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So I've been thinking for a while about making a world where cats aren't as common and instead are more of a regional domesticated animal, replaced in (mostly Northwestern) Europe by foxes.

How come it never took that foxes would be pest control or even hunting companions for rabbit hunt in Europe? Doing research I found that recent studies show sign of Bronze Age domestic foxes (more info, more bloc of text too) and I know that there is a Russian/Soviet scientist that tamed and started domesticating foxes in the past 60 years. The issue is that foxes eat rodents, hunt rabbits and also have a varied diet that includes fruits. So

  1. they could take care of rodents messing with stocks of grains just like or even better than cats
  2. they could be used in areas where large mammals are not as common and hunting rabbits is more durable/profitable
  3. they could also be fed an alternate diet that doesn't take away too much from the rare meat in early civilisations.

Basically: could foxes realistically be domesticated between the bronze age and the middle ages in Europe and replace cats?

Thank you!

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    $\begingroup$ europe had domesticated ferrets for pest control. they hunted rabbits with them. $\endgroup$ – John Apr 22 at 19:55
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    $\begingroup$ Two things nobody mentioned yet: 1. They stink and they leave stinky runny poops everywhere, and 2. They are nocturnal and scream really loud all night and it sounds like someone getting murdered. $\endgroup$ – Alistair Buxton Apr 22 at 21:53
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    $\begingroup$ @AlistairBuxton cats are also nocturnal. They don't necessarily scream as foxes do, but they can get loud and they're also solitary animals, like wolves. As for excrements, they are defined as "dog-like" and yes, there is a "musky or ‘foxy’ smell" to them, but cat excrement also smells, I can tell you from experience. Not to mention their urine they use to mark their territory. $\endgroup$ – Nierninwa Apr 22 at 23:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Nierninwa Sorry, I should have been clearer. That was directed at people VTC. There have been several other domestication questions lately that have stayed open so I see no reason why yours should be closed for not being about WB. I voted to keep it open. $\endgroup$ – Cyn says make Monica whole Apr 22 at 23:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Nierninwa Wolves are "solitary animals"? Since when? Or is that just in your world? (Last I looked they definitely were not widely considered solitary animals in our world...) $\endgroup$ – a CVn Apr 23 at 6:00
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In the cat vs. fox issue, cleanliness may be key.

In the recent Russian fox domestication experiment, it seems that a big drawback of adopting the domesticated foxes is they cannot be housebroken (search domestic fox housebroken for many reports).

Cats, on the other hand, are obsessive about burying waste. Even adult feral cats, who are effectively wild animals, will quickly take to using a litter box. (Yes, there are cats who still mark territory or otherwise express their existential worries by peeing on things, but this is an exception not the norm).

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Dogs are descended from wolves. The first domesticated dogs were likely wolves.

There are several reasons it would make more sense to domesticate wolves than foxes.

Wolves generally hunt in packs, foxes generally hunt solo

Early humans would have seen the social behavior and realized the pack was similar to their own tribe. It wouldn't be too long before a human decided to take some wolf pups and see if he could integrate them.

Wolves are bigger than foxes

Wolves tend to be larger than foxes and are higher on the food chain. You don't want your dog getting picked off by predators. Both in time invested and emotional attachment losing a trained animal is a big deal, so early humans would pick something reasonably high on the food chain to lessen the chance.

NOTE: There are larger predators such as tigers, but they are more difficult to train, and one mistake will likely lead to life-long injury or death.

Selective Breeding

Domesticated wolf pups would have been selectively bred to be loyal, strong, and obedient. The most violent wolf pups would be put down, and other undesirable traits would be bred out, and desirable traits would be amplified. After a few generations, the new dogs from these pedigrees would be much more valuable than even a new litter of undomesticated wolf-pups due to specialization. There would be no reason to start from 0 with a fox when you have bred dogs capable of producing litters of puppies for you.

EDIT:

Hunting in packs allowed wolves to bring down larger animals

A commenter pointed out that a fox would require less food, which in lean times would be a big advantage. The foxes instinct to hunt alone is its Achilles heel. Foxes must focus on smaller prey due to their solitary hunting.

Wolves, on the other hand, can bring down larger prey such as deer because they are part of a pack. Early humans would have needed larger game as a source of protein. Dogs, descended from wolves, already know how to hunt large game. A fox would have to be trained to do so.

EDIT 2:

Fox v Cat

Since foxes hunt rats, it might be logical to domesticate it for rat killing to protect stored foods such as grains. Cats have an advantage here. Their small size means they eat less, and probably won't attack your domesticated chickens. They also like killing rats. The saying is There is a fox in the hen house, not a cat.

NOTE: In modern times, some dogs such as Chihuahuas are prized because of their small size and acuity to living indoors. The breed was recognized in 1903.

