For almost any animal you can imagine, no matter how exotic, you can like find someone, somewhere, who is keeping one as a pet. Among the rarer of such exotic pets is the anteater, but even these creatures can serve as pets, provided you are willing to spend the money and have the patience and temperament to provide for their needs.
The Best Anteater Species for a Pet
There are four kinds of anteaters found in the wild, but the species that is most suitable for the adventurous souls willing to invite one into their homes is Tamandua tetradactyla, which goes by the common names of Southern anteater, the lesser anteater, or the collared anteater. This South American insect eater is 13 to 35 inches long, plus the tail, which can extend another 15 to 26 inches. The creature weight 3.3 to 18.5 pounds, with considerable variation depending on where the specimen originates.
The lesser anteater typically lives about seven years, but some people have reported pets that live into their upper teens.
Lesser Anteaters in the Wild
The lesser anteater is a unique animal that is closely related to sloths and armadillos. Native to several countries in South American, these solitary animals can be found in trees (yes, this anteater can climb!) and on forest floors. They are constantly searching for insects to eat, visiting many nests each day to get their fill of ants and termites.
Lesser anteaters spend much of their time climbing, aided by prehensile tails that help keep them from falling off branches. A very long tongue helps retrieve living insect prey from hard-to-reach-places, thanks to a covering of tiny hooks called filiform papillae. Anteater tongues can be up to 16 inches long, and if that isn't long enough, they can use their large claws to tear apart an insect nest.
Although their sight is poor, lesser anteaters have very well developed senses of smell and hearing. If threatened or attacked, they will back up against a tree or grab onto a branch with their tail and hind legs, stand on their hind legs (if they are on the ground), and use their claws on the attacker. Lesser anteaters do not need to see well in order to defend themselves.
Another line of defense is an extremely foul smell. A liquid material sprayed from anal glands is four times more potent than a skunk's scent. As if to make the point, the lesser anteater also hisses impressively when challenged.
Buying a Lesser Anteater
Like most exotic pets, the lesser anteater is best suited to an enthusiast with an ample budget. Ranging in cost between $3,500 and $8,000, a lesser anteater isn't for everyone. The price of one of these unique mammals deters most exotic pet enthusiasts, but for those that like the rare and unusual and aren't afraid to spend the money, a lesser anteater might be an option.
In the wild, lesser anteaters spend about half of their lives in trees, so they should be provided with climbing opportunities when kept in captivity. Sturdy, climbable tree branches can be offered both indoors and outdoors. Mounted limbs should be strong enough to hold the weight of your anteater and should have varying diameters to ensure the health of your anteater's feet (just as with a pet bird).
Anteaters have unusually low body temperatures for mammals, so they must be kept at or around room temperature at all times. Aim to keep your anteater in an environment that is 65 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Room temperature is ideal, but some up-and-down fluctuation is acceptable. If a lesser anteater is exposed to prolonged temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, it is at risk for heat stroke. Kept too cold (at temperatures below 65 degrees), and they can also become sick.
Outdoor enclosures must provide space for both climbing and exploring, as well as for protection. A hollowed-out tree stump or house should be provided for sleeping, equipped with heating elements if it gets too cold outside. If an anteater is allowed to roam indoors, make sure rooms are safe if the animals will be unsupervised.
Housebreaking an Anteater
Anteaters are difficult to potty train, so be prepared for skunky-smelling urine when housing them indoors. Some owners have success training their anteaters to use pee pads, but anteaters also like to mark their territories, especially bedding areas. Defecation usually occurs while they are in trees, so make sure climbing limbs do not overhang anything of importance. Pee pads placed throughout the house, in the anteater's enclosure, and under branches and limbs is the best way to attempt to keep the messes contained, but be prepared to do a lot of cleaning when accidents do occur.
Feeding a Pet Anteater
Like most exotic pets, proper diet is critical to the well-being of an anteater. The needs of lesser anteaters have been well researched by zoos and breeders, so plenty of information is available.
Anteaters have acidic stomachs, high protein requirements, no teeth, and they eat a lot of insects. Most owners allow their anteaters to eat any ants they find on walks outside and supplement with purchased ants. However, the bulk of the diet usually comes from commercial feed. Insectivore diets, leaf-eater diets, and cat foods are all used in different combinations, and they available in kibble form or powders that can be supplemented with ants, termites, fruits, honey, and even some raw meat. Most zoos feed a high-protein insectivore powder mixed with water with added insects, honey, and fruits. Remember to only offer soft foods to your anteater, since they don't have teeth with which to chew!
If you are able to provide live ants, be sure to make it an enrichment opportunity. Anteaters spend most of their time searching for food in the wild, which provides with not only nourishment but also mental stimulation. Make your pet anteater work for its food by putting ants on a small branch, or in a container with dirt or rocks that requires him to exercise some ingenuity. Old rotted logs and stumps that can be torn apart by your anteater are great (and usually free) options that provide both enrichment and food.
Common Health Problems
You may have a difficult time finding an exotics vet that is able and willing to care for your anteater, but it is vital that you find one. Anteaters are prone to respiratory diseases from drafts and chills, as well as foot problems such cracked paw pads and dry skin if the environment is not humid enough. Organ failure, which can be detected by doing annual blood screening, can also occur if you are feeding inappropriate diets or not providing enough protein (chitin) in your anteater's diet.
Lesser anteaters are not social creatures, so they may prefer to live alone without other anteaters or other pets. Most pet owners prefer to purchase a young, hand-raised baby anteater, which is easier to keep tame. Large claws and potent anal gland secretions are the two most dangerous parts of an anteater, but they can also hiss and mark their territory with urine.
Tame adult anteaters may damage furniture with their claws and are known urinate or defecate on things you can't wash. But since they have no teeth, anteaters cannot do serious harm. If your anteater feels threatened, it will most likely hiss, spray its anal glands, back up against something, and grab at the person, animal, or object with its sharp claws.
If you are seriously considering getting a lesser anteater as a pet, then make sure to consider both the pros and cons of keeping such an animal. Anteaters need special food that can be difficult to obtain; they have an unpleasant smell; they likely will urinate and defecate indiscriminately; they are expensive and need a lot of space to climb and roam.
This unique pet isn't for most people but for die-hard anteater lovers, the negatives are often overcome by the positives of owning one of the most unusual and interesting of all animals.