Capybaras are affectionately called giant rodents and giant guinea pigs but they are not as simple to care for as their smaller cousins. Capybaras can be found in households as pets, usually in groups, but are not legal to own everywhere.
They are smart, sociable animals who are relatively pleasant pets, but do have some specific needs.
Common Name: Capybara
Scientific Name: Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris
Adult Size: The capybara's body is about 2 feet tall. Its weight can reach 170 pounds.
Life Expectancy: 8 to 10 years in captivity
Difficulty of Care: Intermediate. Capybaras are highly social animals and must be kept in pairs. Since they are so large, you need plenty of space and an accessible pool of water.
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Behavior and Temperament
The capybara is native to Panama and Brazil, as well as other areas in Central and South America. In the wild, they are found in large groups anywhere there is standing water since they have dry skin that needs constant hydration. Capybaras like areas with plenty of grasses, which they eat and use to hide from predators.
Capybaras are excellent swimmers, with webbed feet. They can hold their breath for about five minutes underwater and are highly intelligent. Capybaras need to be kept in pairs; they are highly social animals who fare poorly if housed alone.
Male capybaras may become problematic if they are housed together (even if they are neutered). Fights may break out if you have multiple males attempting to live together and your enclosure is too small. Scent glands in males are visible and located on the top of their snouts that are used to mark their territory. The females also have these glands but they are not as developed. Both sexes also use their anal glands for marking.
Capybaras may cover themselves in mud to help regulate their body temperature since they don't have many sweat glands, and to protect themselves from getting sunburned.
Hand reared capybaras are typically quite tame but if you are getting an adult capybara as a pet you will have to be patient and move slowly until it warms up to you. Capybaras can be nervous and shy and are very vocal with each other. Grooming each other lessens tensions, so by offering your new capybara some food and by combing them, you can help relax your pet.
Since capybaras should not be kept individually you will need to make sure you have plenty of space for your rodent family. A pool of water that allows for swimming and wading (over 3 feet deep) should be accessible at all times in addition to a shaded area (capybaras are prone to sunburn due to their thin fur), piles of hay, and a bowl full of fresh guinea pig pellets.
An enclosure that will allow your capybaras to move around and exercise out of the water is also important in addition to a swimming pool. Spreading out hay around the enclosure will help recreate natural grazing.
Items that are safe for your capybara to chew on should also be provided, such as untreated wood, and large dog toys that can be picked up and floated.
A large fenced-in area, roughly 12 feet by 20 feet per pair, should be provided for your capybaras in addition to a safe enclosure indoors or covered at night. Make sure the outside fence is at least 4 feet high and that there are no gaps that your pet can squeeze through.
Capybaras are diurnal so they need sunlight (not through a window) but if where you live gets too cold for your capybara to be outside during the day you will need to provide a UVB light (like reptiles need) for about 12 hours a day to mimic the sun. Heat lights may also be necessary if their enclosure gets too cold.
Capybaras are fairly resilient so unless it gets extremely hot or below 45 degrees Fahrenheit, they should be able to live outdoors.
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. Orchard hay and Timothy hay are both readily available from pet stores and large animal feed stores and should be offered in unlimited piles.
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, capybaras' teeth continuously grow throughout their lives and if they are not filed down with hay, grass, and other coarse objects, they will need to be manually cared for by an exotics veterinarian.
In addition to unlimited grass hay, capybaras should be fed guinea pig pellets with vitamin C. Like guinea pigs and humans, capybaras do not produce enough vitamin C naturally in their bodies so these pellets are an important part of the diet to ensure your rodent does not get scurvy.
Grazing outside can be allowed if you are 100 percent sure there are no toxic weeds, fertilizers, or insecticides in the grass. Treats of vegetables can be occasionally offered but try avoiding sweet veggies and fruits otherwise your capybara may become addicted to the natural sugars.
And there's a way to tell if your capybara's diet is missing something: Its droppings will change from a normal olive shape if you are giving an inappropriate diet with too much moisture and sugar and not enough roughage.
Common Health Problems
In the wild, capybaras have much shorter lifespans since they're a favorite meal for many predators. In captivity, aside from their vitamin C deficiency, they're relatively hardy. Like most rodents, however, capybaras are prone to respiratory infections and infestations with mites or lice in their fur. Most of its health concerns center around unsanitary conditions, so be sure your pet's enclosure is clean and that it's not exposed to any harmful materials.
If your capybara appears listless or stops eating, this may be a sign of a digestive problem.
Before taking on a capybara as a pet, be sure there is a veterinarian in your area who has experience treating large rodents such as guinea pigs, if not direct experience with capybaras.
Purchasing Your Capybara
Ideally, you'll be able to buy a capybara from a reputable breeder, but before you do, make sure to check that it's legal to own a capybara where you live. As with most exotic pets, there are some places that restrict keeping these large rodents as pets.
Never take in a wild capybara and try to domesticate it; you're likely to shorten the animal's life by causing it undue stress. And you won't have any way of knowing what diseases it may have contracted in the wild.
If you do purchase a capybara, be prepared to buy more than one, to allow them to socialize as they do in their natural habitat.
Wherever you buy your capybara, make sure you choose a healthy one. It should be alert and active and 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).
Just like guinea pigs, capybaras are very social and communicate with each other using a variety of sounds and actions. Purrs, barks, grunts, whistles, squeals, coughs, and more can be heard for various reasons. If your capybara was housed alone they would be unable to communicate with anyone and become very stressed.
Imitating sounds can help but the best way to keep your capybara happy is to make sure they have at least one friend to talk to, groom, and swim with.
Similar Pets to the Capybara
The capybara has several relatives that are more commonly kept as pets, including:
Otherwise, check out other exotic animals that can be your new pet.