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    $\begingroup$ @StephenG, dogs didn't split from wolves at all. There is no clear consensus whether they are a separate species, but as far as ability to interbreed is the main criterion they are not, as some dog breeds are being interbred with wild wolves. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Apr 22 at 21:12
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    $\begingroup$ I understand how foxes might not be better than wolf-descended dogs for hunting, although assuming a dire environment with few large mammals and mainly small prey like rabbits, the dietary requirements of foxes might make them advantageous, but as a replacement for cats before cats were brought to Europe, it would have made sense. $\endgroup$ – Nierninwa Apr 22 at 23:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Nierninwa - edited the post to address this. $\endgroup$ – sevensevens Apr 23 at 2:27
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    $\begingroup$ As for Chihuahuas being recognized as a breed in 1903, it wasn't all that long before that you didn't have "dog breeds" at all; that concept started becoming widely used in the mid-1800s, IIRC. Before that, you'd have types of dogs, bred for a specific function, but rarely (if ever) bred to and compared against a "standard". Back then, dog breeding was considered successful if the dogs grew up to be able to perform the function for which they were intended, and (to within experimental error) nobody cared much about adherence to a written breed standard. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Apr 23 at 6:04
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    $\begingroup$ It wouldn't be too long before a human decided to take some wolf pups and see if he could integrate them - I don't think this is how it happened. Mutual cooperation between a wolf pack and a human tribe can begin to occur without explicitly taking in a wolf pup and trying to raise it. $\endgroup$ – forest Apr 23 at 10:57
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There are 3 routes to animals being domesticated.

The commensal route where animals gained something from humans without being a burden or danger. For example animals that feed on food scraps or other animals that were attracted to human encampments. Later these animals would be integrated in human life and selective breeding would truly start. This is the route that gave us dogs and cats.

The prey route. Where humans captured, confined and bred animals for food. This is the route that gave us sheep and various breeds of cattle.

The directed route. This is where humans made a conscious decision to try and domesticate an animal for a specific purpose. This is the route that gave us domesticated horses.

The Russian fox experiment shows that foxes do hold the traits that allow them to be domesticated (as opposed to animals that humans have tried and failed to domesticate, like zebras).

In a pre-historic Europe where wolves were not around, or at least very scarce, then I think it is actually likely that foxes would of taken the commensal role that wolves took historically. Foxes will quite happily scavenge for food near humans, this is why we are seeing more and more foxes living in cities.

In a pre-historic Europe where wolves were around though, wolves would have defended their food supply from other animals such as foxes. Wolves won't normally bother with foxes as they are not direct competitors for prey, but they will attack them if foxes try to feed off their kills.

This likely eliminated the commensal route for foxes. The directed route would mean being domesticated much later, and some human having a reason to do so that couldn't be easier fulfilled with dogs.

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  • $\begingroup$ Pre-historic Europe had wolves very early on though, so I understand that this would be an obstacle for fox domestication. However, dogs do not hunt rodents and foxes could fill that role. They do roam cities and probably would have (and did) still remain near human settlements back in the bronze age. Additionally, when agriculture appeared, grain stores drew rodents and these would have been easy prey for foxes. And we have evidence domestication begun. Can you think of a reason it did not "take"? $\endgroup$ – Nierninwa Apr 22 at 23:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Nierninwa Reading through the article about domesticated foxes in the original question, I don't believe it shows evidence of domestication. Domestication would be shown in skull size and teeth. Neither are mentioned. Don't mistake taming animals with domesticating them. If foxes weren't domesticated by the point humans moved away from hunting gathering, then foxes likely became pests by stealing from food stores and hunting domesticated prey animals. At that point they are no longer commensal animals. $\endgroup$ – K Mo Apr 22 at 23:23
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    $\begingroup$ "animals that feed on food scraps" I don't have any readily available citation, but that's a commonly held theory as to how wolves were originally domesticated. There was far less "taking pups in and raising them" and far more "wild individuals living on the fringes of human society" (to whatever extent one can speak of society at that point). Basically, that the wolves domesticated themselves rather than humans domesticating wolves. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Apr 23 at 15:01
  • $\begingroup$ Good first half to this answer. The question is concerning foxes replacing cats, though, not dogs. There is evidence that cats self-domesticated (news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/06/…), and I see no reason why foxes could not fulfil that role if cats were somehow out of the picture. $\endgroup$ – K. Morgan Apr 23 at 15:21
  • $\begingroup$ @K.Morgan The original question has gone through several iterations since I answered it. As it now has an accepted answer, I will not be revisiting my answer. $\endgroup$ – K Mo Apr 23 at 16:29
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As your research correctly found out, foxes can be domesticated.

The main reason why foxes were not domesticated by early humans who instead preferred wolves might be that the latter are more social than foxes.

While wolves live in packs, normally foxes live in pairs or families. So, while for a human is doable to take the role of pack leader, it is a bit more cumbersome to take the role of mating partner.

Of course, since your world is fictional, if your foxes are pack animals, they might be domesticated as well.

