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Can You Have an Otter as a Pet?

By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. Updated: November 28, 2019
Can You Have an Otter as a Pet?

The otter is one of the cutest creatures you can imagine. You may not think it, just to look at them, although even when stock-still they are adorable. However, if you have ever seen one having a snooze while going down river, opening up lunch on their bellies or rollicking in the water with their friends, only the meanest of the mean wouldn't find them enchanting. Don't even get us started on baby otter pups. They are so delightful, you could see why people might want to have an otter as a pet. So why don't you see more otters playing in the park on a Sunday afternoon?

AnimalWised takes a look at the different aspects of domestic otters. Not only will we let you know if you can have an otter as a pet, we'll look into the different reasons why this might not be the best idea for both legal and practical reasons.

You may also be interested in: Can You Have an Armadillo as a Pet?

Where and how do otters live?

There are only 13 extant species of otter across the world[1]. They are mustelids which means they belong to the same family as weasels, minks and badgers, but form a part of the subfamily Lutrinae. Thanks to hunting, habit destruction and many other human activities, almost all species of otter are either endangered or at least threatened. Fortunately, many governments and jurisdictions have created contingencies to try to protect these animals. In the UK, otters are fully protected under Sections 9 and 11 of Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981[2].

The level of protection and types of otters present vary across different parts of the world. Not all countries have strict protection laws and many otter populations are already in decline. Some of the different types of otter species include:

  • European otter (Lutra lutra): used to inhabit all of Europe, from the Northern Arctic regions down to North Africa and even extending into parts of Asia. From the middle of the 20th century, many populations severely decreased due to human interference. Populations are still falling today.
  • Sea otter (Enhydra lutris): other otters can live in rivers, lakes, marshes, lagoons or any places with fresh water, but the sea otter is the only one which lives in the sea. They are the heaviest of otters, with thick fur to protect against cold seas. Although they can walk on land, they don't have to, mainly scavenging and hunting on the sea floors off the coasts of North America. They are an endangered species.
  • North American river otter (Lontra canadensis): often known as the common otter, these animals create dens close to the edge of the water and spend their time between water and land. They are particularly known for their playfulness.
  • Giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis): the giant otter is the longest of the species, the sea otter's weight and abundant fur, make it bigger overall. Giant otters can be attacked by other animals, but do not have any direct natural predators. Humans, unfortunately, have hunted them to near extinction in some parts.
  • Asian small-clawed otter (Aonyx cinera): so-called due to their partially webbed paws which give them amazing dexterity, more than any other otter species. The smallest of all otters, they are also the one species which has been sometimes kept in domestic situations as a pet. We will explain explain below.

The North American river otter is the only river otter found in north of Mexico. It is illegal in all US States to keep this indigenous otter as a pets. Exotic animals have many guidelines regarding their maintenance in captivity, but possession laws do change deepening on the State. It is illegal to keep almost all otters as pets in North America, with one exception. In some states, it is not illegal to keep an Asian small-clawed otter as a pet. There are several strict guidelines concerning their care and upkeep, but, in theory, you can keep an Asian small-clawed otter as a pet in some states of the USA. The following is a list of reasons why you shouldn't.

Why you shouldn't keep an otter as a pet

The otter is not a domesticated animal species. There are many otters kept in captivity, but these are in animal welfare centers, zoos or conservation areas. Some might make an argument that an animal like the cat was not originally domesticated, but now fares well under human co-existence. However, there is also DNA evidence to suggest that cats were susceptible to the process of domestication and may have even domesticated themselves[3]. There is little similar evidence to suggest otters want to do the same. So, here are some of the reasons you should not keep an otter as a pet:

Otters are wild animals

Above all, otters are wild animals that are happiest in their natural habitats and are not meant to be kept in our homes. You may have seen videos on YouTube of otters playing in people's homes, but often these videos lack context. You may not realize that the otter is likely there only as a stop gap in a larger conservation effort. Otters should not live in a domestic household, and a demand for pet otters helps drives illegal animal trade and decimate wild populations.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has previously released a general, but not exhaustive, guideline to keeping otters in captivity[4]. However, keeping otters in captivity is not the same as keeping an otter as a pet. Conservationists may need to keep an otter in captivity for protection, post-rescue or for research purposes. This is usually at the behest of a larger authority, often governmental. “Because they are cute” is not a valid reason for keeping captive otters, even if it is an enjoyable bonus.

They need lots of space

Keeping an otter in a home is a surefire way to destroy anything valuable you own. Otters need plenty of environmental enrichment. If you don't provide sufficient environmental enrichment, they will likely find it for themselves, probably among your things. The recommended space for a pair of otters is 60 m², roughly the size of an average apartment. The IUCN guidelines don't even provide a the space for a single otter as otters are social animals that need at least one other otter for company. Even a pair of otters is not ideal and you will need another 5 m² per additional otter.

