Tiger: Species Profile

Characteristics, Housing, Diet, and Other Information

Woman feeding water to a tiger

Diego Ramos / Getty Images

Tigers are not domesticated cats. None of the six surviving species of tiger (another three are extinct) should be kept as pets. In fact, a majority of states in the US. have instituted bans on keeping any of the big cat species as pets. Tigers are huge, strong, fanged predators that eat dozens of pounds of meat per day and need acres of expensive high-security enclosures. The risk of attack far outweighs any benefit, which makes tigers not suitable as pets at any age. However, if you are curious, here are some details about what it's like keeping these large cats living alongside humans.

Species Overview

Common Name: Tiger

Scientific Name: Panthera tigris

Adult Size: More than 600 pounds and 11 feet long

Life Expectancy: Up to 20 years

Behavior and Temperament

Tigers are large, strong, and dangerous cats. They have the ability to take down a 500-pound running antelope, are strong swimmers, and are extremely territorial. In the wild, male tigers will cover a territory of up to almost 40 miles; females cover roughly a seven-mile territory. Males mark their territories by spraying urine and dropping feces in strategic locations. Tigers typically live solitary lives except for mating and, only occasionally, during the birth of the cubs.

Although tiger cubs are small and cute, in their first year alone they will grow to hundreds of pounds and have canine teeth and claws that are several inches long. Owners cannot declaw any tigers, as they use their claws for walking. Removing their large teeth would also prevent them from being able to effectively eat and digest their food.

Well before their first year, a tiger cub grows big enough to push down an adult human, and it's a very bad idea to wrestle with cubs. Even their play bites can cause serious damage and kill a human. Many tigers are carefully and strategically trained to be around people and will go years without incident, but you cannot effectively predict the behavior of a tiger—they are still wild animals at heart. Famous trainers have been mauled and killed by their beloved tigers, even after working with them daily for years.

Housing the Tiger

Tigers need many acres of a highly secured landscape; they can and do jump, climb, and swim their way out of many enclosures constructed to be tiger-proof. Tigers have been known to escape from zoos and private properties and have killed people they come across mainly because, in captivity, they associate humans with the delivery of their meals. In the wild, they roam on several miles of land, so a large plot of fenced-in land with access to ponds or small lakes, trees, and shelters is what a tiger needs to be safe from the world—and to keep humans safe from them.

Even in a large enclosure, the owner must provide enrichment opportunities. Tigers need to use their predator brains to catch, play, jump, climb, and explore, and a bored tiger will be an unhealthy tiger. Zoos often use large plastic balls that tigers will jump on in pools and offer hanging containers with food inside as well and large tree limb apparatus areas to climb in and on. Without complex enrichment regimes, tigers can and do get bored to the point of medical depression.

Food and Water

The amount of food needed for a tiger will vary with gender and age, but an adult tiger may consume up to 88 pounds of meat at one time—antelope, gazelle, water buffalo, deer, fish, and any other creature they can get their opportunistic paws on are comprise a tiger's diet.

According to the Smithsonian National Zoo, their tigers eat mostly ground beef. Their diet is supplemented with "enrichment items," such as knucklebones, cow femurs, and non-live rabbits.

Common Health Problems

The Big Cat Rescue organization advises that in most areas it is difficult to find a veterinarian who is willing or even able to care for a tiger of any age. They further report that a full 98 percent of all wild big cat species die within two years of being taken into captivity. All tigers suffer from many of the same illnesses that affect house cats, such as feline distemper and rabies. It's important to immunize every tiger against these common, lethal diseases.

Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) is the feline equivalent to human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Unlike its human counterpart, however, FIV is totally curable with treatment. If not treated, FIV can weaken the animal's immune system and make it vulnerable to a plethora of other contagious diseases.

Tigers are also susceptible to the much more serious feline leukemia virus (FeLV). This virus produces a number of collateral illnesses in cats, including anemia, chronic infections, and other cancers. FeLV can be treated, but if it is allowed to develop into full-blown cancer it is almost always fatal.

Is It Legal to Own a Pet Tiger?

Most states have restrictions on owning many exotic pets including the big cats, especially around heavily populated regions. Specifically, 35 states have a ban on keeping big cats specifically, while 21 states ban all dangerous exotic pets. Check the rules in your area before attempting to acquire a tiger or any other big cat.

Data on Attacks Caused by Tigers

Many of the reported attacks from tigers in the United States have been severe attacks; non-lethal maulings happen less frequently. Approximately 260 exotic cat attacks that resulted in injuries were recorded as severe or fatal. Of all reported attacks from 16 non-domesticated feline species, spanning 1990 to 2014, roughly 50 percent of the attacks were from just the one genus: tigers.

Statistics over the same time period show that the greatest risk of fatal attacks or injuries is likely to occur at unaccredited facilities and private menageries. Attacks were also common even at accredited institutions, coming from well-trained performing animals during a show or when taken for a walk in or near the public. Big cat safety issues in the United States have been sufficient to influence legislators around the country to create both state and federal laws banning the ownership of tigers.

Purchasing Your Tiger

According to Big Cat Rescue, a tiger cub is at the top of the price range for exotic cats, at around $7,500. Big Cat Rescue also advises that owners should expect to spend up to $20,000 for a cage sufficient to house a full-grown tiger, let alone the cost of the wide landscape this large predator will require in order to thrive.

Similar Pets

If you're attracted to tigers but don't want to put yourself and those around you at risk of lethal accidents, you might consider other smaller cats that are more manageable. If you are looking for a unique feline pet, check out:

Otherwise, check out other exotic animals that can be your pet.