How to Care for a Pet Tiger
Gracing the news and television programs such as Animal Planet's Fatal Attractions, it would seem as though bad owners of big cats are running rampant. Can a tiger (Panthera tigris) fit into the lifestyle of the average person?
Privately owned pet tigers and other big cats (lions, cougars, mountain lions, and leopards) are an obscure reality, yet their true presence is wildly exaggerated by special interest groups and the news media. While many exotic pets have tremendous popularity, big cats, for obvious reasons, are not commonly kept.
Due to the negligence of a few, the few true owners of ‘pet’ big cats frequently make headlines and bans are prompted of other exotic animals that are of little or no danger to people beyond a cat or dog. The reason may be that the public views the idea of a ‘backyard tiger’, which is a tiger maintained in a non-professional zoo-like setting, with disdain, but not all so-called backyards (or owners) are equivalent. There are reasonable ways to bring about the proper husbandry of big cats, as long as the owner’s lifestyle fits specific criteria without exception.
To Responsibly Own Large Exotics, One Must Be:
- Financially Secure
- Live in a secluded area
- Have experience with the handling and maintenance of large and potentially dangerous animals
- Do not Travel a lot or have the assistance of qualified caretakers
- Live in a state where it is legal or must obtain the proper permits
It’s good to see that so many people are surprised to find out that people privately own such a class of animal, which should put to rest the myth that it is a rapidly expanding industry. Big cats are what should be considered a very high maintenance animal to assume the responsibility for, and their private ownership should only be considered by committed to individuals in special circumstances.
Most owners of these animals have dealt with big cats or other exotics in their occupations and businesses (many of these so-called pets are often a part of the owner’s business), or they are usually highly experienced enthusiasts. Caring for such an animal should never be taken lightly, and regulations, not bans, should reflect that.
Where can you buy a pet tiger?
A quick internet search will yield many results: fake websites that purport to offer a variety of subspecies of this large feline in a user friendly format, websites that strongly discourage the inquiring minds from ownership of this animal, and results on the care of tiger salamanders, an exotic pet that is a somewhat less demanding.
Where are the sites that you can easily buy tigers from, such as is asserted by the aforementioned animal rights groups?
Websites such as exoticanimalsforsale.net and magazines like Animal Finders Guide ($2.50 per issue or $24.00 for a year subscription), offer a convenient platform for breeders, brokers, and any other person seeking to re-home their animals to list pets for sale. Common animals posted on the site are highly exotic, from coatis, to foxes, to servals, which is a ‘small’ wild cat from the plains of Africa. Yet, ‘big’ cats are rarely offered, and when they are, the sale is only applicable to USDA licensed facilities.
If an individual is willing to sell a tiger or any equivalent animal to whoever has the asking price without asking for proper permits and other such qualifications that reveal the potential buyer to be a suitable owner, this person is to be regarded as an unscrupulous breeder or dealer with no interest in the welfare and long-term happiness of the animals they exploit.
Big cats for sale may come from animals that were originally bred for their use as cubs, which is another ethically questionable practice. Unfortunately, in top of the line AZA-accredited facilities, ‘surplus animals’ that do not fit into certain breeding programs are often euthanized. It would be a positive relationship, I believe, if such animals could be spared and considered for adoption toward responsible and ethical caretakers, whether they are private owners, so-called sanctuary owners, or anyone else who can offer the care toward the animal.
Therefore, zoos that do actually offer these animals toward the population who are not a part of this ‘high and elite’ club of specialized zoos are often ethically questionable with their practices, yet this is one way to obtain the animals.
Breeding tigers specifically for the ‘pet trade’ presents many issues, and the main concern I have is the ratio of proper homes toward animals produced. As previously stated, the ‘proper’ home is very rare, and unfortunately, there exists many individuals who take animals that are unscrupulous. Any such animal that has low demand, from domesticated cats to tigers, should not be intentionally bred without consideration of its current and future populations. The most ethical way to obtain a tiger is to 'adopt' an unwanted one from these and many other sources.
