Domestication is the process of taming an animal and keeping it as a pet or on a farm. Many people think that wild cats, for example, lions, tigers, bobcats, cougars, and servals, can be domesticated. However, domestication is a multi-lifetime process that only works with animals that have certain dispositions. There are eight overarching behavioral characteristics that make a species predisposed to domestication as outlined by Professor Edward O. Price, a professor of Animal Science at the University of California Davis. In this article, we’re going to deep dive into each of the eight behavioral characteristics and explore exactly why wild cats of all sizes cannot be domesticated.
Optimal: dominance hierarchy, large gregarious social groups, males affiliated with social groups
The first behavioral predisposition is based on social structure. With the exception of lions, all cat species are solitary, only purposely meeting with another member of their species for breeding.
Of these three optimal conditions, the only one that applies to lion social structure is a dominance-based hierarchy, however, they also pull from the unfavorable trait of having a territorial hierarchy. Male lions are affiliated with the social group of the pride, but more often male lions are associated with coalitions of other males. Coalitions aren’t affiliated with prides. They are socially lower with no established territory.
In addition, lion prides aren’t gregarious, which means that a species flocks and travels together. Lions live in prides that range from 3 to 30 animals. They are most often found as individuals or in smaller groups within the territory of the pride.
Intra- and interspecies behavior
The second behavioral predisposition is that the species is nonaggressive toward members of their own species, as well as other species. This allows humans to keep several species together, occupying the same space, like cows and sheep in a field together. While wild cats live in wildly diverse environments, they are solitary, territorial, and predators. Male cats will fight, wound, and even kill other male cats that enter their territory. Female cats will fight and kill anything that threatens her young. Most of the animals living with wild cats are food to them; they are not befriending other species.
Optimal: promiscuous, male-dominated and initiated, sexual signals from movement or posture
The third behavioral predisposition has to do with sexual behavior. The best kind of mating systems are promiscuous, male-dominated and initiated, and the animals exhibit sexual signals through movement and posture. In this case, it is the one predisposition wild cats have. All cats are promiscuous. Female cats mate with any male they have access to and male cats will often mate with multiple females in a breeding season. Female cats will indicate that they are ready to mate by vocalizing, rolling around, and presenting their rear to males. Male cats will initiate and dominate the breeding process before leaving the female.
Optimal: precocial youth, young easily separated from parents
The fourth behavioral predisposition is to have precocial young that can easily be separated from their parents. Precocial means that the young are born in an advanced state, in other words, already able to walk and feed themselves, like deer. On the other hand, wild cats have altricial young, who are born needing a high level of care. Newborn cats are blind, deaf, and hairless. They are unable to walk, regulate their body temperature, urinate or defecate on their own. Because of this, cubs and kittens cannot, and should not, be taken from their mother before they are ready to leave on their own. Young cats can stay with their mothers anywhere from 1 to 2 years, and in some cases, can stay with them for life.
Response to humans
Optimal: tameable, short flight distance from man, nonaggressive towards humans, readily controlled, may solicit attention
The fifth behavioral predisposition has to do with an animal’s response to humans. Optimal behavioral responses are that the species is tameable, nonaggressive towards humans, and readily controlled. The species should have a short flight distance from man and solicit attention, especially from humans.
Wild cats don’t respond well to humans and human interaction. There have been many recorded attacks against humans, both from cats in captivity and wild cats. Attacks from wild cats can account for many cultural stories, as well as fear and blind killing of native cat species.
Wild cats aren’t able to be tamed for the same reasons why they aren’t domesticated. They are aggressive towards humans. Many wild cats are put through cub petting, magic shows, and kept as pets. People will try to claim that their cats are tame and controlled. These animals are “controlled” through fear, drugs, abuse, starvation, and general mistreatment. Cats can’t be tamed like other animals, for example horses or dogs.
When confronted with human contact, many wild cats choose to flee or hide, and they will run far away. They don’t actively solicit attention. Some cats aren’t well documented because they are so elusive. Even house cats are known for being independent and having an aloof attitude. Wild cats do not approach humans to be hand-fed or pet.
Optimal: limited sensitivity to changes in the environment
The sixth behavioral predisposition is that the species has limited sensitivity to changes in their environment. Wild cats are very sensitive to changing environments. Many cat species, especially the bigger species, are losing their historic range and facing possible extinction because of humans dominating, destroying, and developing their natural habitats. Wild cat populations do not bounce back quickly or easily from these changes and, because of their natural fearful or aggressive behavior towards humans, cannot adapt to coexisting with humans. When given a protected area, wild cat numbers can and will increase.
Movement and habitat
Optimal: limited agility, small home range, wide environmental tolerance, nonshelter seeking
The seventh behavioral predisposition has to do with habitat and movement. It is easier to domesticate species that don’t seek shelter and have limited agility, small home ranges, and wide environmental tolerance.
Most wild cat species have very large, separated territories, in specific environments. Male territories often don’t overlap, but their territories will overlap with female territories and female territories will overlap with other female territories. Wild cats will pace and mark their territory, fiercely protecting it from both their species and other species. A lot of wild cats exist in specific climates, for example, the deserts of Africa and the rainforests of South America. These cats can’t just exist in a new and different climate without assistance.
Wild cats are very agile. Across all species, there are wild cats that can run, jump, swim, climb, and dig. In captivity, wild cats have to have diverse, dynamic habitats with levels that allow them to experience what they would in the wild. Many cat species use dens to hide or to give birth. While they don’t actively seek shelter, shelter is very important when it is needed.
Optimal: generalist feeder or omnivore
All cats are obligate carnivores, including house cats. Cats gain specific nutrients from an all meat diet that cannot be replicated in captivity. This kind of diet can be difficult and expensive to provide for a wild cat, so it’s better that they hunt for themselves. Wild cats prey on species native to their environment, which means that they can’t be fed on generic meat. This makes it complicated to feed them, especially in bulk.