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Care Sheet - Ocelot
by Mindy Stinner , Executive Director
Conservators' Center, Inc.
Ocelots are native to North and South America, though they are primarily found in specific areas of South America today. Their numbers have dropped to the point that they are classified as an animal likely to be extinct in the wild within a few generations unless assisted by humankind. At one time they were widely hunted for their richly colored and heavily patterned fur. Though restrictions on importing animals and fashion trends moving away from fur have helped reduce the number of cats killed for this purpose, the destruction of the cats’ rainforest home has continued to be a significant threat to their existence. As deforestation continues, they have fewer places in which to live, and a reduced ability to find unrelated cats with whom to mate. At the present rate, wild ocelots could be existing in little islands in only a few years, isolated genetically like the Florida panther.
There are many efforts being made internationally to protect this lovely cat. In Brazil, for example, the government is working with conservation professionals to create a greenway that will connect the groups of cats in different areas, preventing genetic islands from forming. In the US, many zoos and private owners are participating in breeding programs designed to maintain the healthiest gene pool possible. Additional animals will be brought in from the wild to supplement and replenish the gene pool created by the cats currently in captivity. Researchers in the US are working with their counterparts in Brazil to establish a cryogenic bank of reproductive materials, and to explore the possibilities of embryo transplantation.
Because of the ocelots’ endangered status and the necessity of ex-situ breeding programs, all ocelot owners have a moral and ethical obligation to include their animals in statistical tracking and, where appropriate, breeding programs. International registries exist for tracking many endangered species, including the ocelot. The studbook keepers who maintain these are trained in suggesting pairings based on the best interests of the species. Many potential mates for a personally owned cat may reside in zoos and be unavailable for purchase or even private breeding loans. This can make it more difficult for a private owner to follow the recommendations of the studbook keepers when searching for mates for their cats. It is still important that every effort should be made to work with these professionals, as they are responsible for guiding the genetic management of the captive population.
Ocelots have a history in the US as popular pets in the 1950s and 60s. Their reduced popularity in the pet trade today reflects both their reduced availability and the difficulties associated with maintaining them in the manner of a pet.
I began working with ocelots in 1993, at a facility housing some thirty of these cats. I had the opportunity to hand-raise several because of the success of their captive breeding program. I found the ocelot to be a fascinating cat. I was drawn to them both by their beauty and their temperament, though I found it took me more intensive study to understand their way of thinking than it had taken me with the caracals, servals, and big cats I was also learning about.
Ocelots are very beautiful, but are not the easiest wild cats to manage. When I speak of their relationship with their owners, I think in terms of the cat owning the person rather than the other way around. Owning an ocelot puts some limitations on your life that owning a domestic pet or even some other wild cats would not. A commitment to being owned by such a cat should not be made lightly, as it should last for the life of the cat. I have known several to live into their late teens and early twenties.
Ocelots have spotted coats ranging in color variations from a pale yellow-brown to a deep chocolate hue. Their legs, back, and face are covered in a floret style pattern of spots, perfect for camouflage in trees or grasses. Bright white fur runs along their faces and underside for contrast. Their coats are extremely soft and the length of the hairs is comparable to a domestic rabbit. Although they are beautiful, they do have some physical drawbacks.
As kittens, ocelot babies are rivaled by few in the “cuteness” arena. They generally remain with the mother longer than many other species of wild cat, and so they maintain juvenile behaviors longer, too. As young kittens they tend to be very underfoot, following their "mom" (human or cat) closely and often vocalizing loudly if left alone. Some ocelots demonstrate an almost frenetic need for attention, throwing tantrums if left to play independently. I have found this to be in sharp contrast to the independent-mindedness of the caracal and serval infants.
Ocelots seem to have a need to orally experience life. They tend to suck on or chew on many textures and fabrics as a way of experiencing them. Many hand-raised babies are taught to suck people's fingers as a means of getting them to move onto the bottle. Most animal babies wean themselves from this behavior quickly. In my experience, ocelots are not generally self-weaning. In fact, most of the ocelots I know of who were finger-suckers as babies continued to have finger-sucking sessions with their "parent" long into adulthood. In some cases this caused problems. In a few cases the "parent" stopped visiting regularly and the cat became frantic for attention, which some have learned by that time to equate with the finger-sucking. Those cats would launch in desperation at the hands of anyone entering their space, regardless of whether the visitor understood the needs causing the onslaught. This behavior can be prevented by teaching the cats that attention can be garnered through play (with a wading pool or ball or rope), and by limiting the nursing behavior to certain people and certain times.
