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How the Silver Fox Was Domesticated

After working as a chemist at a biotechnology company, Leah now enjoys writing about science and technology.


The Background on Domesticated Animals

Human beings began domesticating animals approximately 17,000 years ago, when the first wolf became a domesticated dog. Sheep, pigs, and goats followed shortly thereafter, around 9,000 B.C. From ancient times, humans have found domesticated animals to provide everything from companionship and protection (dogs) to meat and clothing (sheep and many other large farm animals).

Domesticated animals are far different from "tame" animals. While many wild animals can be tamed (as evidenced by "tamed" servals and other exotic pets), the tameness is confined to a single animal. A tamed wild animal will have offspring that are as wild as its forebears unless they are also tamed.

A domesticated animal, by contrast, is born with inherent tameness, which is not the by-product of training. The offspring of a domesticated animal will be as tame as its parent: domestication is a heritable trait. In other words, domestication is a genetic trait that is passed from parent to child: it is "nature," not "nurture."

How Foxes Shed Light on the Domestication Genes

The fur industry in Russia had a problem: the silver foxes bred for their fur were (justifiably) antagonistic toward their human captors. The foxes were wild and had an inherent fear of human beings and would bite or scratch at any human approaching their cages.

The fur industry wanted to breed tamer foxes, to make the animals easier to keep and transport. Enter Dmitry Belyaev, a Russian researcher who had fallen out of favor with the new Communist government. Belyaev was interested in the process by which wolves had become dogs and agreed to experiment with the fur industry's foxes. In 1959, he obtained 130 animals from the fur farms and began a dual-sided experiment: to breed the tamest foxes from each generation and to breed the most "wild" foxes from each generation.

To Belyaev's surprise, completely domesticated foxes appeared within 25 years: a much shorter time span than anticipated. The implications are that wolves were domesticated much more quickly than originally thought. Selecting for the tamest animals in each generation led to a sequence of events, which might be termed the "domestication cascade."

The Location of Belyaev's Experiment

Domestication Timeline

Domestication Timeline

Traits of Domesticated Animals

Anyone can determine the difference between a wolf and a dog by simply looking at the animal: dogs come in a variety of colors and coat patterns and can have floppy ears and curly tails. By a surprising coincidence, the domesticated fox kits in Belyaev's experiment yielded the same traits.

The domesticated silver fox kits started to appear in a variety of colors: piebald fox kits appeared out of nowhere, somewhere around the ninth generation. The domesticated foxes also started displaying floppy ears and curly tails: other traits of domestication. The gene responsible for heritable tameness was also causing changes in the animals' phenotype (the physical appearance of the animal). Domesticated traits include:

  • Floppy ears
  • Curly tails
  • Shorter tails (loss of vertebrae)
  • Change in vocalizations (barking)
  • Less fear
  • More social
  • Change in coat color
Domesticated foxes differ in physical characteristics from the wild type.

Domesticated foxes differ in physical characteristics from the wild type.

Williams Syndrome, Foxes, and Domestication

Scientists have been studying domesticated silver foxes to determine which genes might be responsible. A gene known as WBSCR17 has been identified as a probable gene for domestication, as dogs and wolves also differ in the expression of this gene.

Interestingly, there is a human genetic condition called William's Syndrome, which results from a mutation in the same gene. Children with William's Syndrome are extremely social, friendly, and endearing. Unfortunately, this syndrome causes cardiac problems and difficulty with abstract reasoning. In humans, the WBSCR17 gene is located on the long arm of chromosome 7 and encodes for N-acetylgalactosaminyltransferase. N-acetylgalactosaminyltransferase is a catalyst for oligosaccharide biosynthesis, which constitute hormone subunits.

The increase in friendly and social behavior in William's Syndrome is an interesting correlate for the increase in friendly behavior among domesticated dogs and foxes, which harbor changes in the same gene.

The WBSCR17 gene is probably not the sole gene responsible for domestication. Researchers studying domesticated chickens have found a change in the TSHR gene: a gene responsible for the thyroid stimulating hormone receptor (a binding site for the thyroid hormone).

