intelligent, and financially secure.