Can You Have an Otter as a Pet?

By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. September 19, 2018
Can You Have an Otter as a Pet?

The otter is one of the cutest creatures we 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 it enchanting. Don't even get us started on baby otter pups. With such adorability, you could see why people might want to have an otter as a pet. Why then do we not see many running around 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.

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 are of the same family as weasels, mink and badgers, but are of the subfamily Lutrinae. Thanks to hunting, habit destruction and many other human interaction factors, 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 Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981[2].

What amount of protection and even the type of otters present in an area is variable. Not all countries will have as strict protection laws and many otter populations have already been seriously restricted. 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.
  • Sea otter (Enhydra lutris): otters live in rivers, lakes, marshes, lagoons or any places with clear water, but the sea water 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 floor near coastlines.
  • 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 the two. They are particularly known for their sense of play.
  • Giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis): the giant otter is the longest of the species, but due to the sea otter's weight and abundant fur, it is not necessarily the biggest. They are attacked by other animals, but do not have any direct natural predators. Humans, unfortunately, have preyed on them to near extinction in some parts.
  • Asian small-clawed otter (Aonyx cinera): so-called due to their partially webbed paws which have amazing dexterity, more than any other otter species. The smallest of all otters, they are also one which has been sometimes kept in a domestic situation. Let us explain below.

The North American river otter is the only river otter found north of Mexico[3]. It is also illegal in all states to keep this indigenous otter as a pet in the US. Exotic animals have many guidelines regarding their ability to be maintained in captivity, but they do depend on the state. For almost all otter species in America, it is illegal to keep them as pets with one exception. In some states, it is not illegal to keep an Asian small-clawed otter as a pet. There are many 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[4]. There is little similar evidence to suggest otters want to do the same.

You can see videos on YouTube of otters playing in people's homes, but often these videos lack context. You can't always see that they are likely there as a stop gap in a larger conservation effort. Otters should not live in a domestic household. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has previously released a general, but not exhaustive, guideline to keeping otters in captivity[5]. 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 or research purposes, usually at the behest of a larger authority, often governmental. Because “they are cute” is not usually a valid reason for maintaining captive otters, even if it is an enjoyable bonus.

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. The recommended space for a pair of otters is 60 m². They don't even provide a size for a single otter as otters are social animals which need at least one other otter for company. However, even a pair of otters is not ideal and you will need another 5 m² per additional otter.

Space alone is not enough to mimic the otter's natural ecosystem. Asian small-clawed otters will need a mixture of land and water in their enclosure, both of which need to be well-cared for. As the otters like to make a burrow in the land, you will need to have the right sort of terrain. They need have enough elements such as trees and branches to scavenge. As wild animals, they will not want to be kept in a small enclosure and their dexterous claws mean they will try to climb or dig out of enclosures. This requires a fence which is not climbable and has a horizontal ledge at the top. Otters can also dig, so they will need to have deep bottoms underground. For enrichment, they will need to have walkways up high, natural shrubbery, nesting boxes and lots of options for safe digging and foraging.

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 at least 350 g of food per day for each animal.

Not only do you need the right resources to take care of a captive otter, but the area in which you live needs one. Veterinarians are well trained in looking after a variety of animals, but not many will 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 an appropriate enclosure.

Expenses such as those mentioned above are not the only detrimental factors in keeping an otter as a pet. Their smell may seem minor, but it is certainly a consideration. Due to a high fish diet, their 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 domesticated animals. While they may have a better chance of human coexistence if socialized at a young age, it is not easy to predict their actions. If they do attack, they have sharp teeth which can be very dangerous, especially around children. Parasites and general hygiene issues created by otters are also significant factors in why you shouldn't keep an otter as a pet.

Can You Have an Otter as a Pet? - 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 an otter is legal or illegal. Not only does it depend on the country, the legality of keeping an otter as a pet will depend on the region and jurisdiction within a given country. A local authority's regulations will need to be assessed before it could even be considered.

However, there are few countries which would recommend the practice. In Japan, pet fads appear with a certain amount of 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 this environment.

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 rise in other countries if the wrong information is spread.

As stated in the introduction, otters are mustelids. Other animals in the family Mustelidae include the ferret. Although the ferret needs their own considerations when adopted into a family, they are more suited to the role 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.


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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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