A New Breed of Pet

Specific puppy hybrids are high-cost designer pets.  Puggles and labradoodles are carefully bred to create desired characteristics such as less shedding or more docile personalities.

But research on a new breed may change the way people think about pets.  The new designer pet?  Foxes.

Research at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Siberia is breeding foxes to have the same docile characteristics as our favorite lapdogs.  This is the latest version of animals being bred for domestication.  The goal at that outset of the project, over 50 years ago, was to recreate the domestication of wolves into dogs.

With each generation of fox pups, researchers tested the responses of the foxes to humans – are they approachable, can they be pet, do they wag their tails?  Amazingly, instead of taking thousands of years, it took only a few years.

Just the second generation was approachable, the fourth generation allowed themselves to be pet, and by the sixth generation, the kits followed humans around and licked them – actions practically indistinguishable from that of pet dogs.

Even more interestingly than the domestication (at least to this biologist) were the physical changes that accompanied it.  Within 15 generations of the specially bred foxes, they acquired floppy ears, spotted coats, and curly and shorter tails.  These characteristics (called a domestication phenotype) are seen in many species of domesticated animals including dogs, pigs, and chickens.

These changes seen in many domesticated animals suggest that there is a set of genes that are shared by all animals capable of domestication.  The researchers in Siberia are currently searching for those genes.  However, the genes responsible for tameness are proving difficult to find.

And how do the genes affect docility and domestication?  No one knows yet, but one theory is that the genes control chemical signals in the brain that affect attitude.  These chemical changes may then have downstream effects on the physical appearance of the animals.

So, do you want a tame fox?  A company in Siberia will sell you one.  For the low, low price of just $6, 950 (transportation and paperwork included).  The youngest that foxes can be adoped is 3 ½ months old.  And I have to admit, they’re pretty cute…

 A domesticated fox pup

The company claims that caring for the foxes is much like caring for dogs.  They can live inside or outside and can benefit from having a crate.  They can eat dog food and can even be trained to use a litter box.  They should be walked and brushed regularly.

And apparently they’re rather playful.

So, if you’re up for it, you have $7,000 lying around, and you need something a little more interesting than a plain old dog, look into getting your very own pet fox!  Oh, and as for that genetic research – maybe it’ll lead us to the next domesticated pet.  Any bets on what it’ll be?

For more information, see the recent article in National Geographic, March 2011.  Want to buy your own fox?  Visit http://www.sibfox.com/

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7 responses to “A New Breed of Pet

  1. Erin Podolak

    We actually studied Belyaev’s original fox domestication experiments in my zoology class this semester, its pretty interesting that you can actually buy a pet fox, I’ve never understood the allure of exotic pets!

  2. I’ve always thought foxes were so cool, kind of jealous. I wonder how loyal they are in comparison to dogs?

  3. Jenny Seifert

    I don’t know how I feel about this one. On one hand – Cute! I want one! On the other hand – in light of the many things we could/should be spending research money on (e.g. wild species conservation?), domesticating foxes seems a little silly. though I can see the merit in genetically understanding domestication.

  4. I learned about this as well. I felt conflicted when I found out the motivation for making foxes more docile. Many fur producers wanted to invest in a fox that could be easily handled, killed and skinned for its valuable coat, which is why Belyaev had the funds to do the research. Though I think breeding calmer individuals solves part of the welfare issue (i.e., interactions with humans aren’t as stressful), I still struggle with raising and killing an animal just for its “luxurious” coat.

  5. Eek! I don’t think I’ll be one of those folks signing up for a pet fox! My co-worker has a friend up north who has a cat that’s part of a mix bred with leopards (I’m blanking on the official name at the moment). The poor thing has had one owner after another because of how high and far it can jump and biting a bit too hard when it wants to play. My co-worker’s friend seems to enjoy her pet, though. I saw pictures and it really is a beautiful cat (spots and everything!).

  6. I saw this a few years back about a guy who bred foxes for size and sociability. He would basically breed foxes that came to him and not the shy ones. They got so big after just 10-15 years and started barking like dogs. I would like one! As long as people don’t start breeding them for their inbred health problems, like pugs and bulldogs. And miniature foxes? Gag me. But I guess only a matter of time.

  7. I do think these foxes are well cute and credit due to the Siberian team, but with all the dogs in shelters and bein put to sleep every year do we really need to add a new breed to the canine world

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