Is it possible to bond with a lion or tiger the same way as a domesticated cat? The answer is No – 99% of the time and with respect to adult tigers and lions. I’ll provide my thinking on this. These are personal views so they are open to discussion and criticism.
Putting aside for a moment the enormous size differences between a tiger or lion and the domestic cat, there are two fundamental differences in the mentality of tigers or lions and domestic cats which affect the human to cat relationship.
The first is that the house cat is a product of almost 10,000 years of domestication through interaction with humans and the human environment. This has changed the personality of the house cat. Although the personality of the wild cat ancestor and cousin of domestic cats (the N. African wildcat) is just below the surface of the house cat, he or she is adapted to living with humans in a human-created environment. This personality lends itself to the formation of a close bond between cat and person particularly where the person raises the kitten from a very young age.
Tigers and lions are wild cat species. Today’s tigers or lions have not undergone eons of domestication. Their mentality as adults is very much that of a wild cat which presents a barrier to bonding with humans and it makes them dangerous even if they know the person very well.
Therefore the first reason is that tigers and lions are wild animals whereas domestic cats are just that: domesticated animals with the wild tiger boxed away inside them.
The second reason why it it not possible for a person to bond with a lion or tiger in the same way as a domestic cat is because the personality of these cats is particularly resistant to bonding with humans.
I’d like to introduce a small wild cat species into this discussion: the Asian leopard cat. This small cat is the wild part of the wild cat hybrid, the Bengal cat. The Asian leopard cat is known to be particularly independent-minded and impossible to domesticate. They are quite fierce and despite the best efforts of some people they totally resist domestication. You have to keep them in outside enclosures.
F1 Bengal cats are also very trying and unsuited to domestic life. This personality trait is in contrast to that of the N. Africa wildcat and other wild cat species such as the cheetah and puma.
I’d argue that the tiger and lion have similar inherent personalities to the Asian leopard cat; intractably wild and distrusting of humans.
There is a caveat to all this. You can’t say that 100% of lions and tigers don’t bond with humans like domestic cats because there are some stories of amazing bonding on the internet. It can happen but it’s rare. This is because all cats are individuals. It is unwise to generalise on personality issues. There are some guys who have close relationships with big cats and they are not harmed or at least it is not reported.
First Hand Experience
However, people with first hand experience of owning lions and tigers as ‘pets’ normally confirm that when they are cubs (kittens) they are amazing and charming. You can have a good relationship with a tiger cub of a certain size but once they are subadult and adult you have to abandon this relationship partly because it is too dangerous for the person. So first hand experience supports the opening statement that it is not possible to bond with an adult tiger or lion in the same way as a domestic cat (subject to the odd exception).