No matter how exotic an animal is—for instance, a pet anteater—it's likely you'll find someone somewhere who is keeping one as a pet. And if you are willing to spend the money and have the patience and temperament to provide for their needs, an anteater might be the choice for you. There are four kinds of anteaters found in the wild, but the species most suitable for adventurous keepers is the Southern anteater (commonly called the lesser anteater). This unique and solitary animal—closely related to the sloth and armadillo—can be trained to be tame when raised from birth.
- Scientific name: Tamandua tetradactyla
- Lifespan: Seven years (though some have lived to be teenagers)
- Size: 13 to 35 inches long, with a 15- to 26-inch tail; 3 to 18 pounds
- Care difficulty: Advanced
Behavior and Temperament
Native to several countries in South American, lesser anteaters reside in trees and on forest floors. They visit many nests each day in search of insects to eat, like ants and termites. Lesser anteaters spend much of their time climbing, aided by prehensile tails that help them move from branch to branch like a monkey. And although their sight is poor, anteaters have a well-developed sense of both smell and hearing.
If threatened or attacked, the anteater will back up against a tree or grab onto a branch with their tail and defend themselves with their claws. Anteaters also have another line of defense: a liquid that is four times more potent than a skunk's scent. When this substance is sprayed from the animal's anal glands, it stops predators in their tracks. Anteaters also mark their territory with spray, making them horrid housemates.
Lesser anteaters are not social; they prefer to live alone without other anteaters or pets. For this reason, most pet owners purchase young, hand-raised baby anteaters, adapted to humans. However, tame adult anteaters are not walk in the park either, as they can damage furniture with their claws and urinate and defecate on your belongings.
Housing the Anteater
In the wild, lesser anteaters spend half of their life in trees, so they need ample climbing opportunity when kept in captivity. Sturdy tree branches and mounted poles—offered both indoors and outdoors—should be strong enough to hold the weight of this animal and offered in varying diameters for the health of the muscles in its feet (similar to birds).
Anteaters have unusually low body temperatures for mammals, so their environment must hover around room temperature at all times. Aim to keep your anteater enclosure at an ambient temperature of 65 to 85 F. And while some up and down fluctuation is acceptable, an anteater exposed to prolonged temperatures above 90 F is at risk for heat stroke. If kept too cold (at temperatures below 65 F), your pet can become sick, as well.
Outdoor enclosures must provide space for both climbing and exploring, as well as for protection. A hollowed-out tree stump or house, equipped with a heating element for cold nights, makes a safe haven for sleeping. And if your anteater is allowed indoors, secure your belongings and always supervise the animal.
Food and Water
Like most exotic pets, proper diet is critical to the well-being of an anteater. Anteaters have acidic stomachs, high protein requirements, and no teeth. Plus, they eat a lot of insects. Most zoos offer these mammals a high-protein insectivore powder mixed with water, insects, honey, and fruit. However, the bulk of a captive anteater's diet usually comes from a commercial feed (leaf-eater diet or cat food) used in different combinations of kibble or powder. You can even add in raw meat for a protein boost. But remember—anteaters don't have teeth, so only offer soft foods.
Allow your anteater to eat the ants it finds outside, and then supplement with purchased ants as part of an enrichment opportunity. Place the ants on a small branch or in a container with dirt or rocks to promote exercise and ingenuity. And offer old, rotted logs and stumps for your anteater to tear apart searching for food (they're usually free).
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's vital that you find one. Anteaters are prone to respiratory diseases, especially when their environment is drafty or cold. Lack of humidity may cause foot problems, as well, such as cracked paw pads and dry skin. Organ failure—which can be detected with an annual blood screening—can also occur with inappropriate or insufficient diets.
Purchasing Your Anteater
Ranging in cost between 3,500 and 8,000 dollars, a pet anteater is suitable only for those with a robust budget. And building an enclosure and long-term care can almost double your purchase amount. Really, the price of this unique mammal and the fact that they aren't readily available deters most exotic pet enthusiasts. So if this sounds like a budget breaker for you, why not adopt this endangered species instead? For a mere 25 dollars, you can help protect one of the world's most valuable species.
Housebreaking an Anteater
Anteaters are difficult to potty train, so be prepared for the constant scent of foul-smelling urine if you're housing one indoors. Some owners claim success training their anteaters to use pee pads. However, anteaters like to mark their territory—especially their bedding areas—making training a moot point. Defecation usually occurs while they are climbing trees, so make sure tree limbs don't overhang anything of importance. And pee pads placed throughout the house—in the anteater's enclosure and under branches—is the best way to keep the messes contained. Accidents will occur and require immediate cleaning, sometimes to no avail.
Similar Pets to the Anteater
If you are seriously considering a lesser anteater as a pet, weigh both the pros and cons of keeping one before you buy it. Anteaters need special food that can be difficult to obtain and they have a very unpleasant smell. A sloth (if you can find one for purchase) might be a more suitable family pet option. Or consider an armadillo—with its unique appearance and peculiar behavior—if your state allows you to keep one.