Armadillos as Pets

Armadillos are fascinating but tough to care for in captivity

Armadillo
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When you think of an armadillo you probably don't think about a pet, but they have a following all their own. A few different kinds of armadillos are kept as pets around the United States and each has its own unique characteristics.

The most commonly seen type of pet armadillo is the three-banded armadillo, which includes both Brazilian and southern types. The southern variety of this armadillo was once thought to be extinct due to habitat destruction and the pet trade.

The screaming hairy armadillo is also 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 other type of armadillo that you might happen upon as a pet is the big hairy armadillo, which is larger than the three-banded and screaming hairy varieties.

Breed Overview

Common Name: Armadillo

Scientific Name: Dasypodidae

Adult Size: The armadillo's body is 20 to 42 inches long, and they can reach up to 14 pounds, depending on the breed.

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

Difficulty of Care: Advanced. These animals are challenging to care for in captivity as they need a lot of space and are active at night.

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Armadillo Behavior and Temperament

Armadillos are not domesticated pets like cuddly ferrets or puppies; they are wild animals that can be challenging to care for. They are often active at night, need a lot of room to roam, deep soil to burrow in, and insects to forage. Even a tame armadillo raised in captivity from birth can do some damage to you (or your flooring) with its sharp claws.

Housing the Armadillo

There are many types of armadillos; some are just a few inches long while others can grow to be about the size of a medium-sized dog (20 to 42 inches long). Unlike dogs, however, armadillos can't be comfortably cared for inside a house: They are nocturnal (night) animals that like to burrow in the ground, and they have a strong musky smell.

An armadillo really must be kept in a large outdoor enclosure with both sun and shade as well as soft ground for burrowing. A small wading pool is a nice addition as well. This arrangement can work in warm environments; if you live in a colder climate, you will have to bring your pet indoors for the winter.

It's important to know that armadillos are generally solitary creatures; keeping multiple armadillos together can lead to clashes. Armadillos only socialize to mate and to raise their young.

Food and Water

Armadillos eat insects and small invertebrates, much like their cousins the sloths and anteaters. If given the chance, armadillos also eat fruit, eggs, and small animals. Like any mammal, armadillos do need constant access to fresh water. If you keep an armadillo in an appropriate enclosure it will be able to find much of its own food. Check with your exotic pet vet for specific foods to provide your armadillo.

Common Health Problems

Armadillos need space to forage and can become destructive in the home. They are also known to carry the bacteria that causes leprosy in humans, though such transmission is rare.

Purchasing Your Armadillo

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

If you do decide that you want an armadillo as a pet be sure to 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 you're prepared to make your home fit for a burrowing, insect-eating, eight-acre roaming, nocturnal armadillo, be sure to follow all the local rules for keeping exotic pets.

Veterinary care is hard to find for these unique animals and if you live in a climate that experiences winter you'll have to get creative in providing enough room for your pet to roam when they can't go outside. Armadillos are prone to frostbite due to their slow metabolism and it may be hard to notice on an animal that prides itself on keeping its soft tissue hidden.

Breeds of Armadillo

Originally from South America, the three-banded armadillo is the only species of armadillo that can roll into the classic ball that you picture when you think about an armadillo at all. Other species do not have this ability but they all share the armored plates. These plates are made of keratin, the same material that our fingernails are made of, and they protect the small mammals from predators by covering their bellies when they roll up. ​

Southern three-banded armadillos have a long, sticky tongue to help them catch their favorite food—insects. In captivity, they are also fed fruits and vegetables and encouraged to forage as they do in the wild. Armadillos have a slow metabolism so some people get worried that their pets aren't eating enough but they most likely have a normal appetite. They also don't have many teeth so if they are eating something other than worms and insects it must be soft.

These armadillos grow to be about 3 pounds in weight making them quite the small pet, and they are often found in zoos. They walk on their hind legs, using only their front nails to aid them in balancing.

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 weigh less than 2 1/2 pounds when they are full grown, and like other armadillos, they enjoy a meal of insects and worms but also prey on lizards, frogs, and a type of plant that is in the pea family. They are nocturnal and like to burrow in multiple places.

Big hairy armadillos can live over 30 years in captivity if properly cared for. They can grow to be about twice the size as southern three-banded and screaming hairy armadillos and are in the same genus of hairy armadillos as their screaming cousins, so they have the coarse hairs to prove it.

Native to Argentina and surrounding countries, the big hairy armadillo is thought to be a pest in the wild, where it lives in grasslands, savannas, and even forests. They are burrowers and while they cannot roll into a complete ball like the three-banded variety, they can help to evade predators by pulling their legs under their armor to sit flush on the ground.

Big hairy armadillos use strong front claws to dig up insects and burrow to make their homes—some of which have multiple tunnels. They are pretty versatile armadillos, which is probably why they've done so well surviving in our ever-changing world. They have been found living anywhere from sea level up to 4,000 feet above sea level, and they are primarily nocturnal like other armadillos.

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