A carefully raised ocelot can be a very affectionate animal. They are playful and very active. Many I have known would play with a rope or ball as long as they could convince their person to keep playing with them. The finger-sucking cats will generally sit in their person's lap and purr happily as long as they have a finger there. Some get upset or aggressive when they lose the finger, so it is important to be able to redirect the cat's attention quickly to an appropriate toy or treat.
Many ocelots become less affectionate with their human friends once they are paired with a mate. As I mentioned above, owners of endangered species have additional considerations to take into account beyond just their personal relationship with their cat. Selective breeding is necessary to maintain some species, so neutering an animal is not always the best option. An owner of a breeding cat needs to be prepared for some potentially dramatic behavioral changes toward people once an animal is paired up with another of its own kind.
A female ocelot in heat is a nerve-wracking sight. They rush to and fro, grumbling a low growl constantly, rolling on (and in) everything in reach. In most cases, the females are especially friendly and affectionate, but might escalate into biting behavior with little warning. They sometimes call loudly in search of a mate. Many males, once they have established a successful pairing with a female, become less affectionate toward their people friends. They do not necessarily become aggressive, but may be stand-offish.
Ocelots can generally remain in pairs when a female has babies. She will usually have one or two kittens, though three is not impossible. Females are doting and caring mothers. Fathers are usually defensive of the cage area as well as the den.
Some hand-raised females allow their people to visit with their infant kittens while they are still nursing. I know of several cats who allowed facility staff (the people who hand-raised them) to pull their babies and weigh them, then return them. On the other hand, ocelots who were not hand-raised are usually significantly aggressive in defense of their young.
Ocelot kittens remain infants for a longer time than most small cat babies do. If left on the mother they tend to be shyer than if they are hand-raised by people. Bottle-fed infants tend to want to stay on the bottle for eight weeks or longer, and they are a little slower than many other small cats to adapt to eating solids independently.
Ocelot dietary needs are similar to those of other small cats. In the wild they eat small rodents, birds and fish, as well as anything else they can catch. They need a well-rounded diet in order to remain healthy. Like all other cats, they need a balance of muscle and organ meats, and plenty of taurine and calcium. I firmly believe the healthiest cats are on the most natural diet, but there are some manufactured diets that may suffice. I recommend you check with your veterinarian on this point.
Like many New World cats, the ocelots have damp and odiferous feces. Many will mark the boundaries of their territory often with both spray and fecal matter. Some mark their dens this way, too. Both males and females spray to mark their travels as young as six weeks of age. Their marking spray is bright yellow and stains most fabrics. It is quite pungent, as well. People with even minor allergic reactions to cats often have a severe reaction to the presence of an ocelot. Many ocelots choose to urinate and mark inside their dens, where they sleep. This makes them less popular with people who wish to have their cat sleep in the bed with them. There are indeed some meticulous individual cats who are very clean in their bedroom habits, but I have found these to be the exception rather than the rule. These behaviors are not necessarily avoided by spaying or neutering the cat. Some diet modifications may help reduce odor.
Some cats may be trained to use litter, newspapers or a water pan. Some young ocelots tend to eat cat litter, especially the clay type. This can be bad for their digestive system and should be avoided. If you train your cat to newspapers, though, you can't express anger when they poop on your other important papers. They cannot be expected to know the difference between the Mebane Extra and your tax return or paycheck.
Caging needs for these cats are many. They climb and dig, so the fence needs to be secure at the bottom and roofed. Ocelot jaws are extremely strong (compare to a pit bull dog), so the fence should be heavy enough to contain the cat safely. Eleven and-a-half gauge chain link is sufficient. Seams should be overlapped well and double hog rung, as these cats tend to find weak points or small openings and work them mercilessly. Inactive ocelots get sluggish and overweight, so having enough room to run is essential. One or two ocelots can live happily in an 800 square foot enclosure, provided there is plenty of enrichment. A cat that also has the run of his people's house may need less outdoor space.
Enrichment should take into account that the cats are both arboreal and aquatic in their interests. They love platforms and climbable poles. They also enjoy water to the extent that they will dive completely beneath the surface to retrieve toys. Appropriate toys are very sturdy ones that can withstand both claws and jaws. Boomer balls are terrific and they float well on water. Even heavy rubber toys like Kong toys should start off with supervised use only. Ingested rubber can cause choking and blockages.
