Capuchin Monkeys as Pets

Capuchin monkey
Mint Images - Norah Levine / Getty Images

In the wild, capuchin monkeys—native to Central and South America—spend time in groups of 10 to 30 adult males and females as well as young monkeys. They "tree-surf" together looking for food and engaging as a family. In captive, a young monkey's owner becomes its family. Yet as it grows, lack of stimulation and boredom can result in an incompatible pet unable to be cared for by its owner, often resulting in a rescue or death.

Capuchin monkeys used to be sold as service animals. But in 2010, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) discontinued primates as service animals because of their danger to both owners and the public. Additionally, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) released a statement discouraging the use of primates in service, making it difficult to find an exotic vet to treat pet capuchins.

Breed Overview

Common Name: Capuchin monkey

Scientific name: Cebinae

Adult Size: Up to 4 pounds

Life Expectancy: An average of 15 to 25 years or up to 45

Difficulty of Care: Advanced

Capuchin Monkey Behavior and Temperament

Capuchins—considered the smartest of the New World monkeys—are diurnal (active during the day), social, and territorial. They spend most of their day searching for food, urinating to mark their territory, and hanging out in trees.

Captive capuchin monkeys are charming as babies and need to be cared for much like a human baby. However, once they reach age 5, they are much harder to handle. A bored monkey may display aggression, biting its owner or someone else. It may also try to escape its enclosure, or act inappropriately—even throwing feces. In fact, aggressive behavior happens often with capuchins, and sometimes without prior tendencies.

Most capuchin monkey owners use diapers for their monkey's entire life and keep them on leashes in and outside of the house for both the monkey's and the public's safety. Capuchins are commonly dressed up, bottle fed, and treated as furry human babies.

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Are Capuchin Monkeys Good Pets?

Housing the Capuchin Monkey

In the wild, capuchins swing from tree to tree, something that most home enclosures don't permit. In fact, the lack of a natural habitat in a home setting raises much controversy regarding keeping these monkeys at all. Typically, there isn't nearly enough space or foliage in an average yard to allow the primate proper exercise.

That said, the bigger the enclosure the better. And if you do decide to house a capuchin, make sure it has plenty of trees to swing and jump from, a shaded area for shelter from the elements, and be sure it's monkey-proofed. Even healthy and happy monkeys are curious and a breakout is inevitable if given the time and an outlet.

Food and Water

In the wild, capuchins eat bugs, fruit, small birds, nuts, and flowers. So mimicking their natural diet in captivity can be difficult. Ample outdoor space allows them to forage, but formulated monkey chow provides the bulk of their nutritional needs through adulthood. Supplementing with baby food and fruit and vegetables (cut to size) keeps a monkey's diet interesting (especially when they have to work for such treats). But make sure not to feed them too much, as monkeys tend to waste food given in surplus.

Capuchins also thrive with the occasional cooked meat treat (about 1 teaspoon), but never give them table food, dairy products, or sweets, as this is not part of their natural diet and can lead to health problems.

Common Health Problems

Capuchins, like other primates, can transmit certain diseases to humans, the most notable being hepatitis and rabies. Monkeys are also natural hosts of herpes B (or monkey B) virus, which can cause fatal encephalomyelitis in people. And monkeys commonly develop latent, lifelong infections that can be transmitted to people via scratches and bites.

Capuchins can become infected with common human ailments, as well, due to the fact that their immune systems are not as robust as ours. Many pet capuchins develop diabetes due to improper nutrition, even despite owners "knowing better." Your pet monkey should have regular blood screenings to closely monitor glucose and cholesterol levels, just like in humans.

illustration of capuchin monkeys as pets
Illustration: Nusha Ashjaee. © The Spruce, 2018

Is It Legal to Own a Pet Capuchin Monkey?

Many people nationwide own and breed capuchin monkeys, both legally and illegally. And all states vary in their laws for keeping primates as pets. Some ban them altogether, some regulate against importing them across state lines, and a small few allow primate ownership with a permit only. So, if you have your mind set on keeping a capuchin, thoroughly research both your state's laws and the legitimacy of your purchasing source before moving forward.

Purchasing Your Capuchin Monkey

You will need to find a reputable breeder to purchase your capuchin monkey from, but even this can be a dilemma. Capuchin breeders take the babies from their mothers at an extremely young age in order to form a tight bond between the monkey its human owner. This can cause permanent emotional and psychological damage to both the mother and the baby monkey since, in the wild, capuchins stay with their mother for the first several years of their life.

In captive, capuchin babies form a tight bond with their human mother or father, need to be bottle fed for some time (if not forever), and are trained to be a part of the family. Special monkey trainers can be hired to aid in the training of capuchin monkeys, although certain trainers use questionable training methods. Some trainers recommend removing all four canine teeth from the monkey to prevent serious bite injuries down the road. This is, of course, yet another debatable issue and few veterinarians will perform the procedure.

If you are considering the purchase of a capuchin monkey as either a pet or a service animal, you need to carefully ponder the responsibility. Upward of 40 years of care (food and diapers) and the fact that your pet can grow into an unpredictable creature trumps the cuteness of their fuzzy, baby-like faces.

Instead, why not sponsor a rescued capuchin or another primate? Jungle Friends offers sponsorship services for monkeys released from research labs. A year-long donation provides food, housing, and enrichment opportunities for the monkey of your choice, granting you a certificate of sponsorship, a photo, and access to a video link of the monkeys in their natural sanctuary.

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