Caring for and Buying Pet Baby Otters
The thought of owning a real pet otter might seem like an unrealistic dream. Otters are usually thought to be an animal that only zoos can acquire and posses. This however isn’t entirely true. Yes, otters are not legal in every state in the United States, but they can be owned in some of them. They are also not impossible to care for, however they certainly present a challenge for the average person or even the experienced exotic pet owner to house and interact with .
"Asian Small-Clawed Otter babies" by How I See The World Around Me is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
Where Can You Buy a Baby Otter?
Any kind of otter used to be rarely offered for sale. While there were occasional ads for otters popping up in the past, they again became nearly impossible to find, that is until recently. Now, as of 2020, baby otters are seen for sale throughout the year on exotic animal classifieds sites, Facebook groups and breeder websites, therefore it is important that prospective owners know what they could potentially be getting into. Be forewarned that due to their popularity, otters might be a popular animal for scammers to advertise for sale with no intention of sending you anything.
Otters as Pets
If you’ve seen an otter being kept as a pet, it was probably an Asian small-clawed otter (Aonyx cinereus). These exotic otters, unlike native river otters (Lontra canadensis), may be legal in more states and certainly the sea otter (Enhydra lutris), which is illegal to own or even touch under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Asian small-clawed otters are the smallest otter species, rarely weighing more than 5kg, or around 11 pounds . This species can adapt to living alongside humans better than other otters species , so perhaps they have the potential to become better “domesticated” as pets.
"Asian Small-Clawed Otter" by MyFWC Florida Fish and Wildlife is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
What are Otters?
Otters are actually related to ferrets. They are in the family Mustelidae, which also includes stoats, weasels, badgers, and minks. The Asian small-clawed otter is a social species that is often seen in large groups. They are found in the Philippines, Indonesia, Southeast Asia, parts of China, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and India . In the wild, they are mainly carnivorous and they consume crustaceans, mollusks, frogs, fish, and sometimes octopus .
It should be noted that nearly all the members of the Mustelidae family have a reputation for being “bitey”. Even domesticated ferrets, which are popular pets, can play a little rough as they explore their environment by mouthing and nipping. So what does this mean for otters? Pretty much what you would expect. While pictures and videos of tame otters grace the internet and enhance their appeal, it is imperative to understand that an otter may not behave that way 100% of the time and they will need an outlet for their incredible energy levels.
"Asian Small Clawed Otters At Zoo Atlanta" by girlzilla09 is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
Price of Pet Otters
If you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it, as they say. Captive bred otters are still uncommon as they are likely to always remain, and their cost generally exceeds $9000 per individual. They are a species that can no longer be imported to the U.S. Keep in mind that this is the price of the animal without the shipping or transport, the enclosure, meaty diet, and veterinary care from a qualified zoological veterinarian.
Important Facts about Caring for Otters
Enclosure: This will likely be the biggest hurdle when it comes to owning otters. Otters are semi-aquatic and it would probably be detrimental to the animal to keep one without frequent access to a pool to swim in. This pool would need to be warm (around 80-85 degrees) and filtered or changed often. Their environment should also have complexity such as dens, digging sites, plants, and other components (for outdoor enclosures). Someone who keeps otters indoors should be aware that they scent mark and may become stressed if the enclosure is cleaned entirely . Otters should have access to a nest box at all times .
The Otter Diet: Otters aren’t traditional pets and very little research has been carried out for their nutritional needs. Many diets have been used with otters, which are prone to a condition called renal calculi. In fact, most otters develop calculi by 5 years old . Around 70% of the diet should be non-fatty meat .
One sample diet utilized commercial canned and dry cat food that has been designed to control bladder stones (brands include Hills and IAMS), whole freshwater fish, crickets and mealworms, as well as supplemental vitamins including vitamin E and thiamin. Vegetables can be offered such as carrot, greens, squash, and green beans. Other occasional offerings can include hard boiled eggs, peanuts, mussels and clams . Their drinking water should be separate from their swimming area .
Destructive Tendencies: Otters are active and inquisitive. Objects that are not firmly attached in the otter’s environment will likely be dislodged and destroyed .
"Oriental Short-clawed Otters, London Zoo" by vic_burton is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
One Otter or Two? These extremely social animals may have compromised welfare when kept solitary. It is recommended to keep them in pairs or groups in zoos , but perhaps an owner that spends ample time with their pet can make up for this. Unfortunately, not all otters will be compatible . This, of course, will exacerbate the expense of owning them.
When and How to Feed Pet Otters: The diet should be formulated in concert with a zoo veterinarian. No one diet is “perfect”. The Asian small-clawed otter may also need to be fed 4-5x a day (some zoos feed up to 15x per day), with a twice a day minimum feeding schedule due to their energy level, quick digestion, feeding style, and nutritional needs. The otter will consume about 20% of its body weight each day and should have about 350 grams per day . Feeding bones may assist with dental health , but tooth fractures are a common problem .
"Asian small-clawed otter" by russellstreet is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Enrichment: All animals should have forms of enrichment, but complex enrichment is even more essential for active animals like otters. In the wild, Asian small-clawed otters spend 40-60% of their time actively searching for food , making them a challenge to keep busy. Otters should have a portion of their diet incorporated into their enrichment program to keep them mentally stimulated and to accommodate their method of feeding, of which they prefer to consume food a little at a time, frequently. This includes scatter-feeding, toys and objects where treats can be inserted, and feeding puzzles. Foods that are not part of the main diet can be enrichment, such as whole vegetables and fruit . Canine dental bones can also be used. Target and clicker training is enrichment that is also important for husbandry .
- Heap, C. J., L. Wright, and L. Andrews. "Summary of husbandry guidelines for Asian small-clawed otters in captivity." IUCN/SSC Otter Specialist Group: Otters in Captivity Taskforce (2008).
- Lombardi, D., and J. OCONNOR. "The Asian small clawed otter husbandry manual." Columbus Zoological Gardens, Colombia, USA (1998).
- McKay, K. "Basic of otter training." IUCN Otter Spec Group Bull (2009): 1-11.
- Maslanka, M.T. and S.D. Crissey (1998), Nutrition and Diet. In Asian Small-Clawed Otter Husbandry Manual. D. Lombardi and J. O'Connor, Eds. American Association of Zoos and Aquariums
- TAG, AZA Small Carnivore. "Otter (Lutrinae) care manual." Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Silver Spring, MD (2009).
- Walker, Ken. Asian Clawed Otter. Ken’s Exotics.