Because of the strength of ocelot jaws, the insatiable curiosity innate to most cats, and the destructive nature of ocelots, some of these cats require more trips to the vet than just their annual checkups. I have known them to eat whole tennis balls, garden hose, rubber (and real) snakes, Lego pieces, a wide variety of poisonous plants, and parts of other ocelots. Take it for granted that if an ocelot can ingest it, he will. If you are certain he cannot, he will probably try anyway. Minimize risk by removing any questionable items from the cat's reach. Check to be sure your houseplants aren't toxic (see links at end of this article). Like many wild animals, they will often not let on that they feel bad until they cannot hide it any more. Be sure your veterinarian is prepared to treat a wild cat. Some are afraid of being hurt by these cats, and some do not feel they have enough knowledge to treat them appropriately. Either find a vet who has a background in exotics or find one willing to learn. Encourage your vet to contact area zoo vets. Most zoo vets are very willing to share protocols and information with other professionals.
The strength of ocelots should be a consideration when determining their appropriateness for your home. They are spectacular climbers, be it on a bookshelf, a pant leg, or a doorframe. They are easily able to leap to impressive heights, including the tops of refrigerators and heads. In play with other cats, they are rough biters and like to practice eviscerating prey with their back legs. This can translate to their human contact if not prevented early. It is especially important with these cats to teach them from infancy that people's hands are never toys. The wounding potential of these cats is great. They are extremely fast, strong, and agile. They have the remarkable ability to sense pressure points and seek them out during an attack. All small cats have certain target areas at which they strike. The ocelot tends to target the armpit, inside of elbows, groin and neck. This makes a simple bite from an ocelot a dangerous event. They also tend to repeat strike when deflected. If you block an ocelot jumping at you, he will usually hit the ground and rebound straight back at you. This is not the case with most other small cats, who are generally dissuaded by effective preventative action on your part.
I once knew a man named Michael who had worked more than twenty years, hands-on, with tigers, leopards, jaguars, snow leopards, cougars, and all sorts of smaller cats and other animals. Michael spent part of a year in a wheelchair because of a tiger attack. He warded off attacks from numerous other animals. He developed a training curriculum for teaching people to have contact with large cats. He told me the closest he ever came to dying was when he was attacked by an ocelot. He did not expect the level of aggression in the particular cat, since it was not typical for this individual. When the cat launched at him, he did block the first several strikes before the cat got in one bite. He believed the cat was aiming for his armpit, but what he managed to bite was his inner arm just above the elbow. The cat bit deeply and tore off sideways, opening major blood vessels in the man's arm. Michael managed to ward off other attempts to bite him and leave the cage. He called for assistance from other staff on a radio he carried, and made a tourniquet for his arm. By the time he reached the top of the perimeter area, he was passing out from loss of blood. Another staff member drove him to the hospital.
All of the information above regarding their wounding potential is not meant to frighten you out of contact with these cats, it is intended to be a truthful assessment of what can happen in a worst case scenario. Ocelots are my favorite small cats, and I would never have one as a pet. I have occasional visitors and other animals in the house, and ocelots do not generally adjust well to that. I am allergic to their musky spray. I consider the risk of injury to my partner or myself too great to be worth fulfilling my desire to simply possess one. Last, if I am going to have a hand-raised cat like this, I want to make an emotional investment in my relationship with the animal. I also believe in the ethical responsibility to breed an endangered species where appropriate. These two items may clash if I am requested to send my cat to be bred at some other facility. Though the cat will return, she may have learned bad habits or become skittish, and I will feel my relationship with her suffered. So, though I love the sass and pluck of the ocelot, I cannot generally recommend them as pet cats.
Researching a wild cat before you purchase is important, but nothing replaces hands-on work for clarifying the rewards and challenges of working with any species of animal. I urge anyone interested in being owned by one to spend time working hands-on with not just a cute baby, but also some adults.
Additional reference material is available from:
Info and additional resources at
Visit the world's species protection programs and view regulations that may affect you at
Find places where you can visit exotic felids at http://members.aol.com/_ht_a/cattrust/catfind.htm
and places you can contact to support programs involving wildlife at http://eelink.net/EndSpp/organizations-leadingendangeredspeciesorganizations.html
See good sources of information on toxic plants and veterinary care at Cornell University at http://www.ansci.cornell.edu/plants/
Visit the author's non-profit's web site at http://www.conservatorscenter.org