Caging Materials and Construction of Safe Big Cat Enclosures
Getting back to the ‘backyard’ tiger assessment, to responsibly and ethically care for an animal like a tiger, it is clear that one needs to have sufficient space and funds to build the sturdy and specialized caging that meets the needs of the animal, makes the possibility of escape as small as possible, and prevents easy access from intruders into the enclosure, whether they be human or animal.
One thing I like to stress about the existence of captive animals that are too large to ‘play’ with their owners (interacting with dangerous carnivores will be addressed later on in this passage); they will have to live over 99% of their lives in their enclosure and it is essential that the enclosure is developed with this in mind.
Therefore, this means that a minimum amount of space should be defined, but the standards do not cease there. The captive animal, so to speak, must be able to make something out of their space, and not just view the opposite end of the enclosure to see a continuous, uninteresting box.
An animal’s enclosure must be designed to mentally stimulate foraging activity, meaning that there should be varying features in the space, such as trees and other such barriers, and there should be varying levels of elevations, such as makeshift pedestals and hammocks. In fact, an extremely spacious enclosure that is barren is not preferable to a smaller enclosure that incorporates these aspects. Tigers specifically should also have a water source to play in.
Tigers may patrol ranges in their native environments of up to 50 to 1,000 square km (19-386 square mi.) but of course, they must do this in order to locate and hunt prey. Unfortunately, regulations that specify minimum enclosure size requirements are inadequate, in the same way that they are for many animals used in agriculture, and both should be amended.
The Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission calls for a minimum enclosure size of 10’ x 20’ (200 square feet), which, as a permanent enclosure, is ethically unacceptable. USDA standards typically only require that animals have the ability to stand up and turn around.
The proper enclosure type may vary, but a large cat should be able to carry out basic behavioral movements, such as having the ability to run in the enclosure for a few seconds without meeting a wall. Running, jumping/climbing, foraging, and playing are all behaviors that should be encouraged with an enrichment program.
The potential hazards of big cat care is the most concerning and important aspect of husbandry to nearby residents and the general public. Although cases of mauling and deaths from escaped pet exotic carnivores toward people who are uninvolved with the care of said animals are incredibly rare and strongly dwarfed by cases of domestic dog attacks, public safety should be carefully and intricately considered in all elements.
The local law enforcement and animal control should be aware of the presence of these animals. Caging should be designed to prevent such incidences, and property that maintains large carnivores should be double fenced.
Furthermore, a plan should be set in case of any worst case scenarios. Even professional zoos have had run-ins with unexpected escapes. The possibility of such an occurrence can never be fully eliminated, such as dog attacks from any existing breed with teeth cannot be. Non-lethal ways to thwart attacks will be discussed further in this article. Microchipping is another consideration for tracking escaped exotics.
Zoonosis and disease is another important concern, which is why caging should prevent outside animals from entering. For instance, rabid foxes or raccoons could easily become prey (or taunters) of captive tigers. Always note any unusual variations in an animal’s behavior.
This is another reason why ‘crate training’ is an important aspect of wild animal husbandry. Unlike dogs, wild animals and even dangerous carnivores are typically uncomfortable in new settings. Crate training involves familiarizing a captive animal to a cage or crate that will be used to confine the animal during extensive cleaning of the main cage, transportation to other locations, or essential vet inspections (vets will need to draw blood and take other samples).
Crate training is accomplished by routinely feeding the animal in this location or placing the crate in a location where the animal will consistently walk through it as part of its daily routine. The crate can also be a part of the animal's enclosure that can serve many other purposes. During confinement to this crate, the stress level will be reduced significantly.
A privately owned 'pet' tiger plays with a boomer ball and its pool
The Psychological Welfare of the ‘Backyard tiger’
In addition to an environment that is specifically designed with the animal’s mental experience in mind, it is essential that all mammals, whether they are ‘pets’ or ‘zoo animals’, are provided with regular enrichment. Unfortunately, this aspect of animal care is often overlooked with many pet keepers, including those with less controversial pets, and may mean the difference between a content animal and one that is stressed and exhibits what is called ‘stereotypical behavior’ even in a spacious, beautiful enclosure (although such behavior may or may not always be the result of stress).
