Armadillo: Species Profile

Characteristics, Housing, Diet, and Other Information

Armadillo sitting in the grass.
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Of the 20 species of armadillo in the wild, only a few are kept as pets in the United States, and each has its own unique characteristics. Armadillos are not domesticated pets like cuddly ferrets or puppies; they are wild animals that can be challenging to care for in captivity as they need space to roam and dig and are active at night.

The most commonly seen type of pet armadillo is the three-banded armadillo, which includes both the Brazilian and southern types. The southern species of this armadillo was once thought to be extinct due to habitat destruction and due to wild-capture for the pet trade. Native to South America, it is the only species of armadillo that can roll into the classic ball that you picture when you think about the animal. Other species do not have this ability but they all share the armored plates. These plates are made of keratin, the same material that your fingernails are made of; it protects these small mammals from predators by covering their bellies when they curl themselves. 

The screaming hairy armadillo is the name for another armadillo kept as a pet, but it is less popular than the three-banded variety. Its name comes from the noise this armadillo makes when handled or threatened, and it also goes by several names, including the screaming armadillo, the dwarf screaming armadillo (due to its small size), the crying armadillo, and the small hairy armadillo. The last type of armadillo that you might happen upon as a pet is the big hairy armadillo, which is the largest of the three pet species.

Species Overview

Common Name: Armadillo, three-banded armadillo, Southern three-banded armadillo

Scientific Name: Tolypeutes

Adult Size: 20 to 42 inches long; pet species weigh up to 4.5 pounds; wild species weigh 14–70 pounds.

Life Expectancy: Up to 30 years in captivity, depending on the species

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Armadillo Behavior and Temperament

Armadillos are generally solitary creatures; they only socialize to mate and to raise their young. Therefore, keeping multiple armadillos together can lead to clashes. They are often active at night and need room to roam; in the wild, armadillos cover eight acres of roaming in their territory. They require deep soil to burrow in, along with insects to forage. Even a tame armadillo raised in captivity from birth can do some damage to you or your flooring material with its sharp claws as it tries to dig for bugs. They can walk on their hind legs, using only their front claws to aid them in balancing.

Housing the Armadillo

Pet armadillos can grow to be about the size of a medium-sized dog. Unlike dogs, however, armadillos cannot be comfortably cared for inside a house; note also that they have a strong, musky odor.

In warm climates, an armadillo must be kept in a large outdoor enclosure that provides both sun and shade as well as soft ground in which to burrow. A small wading pool is a welcome addition as well.

If you live in a cold climate, however, you would have to bring your pet indoors for the winter. However, since armadillos need space to forage and will usually become destructive inside the home, winter home living with this warm-climate species is an impossibility.

Food and Water

Much like their cousins the sloths and anteaters, armadillos eat insects and small invertebrates like earthworms. If given the chance, armadillos will also eat fruit, eggs, and small animals. If you keep an armadillo in an appropriate enclosure, it will use its strong front digging claws to find much of its own food. Check with your exotic animal veterinarian for specific foods to provide your armadillo. Like any pet, armadillos also need constant access to fresh, clean, and clear, non-chlorinated water.

Three-banded armadillos have a long, sticky tongue to help them catch their favorite food—insects. Armadillos have a slow metabolism so some people worry that their pets aren't eating enough; most likely the animal has a normal appetite. They also don't have many teeth, so if they are eating something other than worms and insects, it must be made soft.

Common Health Problems

Armadillos are one of the few animals known to carry the bacteria that causes leprosy in humans, though cases of bacterial transmission are rare. Little is known about other diseases that are a threat to armadillos, however, they can also transmit rabies.

Veterinary care is hard to find for these unique animals. Note that armadillos are prone to frostbite due to their slow metabolism. It may be hard even for a veterinarian to spot signs of frostbite on an animal whose outer layering is structured to keep most of its soft tissue hidden.

Purchasing Your Armadillo

You will not want to adopt a wild or adult armadillo, as it will be very difficult to care for and train. Expect to pay $2,000 to $3,000 for a bred and hand-tamed, baby armadillo.

Is It Legal to Own a Pet Armadillo?

If you do decide that you want an armadillo as a pet, check your local laws first. Armadillos are wild animals, and their status varies from state to state. If your state allows you to own one, and if you're prepared to make your home fit for a burrowing, insect-eating, eight-acre roaming, nocturnal armadillo, be sure to follow all of the local rules for keeping exotic pets.

Other Species of Pet Armadillo

Another small type of armadillo, the screaming hairy armadillo, is exactly as its name implies. It has an abundance of hair that grows from its keratin plates and makes a squealing or screaming noise when it feels threatened. These characteristics alone make this one unique pet.

Screaming hairy armadillos come from the deserts of Argentina. They will actually burrow in the sand under an animal carcass and feast on the insects that will breed in it. They also prey on lizards, frogs, and a type of desert pea plant. Like many desert dwellers, they prefer to have multiple burrows.

Another species is known as the big hairy armadillos, and these can live more than 30 years in captivity if properly cared for. They can grow to be about twice the size of the southern three-banded and screaming hairy armadillos; they are in the same genus of hairy armadillos as their screaming cousins.

Native to Argentina and surrounding countries, the big hairy armadillo is known to live in grasslands, savannas, and even forests. They are burrowers, and while they cannot roll into a tight ball like the three-banded species, they do evade predators by pulling their legs under their armor to hide in plain sight. This very adaptable species has been found living both at sea level and up to 4,000 feet above sea level.

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