You can't provide the right habitat

Space alone is not enough to mimic the otter's natural ecosystem. Asian small-clawed otters - the only otter sometimes allowed as pets - need a mixture of land and water in their enclosure. Both these habitats need to be well-tended. As the otters like to make a burrow in the land, you will need to have the right sort of soil ans terrain. They also need have enough elements such as trees and branches to scavenge.

As wild animals, otters will not want to be kept in a small enclosure and their dexterous claws mean they will try to climb or dig their way out. This requires a fence which is not climbable and has a horizontal ledge at the top. Otters can also dig, so the enclosure will need to have deep walls underground. For enrichment, otters will need walkways, natural shrubbery, nesting boxes and lots of options for safe digging and foraging.

They have very specific requirements

The water not only needs to be the right temperature (your local climate may not be able to maintain this correct temperature), but it needs to be free of disease promoting bacteria. If the water is not sufficiently well cleaned, it can lead to the quick death of the otter. The food they eat will also need to be considered with an appropriate diet and at least 350 g of food per day for each animal.

It is extremely expensive

Not only do you need the right enclosure and dietary resources to take care of a pet otter, but you need to have access to specialists in your neighborhood. Veterinarians are well trained in looking after a variety of animals, but most will not have the specific training required to look after the health and well-being of an otter. If you were able to find one, the cost of their expertise would be prohibitively expensive to most households. This does not even take into consideration the amount of capital needed to install the appropriate enclosure and keep the otters well fed.

It can be dangerous

Expenses such as those mentioned above are not the only detrimental factors in keeping an otter as a pet. Smell may seem a minor consideration, but should not be overlooked. Due to their high fish diet, an otter's excrement is particularly foul. However, they also mark territory with scent glands at the base of their tail. Aggression in otters is also something important to consider.

As we have stated, they are not domestic animals. While they may have a better chance of coexistence with humans if socialized at a young age, it is not easy to predict their actions. If an otter does attack, they have sharp teeth which can be very dangerous, especially to children. Parasites and general hygiene issues created by otters are also significant factors in why you shouldn't keep an otter as a pet.

Is it illegal to have an otter as a pet in every country?

Unfortunately, we would not be able to list every country where keeping otter as a pet is legal or illegal. Not only does this depend on the country, the legality of keeping an otter as a pet will also depend on regions and jurisdiction within a given country. The local authority's regulations will need to be assessed before it could even be considered.

However, there are few countries which appear to favor having otters as pets. In Japan, pet fads appear with a certain regularity. While they were not the first country to open a pet café (this was Taiwan's honor), the idea gained significant popularity there. This has spread to the opening of various hedgehog and even owl cafés. These have brought significant problems and it is very questionable if exotic animals will fare well in such environments.

Another relatively popular pet fad in Japan is the practice of keeping otters as pets. Unfortunately, this fad has lead to the illegal smuggling of otters into Japan[6]. Such illegal trafficking is detrimental to wild populations of animals worldwide. It is also something which could see a rise in other countries if the wrong information is spread.

As stated in the introduction, otters are mustelids. Other animals in the Mustelidae family include the ferret. Although the ferret needs their own considerations when adopted into a family, they are more suited to the role of domestic pet and are a good recommendation for those who previously considered having an otter as a pet.

If you want to read similar articles to Can You Have an Otter as a Pet?, we recommend you visit our What you need to know category.

References
  1. Ray, E. (2016). Best practice guidelines for European otter. (5th ed). European Association of Zoos and Aquaria.
    https://www.eaza.net/assets/Uploads/CCC/2016-European-otter-EAZA-Best-Practice-Guidelines-Approved.pdf
  2. Gov UK. (2019). How otters are protected. Retrieved from
    https://www.gov.uk/guidance/otters-protection-surveys-and-licences#how-otters-are-protected
  3. Smith, C. (2017). Cats Domesticated Themselves, Ancient DNA Shows. Retrieved from
    https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/06/domesticated-cats-dna-genetics-pets-science/
  4. Heap, C. J., Wright, L., and Andrews, L. (2008). Summary of Husbandry Guidelines for Asian Small-clawed Otters in Captivity. IUCN/SSC Otter Specialist Group.
    http://www.otterspecialistgroup.org/Library/TaskForces/OCT/OCT_ASO_Husbandry_Guidelines_Summary.pdf
  5. Japan Times. (2018). More otters smuggled for sale in Japan as demand as pets grows. Retrieved from
    https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2018/07/17/national/otters-smuggled-sale-japan-demand-pets-grows/#.XeDfjZNKiUl
Bibliography

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Christopher
I guess if someone owns a exotic pet then they’d really need to keep it in a space like they’re natural environment and take really good care of it, not just like it’s a dog or cat.
Administrador AnimalWised
This is the way for all animals, but the fundamental problem is that wild animals are better off wild, no matter how well we think we can look after them. The only reason is if they cannot survive in the wild and need to be protected.
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Charlotte
I couldn't agree more. Otters are so adorable, I can understand why we would want to have them as a pet, but it's not right. They deserve to be out in the world in environments which we do't interfere with.
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