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What's the Difference Between Domesticated,Tame, Feral and Wild Canids?

Updated on January 10, 2013
What's the difference between a feral and domesticated dog?
What's the difference between a feral and domesticated dog? | Source

Introducing the Domesticated Dog

The canidae family basically encompasses carnivorous (meat-eating) and omnivorous (all-eating) mammals. What animals are included in this family? Your domesticated dog, the wolf, the fox, the jackal and the coyote are just a few of the most popular representatives of this family. The domestic dog has been recently categorized as canis lupus familiaris by the Smithsonian Institute so to emphasize being a subspecies of canis lupus (the wolf)

What do canids have in common? Most canids have long legs and agile bodies so they can chase prey. They walk on their toes, have bushy tails their claws don't retract as in felines and most have dewclaws on their front feet. Males have reproductive organs meant to lock up in a tie. Pups are born helpless and blind and are raised in maternal dens dug underground. Once they are weaned they are fed food regurgitated by the parents after going on a hunt. A special ligament of the head and neck helps them conserve energy while running and keeping their nose level to the ground for scent detection. Most canids are equipped with 42 teeth. The long canines are built to firmly hold food so to tear it apart and occasionally use as weapons, whereas, molars are built so marrow bones could easily crack.

Socially, the canids are social animals. In many fox groups, the male and female pair collaborate in hunting and raising pups. Gray wolves, on the other hand, live in larger social groups known as packs. To learn more about the social structure of wolves, read David Mech's theory. Most canids use scent, body language and vocalizations to communicate among each other.

So the dog ultimately turns out being a domesticated animal and the wolf is believed to be its wild ancestor. Yet, in order to better understand a dog's past history, it helps to get a better grip on what the terms domestic, tame, wild and feral all mean as these all apply to the canid family to some extent.

Defining Wild, Feral, Tame and Domestic

The terms wild, feral, tame and domestic seem to be often confused and used interchangeably. As I was reading Steven Lindsey's book "Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, I stumbled upon a great chapter discussing about these terms. According to the book, several years ago, a woman was fatally attacked by a wolf hybrid and the reports were all in contrast with one another. A reporter claimed that the wolf hybrid can be domesticated, but yet remains a wild animal. Another reporter claimed that such animals were not tame as they still retained a wild side. So let's shed some light on these terms, shall we?

Defining Wild

Let's start from the extreme side, the wild part. These animals basically follow their full life cycles without any reliance on humans. Examples of wild canids include the following:

  • Wolves
  • Jackals
  • Coyotes
  • Foxes

Defining Feral

A feral animal is an animal with a history of being previously domesticated and then being released again into wild either being released purposely from humans or the animal escaping. Zoologists, however exclude the term "feral" for animals that were genuinely wild to start with and escaped from captivity. You therefore won't call a lion escaping from a zoo as feral, but you have feral cats. Examples of feral animals indeed include:

  • Feral cats
  • Feral dogs
  • Feral horses

*And what about strays? Usually, the term feral is used to depict dogs who have been domesticated and socialized and have been released to the wild and have lived all their lives always away from people. The word stray instead depicts domesticated species such as dogs or cats who have been socialized to humans and have been taking to the free-ranging life, either because lost or abandoned.

Defining Tame

Taming an animal can seem close to domesticating it, but it remains a step behind. Yes, you can tame a wild animal through socialization and handling, but the animal will have to go through precise biological and behavioral changes taking place through several generations to become domesticated, according to Lindsey. Tameness, therefore, depicts a reduction of wildness in an animals, but just for the purpose of allowing them to become easier to handle. Examples of tamed animals include:

  • Elephants
  • Giraffes
  • Bears
  • Zebras

Defining Domestic

When an animal is domesticated, it changes at a genetic level. Through artificial selection, humans mold the animal to make desirable traits more pronounced so they can benefit humans. There are both changes in appearance and behavior. In taming instead, the animal is simply accustomed to the presence of humans and there are no noticeable changes at a genetic level.

