Capybara: Species Profile

Characteristics, Housing, Diet, and Other Information

Close up of capybaras in grass by water

FLAVIO CONCEIÇÃO FOTOS / Getty Images

Smart, sociable animals, capybaras are affectionately called giant guinea pigs, but they are not as simple to care for as their smaller cousins. Capybaras are the largest rodents in the world, weighing up to 170 pounds. They are relatively pleasant household pets that fare best in groups. Since they are so large, they require plenty of space and an accessible pool of water. They are not legal to own everywhere.

Species Overview

Common Name: Capybara

Scientific Name: Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris

Adult Size: 2 feet tall, weighing 170 pounds

Life Expectancy: 8 to 10 years in captivity

Capybara Behavior and Temperament

Hand-reared capybaras are typically quite tame, but if you are getting an adult capybara as a pet, you will have to be patient until it warms up to you. Capybaras are not prone to biting humans. However, if they feel threatened or provoked, they will use their giant teeth to defend themselves and may bite. In general, capybaras tend to be nervous and shy.

Grooming is a calming icebreaker among capybaras. Offer your new capybara some food and gently comb them; it can be a relaxing, bonding experience.

Capybaras must be kept in at least pairs. They do not fare well if kept alone. However, male capybaras should not exclusively live together (even if neutered). Territorial fights will break out if there are too many males in a small enclosure. Scent glands in males are located on the top of their snouts and are used to mark their territory. Females also have these glands, but they are not as visible. Both sexes also use their anal glands for marking. Capybaras are very vocal with each other.

In the wilds of Central and South America, they are found in large groups anywhere there is standing water since they have dry skin that needs constant hydration. Capybaras have webbed feet, making them excellent swimmers. They can hold their breath for about five minutes underwater.

Capybaras like areas with plenty of grasses, which they eat and use to hide from predators. Similar to pigs, these big rodents may cover themselves in mud to help regulate their body temperature and prevent sunburn since they have thin fur and don't have many sweat glands.

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Vocalizations

Just like guinea pigs, capybaras are highly social and communicate with each other using a variety of sounds. They use purrs, barks, grunts, whistles, squeals, coughs, and more. A capybara housed alone, unable to communicate with anyone, can become stressed out and depressed. You can imitate these sounds to reassure your capybara. But the best way to ensure your pet's happiness is to make sure they have at least one friend to talk to, groom, and swim with.

Housing the Capybara

Since capybaras should not be kept solitary, you will need to make sure you have plenty of space for your rodent family. You will need a large fenced-in area, roughly 12 feet by 20 feet per pair, as well as a safe enclosure indoors or covered at night. The outside fence should be at least 4 feet high. Make sure that there are no gaps that your pet can squeeze through. Provide a pen that will allow your capybaras to move around freely with a pool of water that allows for swimming and wading (over 3 feet deep). The pool and a shaded area should be accessible at all times.

Scatter items that are safe for your capybara to chew on, such as untreated wood or large dog toys that can be picked up or floated in the water.

Capybaras are diurnal; they need daily exposure to the ultraviolet rays of the sun. They can handle a vast gradient in temperatures from 45 degrees Fahrenheit up to 100; however, they require a warmer area to retreat to on cold days and a watering hole for cooling off when it is sweltering. If the seasonal temperatures get too cold where you live, and they must retreat indoors for the season, make sure you provide UVB lighting indoors for at least 12 hours per day. If their enclosure drops cooler than 45 degrees Fahrenheit, provide heat lamps to warm up the area. If you live in a subtropical or tropical zone, then they should be able to live outdoors most, if not all, the time.

Food and Water

Capybaras only eat about three to six plant species in the wild. The most common ingredient in a pet capybaras diet should be high-quality grass hay offered in piles or bales. Orchard hay and Timothy hay are both readily available from pet stores and large animal feed stores.

This hay will not only provide the necessary nutrients and roughage a large rodent needs but will also help keep a capybara's teeth at an appropriate length. Like other rodents, capybara teeth continuously grow throughout their lives. Hay, grass, wood, and other course objects help to file down their teeth. If their teeth do not file down, they will develop an overbite, which can lead to mouth disfigurement and pain while eating. If that happens, they will require the care of a specialized exotics veterinarian.

Also, capybaras should be fed guinea pig pellets with vitamin C in a feeding bowl every day. Like guinea pigs and humans, capybaras do not produce enough vitamin C naturally in their bodies. These pellets help prevent scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency. You can give vegetable treats, like carrots, apples, or yams, but only sparingly. Too much sugar—even natural sugar—is addicting. You do not want your capybaras to become selective eaters.

Spread hay around the enclosure; this will help recreate natural grazing. You can allow your capybaras to graze on your grass as long as you are 100 percent certain that there are no toxic weeds, fertilizers, or insecticides.

Monitor its droppings. Normal poop looks olive-shaped. If it gets too loose, your pets may be getting too much sugar or moisture. It may be a sign they need more hay and roughage and fewer treats.

capybaras as pets illustration
The Spruce / Kaley McKean

Common Health Problems

Aside from vitamin C deficiency, they are relatively hardy creatures. Like most rodents, capybaras are prone to respiratory infections and infestations with mites or lice in their fur. To prevent these issues, keep the pen clean. If your capybara appears listless or stops eating, it may have a digestive problem.

Is It Legal to Own a Capybara?

Depending on where you live, it may be illegal to own a capybara. Some vicinities may require a permit or health certificate. For some examples, capybaras are banned as pets in California and Georgia. However, they are legal to possess in Texas, Pennsylvania, and New York. Even if a state allows it, some cities may not. Capybaras are considered illegal pets in the five boroughs of New York City. Before you buy one, contact your local city government to find out if it is legal to own a capybara where you live.

Purchasing Your Capybara

Ideally, try to buy a capybara from a reputable breeder. The cost of these creatures runs about $1,000 to $3,000. Females are usually more expensive. Keep in mind, you have to buy at least two. First, make sure there is an exotics veterinarian in your area who has experience treating guinea pigs and large rodents like capybaras.

No matter what you do, never take in a wild capybara. You will not be able to domesticate it, and you will shorten the animal's life by causing it undue stress. Also, you will not know if it has been exposed to diseases.

When selecting a capybara, make sure it is alert and active. It may take time to warm up to people it does not know (even those bearing food). Its fur should be soft without any bald patches or redness, which may be signs of parasites or mites.

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