Tigers should have a place to swim
The key to successful enrichment is breaking routine, having an animal work for its food, and giving animals something to look forward to other than eating. Enrichment can be accomplished by introducing and frequently rotating toys that should be indestructible and manipulative such as the popularly utilized 'boomer balls'. A pool of water for tigers is a reasonable requirement in that its play possibilities remain unmatched. Edible and organic 'toys' meant for destruction such as pumpkins, dead trees, watermelons, and boxes filled with meat placed in an awkward location provide stimulating discovery and promote play behaviors when offered in random intervals.
If a private owner can establish such enriching and mentally stimulating routines, they will find success in the mental well being of their captive large carnivore that may contend that of some zoo animals. Therefore, anyone seeking to privately own a large cat must have the time and resources to commit to this routine for the remainder of the animal’s life. Several studies support that animals carry out foraging behavior even in the presence of food and having their other essential accommodations met. Psychological wellness should be viewed to be as essential as food and water for higher vertebrates.
Informative Big Cat Rescue (pet owners turned 'sanctuary') feeding video
Nutrition and Feeding
Tigers and other big cats should eat approximately 20 pounds of meat daily, with a day or two omitted for a fasting period. This obviously does not come cheap, and consideration should be given to meeting all the nutritional requirements of the animal. Whole prey should frequently be offered so the animal can incorporate bones, organs, and other tissue it would consume in the wild into its diet.
The composition of muscle meat is vastly different from that of viscera, in that it is low in vitamin A, proper calcium concentrations, fat-soluble vitamins, and manganese. Big cats fed mostly muscle meat with no additional supplementation may suffer from health ailments such as bone disease and vitamin A deficiency. As with even domestic dogs, bones also provide teeth cleaning relief. Prolonged occurrences of dental disease may compromise renal function and lead to liver abscesses or endocarditis.
Many dealers, such as Mazuri and Natural Balance, provide commercially prepared and processed carnivore diets with supplemental additives of vitamins and minerals, and the quality of such diets vary. Rotation of meats and other foods given may decrease the chances that adequate nutritive requirements are not being met.
Handling and Interaction
It is probably a good idea to avoid physical contact with big cats, and this is especially important for individuals who are less experienced in such handling. The ethics are questionable; while the handler assumes responsibility for the fact that the possibility always exists that something could go wrong, what will happen to that animal if something does?
An animal acting out on its instincts may have to be euthanized via gunshot if it is caught assaulting or mauling its keeper. Interacting with big cats is taking a chance, as many people do. There are however some ways to thwart attacks from big cats that do not involve killing the animal. If handling must be done, or if there is an incident such as an escape or mauling through the enclosure, pepper spray is essential for responsible owners to have on site and on hand during close encounters. Other useful items to have are fire extinguishers, an air horn, and even a hose. Fire arms are effective but dangerous (as well as deadly for your pet) and should be used as a last resort.
Instead of entering the enclosure, operant conditioning (positive reinforcement and food rewards) techniques can be used to carry out inspections for health issues and taking veterinary samples, feeding, enrichment, and to make transportation stress-free.
If any of the criteria outlined in this article sounds unreasonable or cannot be accomplished, you probably don't have much business truly considering big cat ownership. There are many less demanding exotics, including cat and cat-like animals that are not easily capable of causing adult human death if the urge so inclines them.
These animals still require a committed caretaker for life and it is a life decision that shouldn't be taken lightly in any sense. However, the few people who are able to meet the demands of such animals should not be barred from having the option to choose this life style. If a pet of any species is content, healthy, and well cared for in a safe setting, what gives another person the right to say they shouldn't be caring for it?
If you are interested in keeping exotic animals, including non-domesticated felines, this book can be very helpful. While it is directed at zoo professionals and some of the material can be pretty dry, it is loaded with information, research, and references. A must read!