Domestication fits the purpose of humans. Animals are domesticated so to provide a source of food, textiles, for work, protection, but also for companionship. Domestication applies not only to animals but also plants. You have house plants and ornamental plants for human enjoyment and then you have plants grown as a food source through crops. In the same way, domesticated animals for companionship are known as pets and domesticated animals for food are known as livestock.

There are several examples of domestication and its effects on plants and animals. Wild wheat, in nature, for instance, falls to the ground so the seeds reproduce in fertile soil, domesticated wheat instead, stays erect so its easier for humans to harvest. In animals, a great example of how domestication may cause changes is the farm fox experiment. To learn more about this intriguing experiment read: How Farm Foxes Provide Insights About Dog Domestication.

There is still some controversy over tamed versus domesticated animals. Some people claim the elephant has actually been domesticated while others claim cats were really never domesticated.

So what about dogs? A good way to demonstrate that dogs are domesticated is by thinking about wolves. A wolf pup even if raised in captivity would be a far cry both in appearance and behavior from a dog. Domestication takes many generations to produce changes.

It's speculated that wolves became dogs through many generations. The tamer wolves were less wary than humans and used to scavenge for food left behind by the village's garbage dumps. Soon the humans discovered that these self-tamed proto-dogs were capable of alerting of any potential dangers, had the potential for becoming partners in hunting and provided warmth and companionship.

Examples of domesticated animals include:

  • Dogs-wild ancestor- the wolf
  • Pigs-wild ancestor- the wild boar
  • Cat-wild ancestor- the wild cat
  • Horse-wild ancestor- the wild horse
  • Chicken-wild ancestor- the red junglefowl

As seen, these terms at a first glance appear similar but at a closer glance are quite different. Acknowledging them can help grip a better understanding about the history of the domesticated dog.


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    • Lipnancy profile image

      Nancy Yager 

      8 years ago from Hamburg, New York

      I always wondered what these terms meant. Thanks for the clarification.

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Farricelli 

      8 years ago

      Thanks for stopping by Eiddwen! I really appreciate the votes up and sharing! Kind regards,


    • Eiddwen profile image


      8 years ago from Wales

      What a wonderful hub which I now vote up,across and share all around.

      Have a great day.


    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Farricelli 

      8 years ago

      thanks vibesites, an elephant would surely not fit in my home!

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Farricelli 

      8 years ago

      Larry, your question is not at all stupid and actually there's a lot of controversy and different opinions on all these terms. My research shows that Basenji and Caroline Dogs may possibly belong to the Pariah type of dogs. If you feel like going into those murky water, you can read more about pariah dogs here:

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Farricelli 

      8 years ago

      Bob, thanks for stopping, by. I am happy you found the stray definition awkward as it was 1:15 AM when I was wrote this article and that definition was actually for feral dogs and got mistakenly put there. The actual definition for stray dogs is " lost or abandoned pet taking to the free-ranging life".

    • profile image

      Bob Bamberg 

      8 years ago

      I was surprised to learn that strays are actually defined as animals that have lived all their lives away from humans. In common usage, at least in my region, strays are pets that have escaped and are wandering the streets.

      Although they're lost and usually confused or frightened, they will consciously evade capture in most cases, and must be tricked into their rescue.

      Ya learn something new every day, as they say. Interesting hub, voted up and interesting.

    • vibesites profile image


      8 years ago from United States

      Thanks for explaining the differences among wild, feral, tamed and domesticated animals, and those differences can be really big. Elephants can be tamed but never be domesticated -- besides how could anyone could fit it into his/her house and housebreak it? Hehehehe.

      Very educational article. Voted up, interesting and shared.

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 

      8 years ago from Northern California

      Hi alexadry,

      Another great read. Voted up.

      Now here's my stooopid question of the day:

      What about Basenjis and Carolina Dogs? The former survived on their own in Africa, until we humans decided that a partnership would be to our mutual advantage. If domestication was not instantaneous, it probably was quite fast.

      We're still not sure about CDs. Some claim that their DNA is quite ancient. But they too have been domesticated quickly.


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