Why Domesticated Foxes Should Be Adoptable

Belyaev's experiment was a success in that he discovered the mechanism for domestication was genetic and achievable in a short period of time. The domesticated foxes have an altered coat pattern, which makes the domesticated foxes unsuitable for the fur industry. The foxes are extremely expensive as pets in Russia (over $2,000 in U.S. dollars). The high cost prevents the widespread adoption of the animals, which means the expanding population at the laboratory must be culled each year. A selection takes place each year, and many of the friendly, tail-wagging foxes must be euthanized.

If the domesticated foxes were allowed to become pets outside of Russia, their future would be brighter. Instead of living in rows of cages (or being sold to the fur industry), the animals could be cared for in a similar manner to dogs. Indeed, the domesticated foxes have very similar traits to puppies: they lick, wag their tails, and are extremely social and friendly animals.

Buying a Domesticated Fox

Domesticated foxes are now available for purchase outside of Russia. One American distributor offers 100% domesticated foxes from the Russian experiment.The cost for purchasing a domesticated fox through a distributor is approximately $7000 for people living in the U.S.A.

Purchases may also be made directly from the Russian Institute of Cytology and Genetics, by contacting:

Ludmilla N. Trut,
Doctor of Biological sciences,
Irina F. Pliusnina.
Candidate of Biological Sciences (Ph.D.),
Institute of Cytology and Genetics,
10 Lavrentyev ave., Novosibirsk,
630090, Russia
Phone: +7(383) 333-38-59
Fax: +7(383) 333-12-78

Legality of Owning a Domestic Fox in the U.S.A.

In the United States, there are many laws and regulations regarding the ownership of exotic pets. 20 states ban the ownership of exotic animals. Only nine states have no laws regarding the ownership of exotics, including Alabama, Idaho, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Until the majority of states regard the Russian Silver Fox as a domesticated animal rather than an exotic animal, ownership of a domesticated fox may not be possible for the majority of citizens in the United States.

Caring for Domesticated Foxes

Domesticated foxes can live indoors or outdoors: if kept outside, the fox should be provided with a blanket and shelter from extreme heat. Domesticated foxes kept in a house will often lie on the bed and may use a litter box like a cat.

Domesticated foxes should be fed canned dog food (the type meant for medium-sized dogs). The addition of cabbage and carrots should help their digestive process. Tomatoes and potatoes should never be fed to a domesticated fox.

Domesticated foxes should visit a veterinarian regularly. A schedule of immunizations is typically provided with each fox and includes vaccinations against plague, rabies, and other immunizations common to dogs.

Common health problems in domesticated foxes are gastrointestinal issues (due to diet). Rarely, pneumonia is seen among domesticated foxes.


Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on September 29, 2014:

There is a lot of discussion about how animals were domesticated, jennabee25. While we can't go back and observe ancient history very easily, it is believed that cats domesticated themselves (as a relationship with humans was beneficial for obtaining food), while dogs were purposefully domesticated to provide services to humans. A dog's bark was an extremely beneficial early warning system/alarm for early humans, and dogs have been bred to perform many other tasks. As for recent domestication attempts, the silver fox was domesticated in fairly short order, and very recently. Typically, domestication follows some sort of a need (or want, as in the pet trade).

Jenn Dixon from PA on September 17, 2014:

I've seen this breeding experiment featured in National Geographic and in a program about the domestication of dogs. I think it's fascinating. It sort asks the exactly were animals domesticated and why we haven't domesticated any new ones in a very long time.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on June 08, 2011:

I originally read about it in a study - not sure where. If you google "WBSCR17 domestication" or "domestication genes" you will come up with several references. Here is a very good reference:

Tigercub684 from Adelaide, Australia on June 08, 2011:

Where did you find out about the possible gene for domestication?

I'm doing a uni project on this study, and this would be very helpful.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on May 05, 2011:

It is so sad that some of these foxes are still being sent to the fur farms. I still can't believe that people still wear fur - the treatment of the animals on fur farms is abysmal.