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    $\begingroup$ But why did they prefer cats? Though I suppose the answer is quite obviously they didn't—cats probably just moved in on their own and humans noticed there's fewer rodents around if they let them. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Apr 22 at 20:45
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    $\begingroup$ I think you should go more into your research about humans as pack leader vs mating partner. I think explorations of the issue would be best suited to mime / interpretive dance. $\endgroup$ – Willk Apr 22 at 20:55
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    $\begingroup$ @JanHudec There is a lot of evidence that cats domesticated themselves. $\endgroup$ – jaxad0127 Apr 22 at 21:33
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    $\begingroup$ @JanHudec Cats simply have a different role. The distinctions carnivore/herbivore aren't always absolute - hamsters eating their young, wolves eat berries etc. However, cats are pretty much 100% carnivore. People could just let them hunt rodents in their grain storage without fearing that they would eat the grain. A win-win situation, really. In that regard, foxes as full-on omnivores would be even worse than wolves. As hunting companion, wolf > fox, as grain guard, cat > fox. $\endgroup$ – R. Schmitz Apr 23 at 15:28
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Wolves work very well as hunting companions because they are social, have high endurance so they can keep up with human hunting parties, and they target big game like humans.

Foxes aren't social, do not go for prey bigger than themselves, and have moderate endurance. They would not make good hunting companions.

I think you're closer to the mark with cats. Animals that loiter around people enough to be noticed reducing rodent populations, and someone to make the connection to this being good for grain supplies.

You're also on the money for using them to hunt rabbits too (historically this was done with dog breeds like terriers and dachshunds). If wolves are not domesticated for any reason (or even if they are domesticated, but not bred into forms suitable for rabbiting), this would leave that niche open for foxes.

So, what we want really is:

  1. No wolves domesticated (preferable)
  2. Abundance of small game that is at least moderately difficult for people to hunt
  3. Chance
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  • $\begingroup$ What troubles me still is the fact that foxes were probably domesticated or at least tamed at some point but then this was lost. The original idea was, I believe, to replace cats with foxes. Then over months of not actually working on the world and just thinking about it from time to time, I kinda lost track. Some people mentioned ferrets for hunting rabbits and their ability to enter rabbit holes. But yes, dogs specifically bread for rabbit hunts had to have been a rather late development. Would you say with larger game available along with the small game this would still be possible? $\endgroup$ – Nierninwa Apr 22 at 23:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Nierninwa An interesting point I learnt about magpies is that during the early middle ages (and likely the dark ages), they were very tame (and well on their way to commensal domestication). People used them to warn them of animals and trespassers in their fields. Then, after Christianity spread, someone had the bright idea that they were somehow connected to the devil, and the persecution of magpies drove them back to being fully wild. Point being that domestication is far from a completely rational process, and is subject to many vagaries. I think your fox idea is fine :) $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith Apr 23 at 8:49
  • $\begingroup$ @Nierninwa And as for big game you probably want them to be absent. This reduces the utility of dogs, and increases the utility of foxes. It's not strictly necessary, but it's helpful :) $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith Apr 23 at 8:50
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Foxes would not be useful for hunting they are too small, in fact europe later made a sport out of hunting foxes with dogs.

Domesticating foxes was done in the modern age with modern techniques and knowledge. Domestication is a lot easier when you know how to do it and have large food surpluses to support such endeavors. Animals domesticated in antiquity had to be useful from day one or be a toy for the fabulously wealthy. The bronze age claim is not good evidence, burial with game animals was common and foxes as pests often raided human food stores.

Lastly they didn't need them, the europeans already had animals for hunting (dogs) and pest control, (cats and ferrets). the latter were useful for hunting rabbits as they could chase them down their holes something foxes would not be able to do.

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  • $\begingroup$ Bronze age domestic cats in Europe outside Greece? $\endgroup$ – AlexP Apr 22 at 19:58
  • $\begingroup$ The OP does not specify bronze age, cats were widespread in europe before the fall of rome. $\endgroup$ – John Apr 22 at 20:09
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for reminding me foxes can't actually follow rabbits down their holes. However, I disagree with your claim that cats were "widespread" in Europe before the fall of Rome. Vikings took them on their ships but they were not nearly "widespread" as for the domestication, bone analysis showed domesticated diets and humans caring for old foxes' injuries. Additionally, the only bones found other than foxes were goats, cows and dogs. Wouldn't foxes have been useful in what was clearly pastoral societies back in the bronze age against rodents? $\endgroup$ – Nierninwa Apr 22 at 23:07
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    $\begingroup$ the vikings picked cats up from Britain, so they were pretty widespread, my comment about raiding human food stores would cover that since only one fox showed isotope matching. would they have been useful is not a good argument for them actually being used. yes there bones were included but game animals like bear, deer, and fowl are included in other sites so an animal did not have to be domesticated to be buried. the injury thing is also inconclusive care is observed in pair bonded foxes. $\endgroup$ – John Apr 23 at 0:45
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not saying it can't be true but the evidence is spotty at best. $\endgroup$ – John Apr 23 at 0:53

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