Anteater: Species Profile

Characteristics, Housing, Diet, and Other Information

Lesser anteater on a log outside
Getty Images/Picture By Tambako the Jaguar

No matter how exotic an animal is, it's likely you'll find someone somewhere who is keeping one as a pet. If you have the money, the patience, and the 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 that is closely related to the sloth and the armadillo can be trained to be tame when raised from birth, but this animal requires an advanced level of care.

Species Overview

Common Name: Anteater

Scientific Name: Tamandua tetradactyla

Adult Size: 13 to 35 inches long, with a 15- to 26-inch tail; 3 to 18 pounds

Life Expectancy: 7 years (may live into their teens)

Anteater Behavior and Temperament

Native to several countries in South America, lesser anteaters reside in trees and on forest floors. They visit many nests each day in search of insects including ants and termites. Lesser anteaters spend much of their time climbing, aided by prehensile tails, which help them move from branch to branch like a monkey. Although their sight is poor, anteaters have a well-developed sense of both smell and hearing.

If threatened or attacked, anteaters 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, away from other anteaters and pets. For this reason, most pet owners purchase young, hand-raised baby anteaters, whose parents have adapted to humans. However, tame adult anteaters are not a 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 time in trees, so when kept in captivity, they need ample climbing opportunity. Sturdy tree branches and mounted poles—offered both indoors and outdoors—must be strong enough to hold the weight of this animal. Provide them in varying diameters for the health of this animal's foot muscles (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 degrees Fahrenheit. While some up and down fluctuation is acceptable, an anteater exposed to prolonged temperatures above 90 F is at risk for heatstroke. If kept too cold (at temperatures below 65 degrees), your pet anteater can become sick.

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. If your anteater is invited indoors, secure your belongings, and always supervise the animal for its own safety.

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 need to eat a large volume of insects, almost 10,000 ants and termites every single day; such a volume would be difficult to obtain in captivity.

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 they must be fed only 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. Also, offer old, rotted logs and stumps for your anteater to tear apart in search of termites; rotten logs are usually plentiful and 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 locate one. Anteaters are prone to respiratory diseases, especially when their environment is drafty or cold. Lack of humidity may cause foot problems such as dangerously dry skin and cracked paw pads. Organ failure can also occur with inappropriate or insufficient diets which can be detected with an annual blood screening.

Purchasing Your Anteater

Ranging in cost between $3,500 and $8,000, a pet anteater is suitable only for those with a robust budget. Building an enclosure and providing long-term care will more than double your purchase amount. The price of this unique mammal and the fact that they aren't readily available deters most exotic pet enthusiasts. Remember that anteaters need very special requirements. So if a pet anteater sounds like a budget-breaker for you, why not adopt this endangered species instead? For a mere $25, you can help protect one of the world's most valuable species in the wild.

Housebreaking an Anteater

Anteaters are difficult to potty train, so be prepared for the constant scent of foul-smelling urine when 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. Although 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 will require immediate cleaning, but often to no avail. Because the smell is so pungent and made to last, cleaning products are insufficient for the task.

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