Rachael Lefler from Illinois on May 04, 2011:

Oh, wow, it is now my dream to own one someday, to save it from becoming a coat if anything! They're amazingly cute animals.

jamiesweeney from Philadelphia, PA on May 04, 2011:

This is really good hub. I really appreciate this.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on March 17, 2011:

The price tag (and NY State's law banning exotics) would prevent me from owning the animals, too. They are beautiful, though!

It will be very interesting to see what exact genes are pinpointed for domesticated animals from different species... I wonder if the same gene is mutated in all of them, or if each species have a different gene mutation. It appears the two found gene mutations are responsible for hormone reception or synthesis (primarily thyroid)...

Mohan Kumar from UK on March 16, 2011:

Brilliant hub- so much new info very well compiled. fascinating subject especially the concept of Williams syndrome and the 'domestication gene'! voted up.

L.L. Woodard from Oklahoma City on March 16, 2011:

Beautiful animals, but due to the price tag and local ordinances, I don't think I will be owning a domesticated fox.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on March 16, 2011:

The research is fascinating: it really does show why wild animals are not good pets. If a genetic change is required for true domestication, then wild animals (often used in the exotic pet trade) will never make safe pets. Cats are fairly recent to the domestication scene, which may explain why they revert to a "wild" (feral) state so easily.

Cindy's Thoughts from The Adirondacks in Upstate NY on March 16, 2011:

This is So Interesting! Not only about about the foxes themselves, but also about the DNA which is fascinating. And now I have gotten a new perspective on why a wild animal is always wild with your great description of the difference between domestication vs taming. Thanks! : )

Eiddwen from Wales on March 16, 2011:

I love anything to do with animals/ nature wildlife etc and this one was a treat.

I am pushing useful/awesome/up for this one leahlefler.

Thanks for sharing and take care


Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on March 15, 2011:

I have mixed feelings on the subject of a domesticated fox craze, too - I certainly think it is better for the pups to be adopted than shipped to fur farms. On the other hand, I worry that a domesticated fox craze could lead to other researchers trying to domesticate other animals. With our humane societies full of un-adopted domesticated dogs, there are certainly concerns about the future welfare of other domesticated animals for use in the pet trade.

India Arnold from Northern, California on March 15, 2011:

The similarity between humans William's Syndrome gene and the increased friendly nature of domestic dogs is really interesting to me. I found your scientific look at the topic outstanding.

As for a domesticated fox craze, I would much rather see them as pets than coats, although I haven't decided yet just how I feel about the concept surrounding the domestication itself. Nice job here. Up and really awesome!


Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on March 15, 2011:

The problems with escaping back into the wild would definitely have to be dealt with. These foxes are native to Russia, and the Genetics lab there has kept them in cages for the most part. With such an expensive investment, hopefully people will keep them microchipped and on a leash when walking, etc.

If the domesticated fox becomes a popular pet, I could imagine similar problems to domesticated dogs: people not neutering and spaying to prevent overpopulation, etc.

Domesticated foxes probably wouldn't fare as well in the wild - they love people, so they would hang around populated areas. Their coats make them stand out more to predators, too (one reason that the traits associated with domestication don't readily occur in the wild).

rorymullen from Maine on March 15, 2011:

It is sad that people do not know about this amazing opportunity. I must say having a house broken fox chilling next to me while watching 2 and a half morons would be awesome. Good Hubmob Hub.

What do you thin will be the effect if to many of these house broken and domesticated foxes escape back in to the wild? Will the survive or will they not. Does it matter how many generations the fox has been domestic for its chances for survival. My point is if we try to domesticated to many animals where will they be in the wild.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on March 14, 2011:

The fur industry makes me sick to my stomach - I feel so sad for the foxes that were bred for this purpose! The poor domesticated foxes are finally adoptable, so hopefully fewer will be euthanized and more can find their way into homes.

Sadly, the other half of the study (breeding foxes to be even more "wild" and anxious of humans) was also successful - those foxes are extremely vicious and are also part of the selection process each year.

The whole thing is just sad for the animals.

GetSmart on March 14, 2011:

I was not aware of this study, but I think it is a real shame that so many of them are now euthanized. Thank your for this very interesting hub. I hope it attracts someone that can afford to adopt one!