I’ve heard that an animal must meet several different criteria to be domesticated. If a particular species doesn’t meet the requirements, then they can’t be tamed, and this is why housecats are docile and tigers aren’t. If anyone knows what the criteria are or even knows about domestication I’d be mighty pleased If you’d care to share it.

Depends on what you mean by domestication, but one key requirement is that the animal lives in a social group in the wild. Dogs, for example, are among the most social of animals, and the “pack” is not too dissimilar from a human family. But other features have been bread in over the years. Wolves, though the same species as dogs, are still wild animals even if they become habituated to humans. At any rate, there is probably a very broad continuum between an animal being “habituated” to humans and being “domesticated”.

I’m not really sure how to word this, but I think some of the criteria might concern how humans interact with the animal in question - do humans actively work with the animal i.e. breeding for specific traits?

There are any number of factors that determine whether an animal can be domesticated, and then another list of factors that determines whether it’s worth domesticating.

Jared Diamond produced a list of the factors in “Guns Germs and Steel”, and we had a recent barney over that in CS recently if you want to hunt it out. The point being that the list he produced is just one of many, and IMO not particularly convincing.

One point that needs to be stressed is that tamed and domesticated aren’t the same thing. Cheetahs, hyaenas, elephants and numerous other species have been tamed to the extent of living and working with humans perfectly well, but none have been domesticated in the sense of being able to be bred in captivity with any great success.

So we really have three lists. The first is a list of features that makes an animal able to be tamed. That often includes a pack/herd hierarchy because that makes the animals easier to dominate, but there are certainly animals like cheetahs and hawks that have been successfully tamed and yet lack any such heirarchy. The only universal feature that all tamable animals have is an ability to be ordered around by humans whether through manipulation of the social structure, simple reward/punishment conditioning or manipulation of latent juvenile traits. Basically there is no list of features that makes an animal untamable or tamable. Some animals are too aggressive to tame, some are too rigid in there behavior, some are too unpredictable in their behavior, some are too highly strung and easily stressed, some are too relaxed and unfocussed. Basically being tamable requires a species to sit in the middle ground on a whole lot of criteria, and being too extreme on any of them makes them untamable. You can’t readily construct a list.

Then we have a list of traits that makes an animal domesticable. This is a bit more easy to construct. Domesticable animals have to be tamable to at least some extent, but they also need to be easy to breed in captivity. Many animals like elephants, cheetahs and cassowaries have been tamed relatively easily but they can’t be bred without a lot of effort. As a result the animals have routinely been kept by people, but only through capture of wild young.

Then we have the list that makes it worthwhile to domesticate an animal. For this the animal has to be eligible for inclusion on the two previous lists, but it also needs to be useful in a few other fields. The first one is that it needs to fulfill a useful function. Cats, dogs, ferrets etc all fulfill the useful function of killing vermin. Dogs, horses, llamas etc. fulfill the function transport. Dogs and geese fulfil the function of an alarm system. And so on. These useful animals don’t; really need any other traits, they can be worth the effort of domestication for that one traits alone. The other trait that can make an animal a useful domesticate is if it can convert inedible matter into food or fibre. Sheep, chickens and silkworms all fall into this category. They are pretty much useless except that they can take indigestible or unobtainable material into something useful. Pigs also mostly fall into this category. These animals also need the additional trait of being fast to mature. An animal that reaches maturity in one year allows for rapid herd replacement and provides regular food. An animal that takes a hundred years to reach edible size and a thousand years to produce one offspring is effectively useless because farmer will die before he sees any benefits at all. The third trait that a domesticated animal needs to be worthwhile is confinability. An animal might be readily tamed, but quite impossible to confine with any practicality. Elephants, cats pigs etc can all be easily confined using fairly simple technology. Even hawks can be confined by the simple use of hoods and stings tied to he legs.

Many animals will potentially make it onto the first two lists but still not be worthwhile domesticating. An octopus might be able to be tamed and even used much like a hawk, but they are impractical to confine. A giant tortoise can certainly provide a lot of meat and can be readily contained and tamed, but a farmer would die of old age before he got enough meat to be worth harvesting. A koala can be tamed and they can certainly utilize indigestible food but that food exists at the top of huge trees, making the species impossible to confine. Ground squirrels would make useful guard animals with their alarm calls, but they are impractical to contain. And so on.

That’s the basic list required to make an animal worthy of domestication. The next question is whether cats are truly domesticated. It’s a debatable point. Cats are certainly tamed animals but in many ways cats are commensals of humans, just as rats and mice or even lice. They live off our food scraps, and they have learned to manipulate our parental instincts and behaviour in order to make better use of us. But in the sense that they can survive quite well without us and only tolerate us rather than obeying us cats are only dubiously domesticated. The question to ask is whether a tame cat is qualitatively different from a commensal mouse or cockroach. There is a difference in our response to them and (occasionally) in the benefit given, but in terms of the animal’s behavior there is little if any difference. So to that extent it could be argued that cats are no more domesticated than roaches.

And as for your contention that housecats are more docile than tigers, I’m not sure I’d agree. Tamed tigers won’t often attack people either. The only difference is that when a tiger gets annoyed and swipes at someone or bites them they do a lot of damage. Cats regularly do the same thing, but lack the strength to do much beyond drawing blood.

One of the features that results from domestication is neoteny – the preservation of juvenile traits in adult animals. The most obvious example being a spotted or patched coat, less obvious but more important example being a friendly or submissive nature.

A 40-year experiment in domesticating the silver fox has yielded some interesting information about the nature of domestication. Here’s an article about the project: