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What makes an animal suitable for domestication? I know it has something to do with the danger to productivity ratio. But this is not helpful for fantasy animals in the worlds we build. What factors or ratios can I use to help determine what fantasy animals are suitable for domestication?

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So, putting together all the excellent points made in other answers, I would say that any animal can be tamed and used in a symbiotic relationship with people. It is more likely to happen if it is harmless enough that the occasional bad behavior (panic or aggression related) can be tolerated. It might be that the animal is docile by nature, or it might be that it is small enough that it can't cause much damage.

Which animal will be domesticated, shaped over the generations, is decided by practical considerations: of how much value is a relationship with this species? Thus you might have things that are cute and cuddly "straight out of the box" being domesticated as companions. Animals with a strong sense of hierarchy (like canines) would be bred to be tools and helpmates. Food animals would be bred for their flesh and probably temperament. Each species would be bred to enhance and improve those characteristics which make it useful.

Why have we never domesticated tigers? Because they are dangerous and even the most gently raised of them has the potential for turned on its handlers. But what if the tiger was able to teleport not only itself but also anyone holding on to it. Would we have domesticated them? My guess would be yes. Even if their temperaments never improved much the value of instantaneous travel would be worth the occasional mauling.

Now, as an aside, that doesn't explain why the Egyptians put so much work into cats, but maybe, since all "house cats" are descended from a very small population in a very specific area (http://archaeology.about.com/od/domestications/qt/cat.htm) it might be that someone found a particular strain of feline that lent itself to domestication and they just took advantage of it.

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    $\begingroup$ Cats had a very specific benefit pest control, when your civilization is dependent on large scale grain storage an animal that will hunt pests without fouling the grain is a big benefit. $\endgroup$ – John May 22 '18 at 14:49
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    $\begingroup$ "Now, as an aside, that doesn't explain why the Egyptians put so much work into cats" It's worth noting they didn't put any work into domesticating cats, cats (much like dogs before them) more or less domesticated themselves, they were attracted to the richer hunting of mice & other vermin attracted to grain stores which brought them into proximity with humans, from there it was simply a matter of natural selection, those cats people find more appealing are less likely to experience problems with people so can hunt & breed more successfully in close proximity to people, no great mystery. $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Feb 5 at 18:31
  • $\begingroup$ @Pelinore Also (and likely far more important to the domestication process) was the fact that less aggressive/less fearful cats could live closer to humans without freaking THEMSELVES out. Cats that were too timid/scared/aggressive towards humans lived further away from them (less food), or ran when approached (reducing their time for hunting, wasting energy, and increasing stress). Eventually cats that weren't fussed about human presence were the norm. Same with dogs- its less that we were less scared of certain wolves, and more that certain wolves were less scared of us. $\endgroup$ – B.Kenobi Apr 13 at 11:52
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    $\begingroup$ I would say teleportation would mean they were exterminated long before they could be domesticated, a large predator that can't be stopped by walls is a serious threat. $\endgroup$ – John Apr 13 at 12:16
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If I Google for "what animals can be domesticated," the 3rd link is quite helpful, "Why Can't All Animals Be Domesticated? -LiveScience" (all of the first links are very helpful to you, but that one seems most well addressed to the exact wording of your question)

From that article, they identify 6 major characteristics of a domesticatable animal:

  • Cannot be picky eaters
  • Reach maturity quickly
  • Willing to breed in captivity
  • Docile by nature
  • Cannot have a strong tendency to panic and flee
  • Conform to a social hierarchy

There are counterarguments (the domestication of dogs from wolves lead some to question if "docile by nature" is a valid criteria), but it seems to be a reasonable start.

There is another theory going that the act of domestication is a particular neural crest deficiency that eventually occurs through the mutation process. Apparently it was noted since Darwin's time that domesticated mammals all show phenotypic characteristics of floppy ears, smaller teeth, and shorter snouts. It is now known that these traits occur as a result of changes in how the neural crest develops as a fetus. These changes also have brain effects, such as decreasing fight or flight responsiveness. Any fantasy creature which cannot, for some reason, undergo such a change would indicate that that species is harder to domesticate.

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  • $\begingroup$ 5) is questionable re: Belyaev foxes, imho $\endgroup$ – user3082 Sep 23 '15 at 5:30
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    $\begingroup$ A few exceptions -> Reach maturity quickly : elephants - Docile by nature : cats - Tendency to panic and flee : rabbits, chickens, guinea pigs - social hierarchies : fishes (not entirely sure about this last one) $\endgroup$ – Babika Babaka Sep 23 '15 at 7:24
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    $\begingroup$ I can't say I found the article helpful. Elephants take 10 years to mature, which is quite long, yet they have been domesticated. Cats are not docile, even as pets. It is only the fact they are so small that saves us from injury from our pets. How many cat owners have never been scratched? Wild horses are as prone to panicking and flight as any other herbivore. And nobody who has ever owned a cat would delude themselves into thinking the cat considers itself part of any social hierarchy. Unless perhaps it is a monarchy :) $\endgroup$ – Francine DeGrood Taylor Sep 23 '15 at 18:30
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    $\begingroup$ @FrancineDeGroodTaylor *chuckles* "Is it only the fact that they are so small that saves us from injury from our pets?" Nah, in the case of cats, the fact that they are so small saves us from becoming domesticated by them! (at least... more domesticated than they've already bred us to be...) And yes, there are counterexamples. I think the real truth is that the question is an impossible one because its not a binary flag, domesticated or not. There's a range, and one can elect to draw a line somewhere. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Sep 23 '15 at 19:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Cort Ammon Hehhe. Not even the size differential works for some. My kids call our youngest cat the "young prince" and he has them fetching and carrying and sneaking fresh milk and meat out of the fridge whenever my back is turned. He also used to get the dog to do all his dirty work and then just sat back and smirked when the dog got in trouble for it :) Ninety pounds of shepherd was putty in this eight pound kitty's paws... $\endgroup$ – Francine DeGrood Taylor Sep 23 '15 at 19:41
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Any animal can be domesticated. All it takes is time... 10s of thousands of years.

What really drives domestication is a symbiotic relationship between the animal and human. House pets get shelter, food, water, and affection. However, they provide services for humans. For instance dogs bark at strangers to provide security. Cats kill rodents that might steal our food. Horses, do manual labor.

A fantasy animal would be no different. Obviously, humans would provide food, water, and shelter. All you have to do is think of what that fantasy animal would provide for humans. Pet gorgon? Sure, if you need lots of statues.

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    $\begingroup$ Meh, 50 years seems to be enough time, if you have enough resources. Which would be problematic for any non-organization. Families or tribes would take much longer because of the inability to do mass breeding, culling, and selecting with robust, identical criteria. $\endgroup$ – user3082 Sep 23 '15 at 5:32
  • $\begingroup$ There are two factors in domestication. The first is having a symbiotic relationship, which does require that both parties are able to provide a benefit for the other. This requires an animal whose nature is already compatible with the requirements of domestication. The other is the shaping of a species that occurs over many, many generations. The more generation pass, the more extreme the change. This is what is required to create a domesticatable species from one which isn't. $\endgroup$ – Francine DeGrood Taylor Sep 23 '15 at 18:53
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    $\begingroup$ So I'd give a +1 to this answer because, really, any animal can be domesticated as long as its value is worth the effort required. $\endgroup$ – Francine DeGrood Taylor Sep 23 '15 at 18:56
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    $\begingroup$ Only with modern technology, and time being the key feature it would take longer than humans have existed to domesticate many animals. $\endgroup$ – John May 22 '18 at 14:52
  • $\begingroup$ @John - we domesticated foxes in less than 100 years. $\endgroup$ – B.Kenobi Apr 13 at 12:09
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I would add one more criteria: Does not regard human-sized objects as food. Thus we can domesticate the housecat (although it actually seems like they self-domesticated) but not the lion or tiger.

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    $\begingroup$ Good point, but I'm not sure if I would regard cats as domesticated by anything more than custom. If house cats were as large as lions they would be as dangerous as lions. If we were fifty feet tall we'd be able to shrug off the injuries received from the occasional bad mood that our tame lions were subject to. Even pampered house kitties can do some serious damage if they get really peeved. $\endgroup$ – Francine DeGrood Taylor Sep 23 '15 at 19:06
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    $\begingroup$ Housecats and the wild cats they are descended from are quite differently behaved--the housecat is much more willing to accept corrections from us than wild cats are. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Sep 24 '15 at 3:26
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    $\begingroup$ Wolves regard human sized animals as food - and were domesticated. $\endgroup$ – user42528 Feb 4 at 8:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Ben Normally a wolf will not attack a human. A wolf pack might, though. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Feb 4 at 20:19
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    $\begingroup$ @kayleeFrye_onDeck just a friendly FYI - domestication is very different to taming. No large cats have been domesticated. We can still 'work' with tame non-domesticated animals (e.g. elephants) but domestication is "the permanent genetic modification of a bred lineage that leads to an inherited predisposition toward humans" wiki link $\endgroup$ – B.Kenobi Apr 13 at 12:03
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It depends on your threshold for suitable in regards to domestication.

For possible, the only things needed are,

  1. Some way to gain substantial leverage over the other creature in regards to survival (food, shelter, etc) and reproduction.

  2. The ability to conform to some kind of social hierarchy where you the "domesticator" have the ability to be the gatekeeper of their needs to live and reproduce, be that by force or by training or bonding.

That's it as far as domestication requirements goes. Now, if you want a good pet, that's an entirely different question :) And quite a bit more subjective...

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