Should You Keep a Sloth as a Pet?

Characteristics, Housing, Diet, and Other Information

Bradypus tridactylus
Nicolas Reusens / Getty Images

Two-toed sloths can legally be owned as exotic pets in some states, but they require a great deal of specialized care and are not particularly friendly. These slow-moving creatures need specific pellet foods as well as lots of fresh vegetables to eat. They also need trees to climb since sloths spend almost all of their time hanging from branches. Pet sloths prefer hanging around in trees much more than hanging out with people. They don't like to be cuddled, petted, or held. What's more, sloths can live up to 30 years, so a prospective pet owner must make a long-term commitment to fulfilling the unique needs of a sloth.

Species Overview

Common Name: Two-toed sloth

Scientific Names: Choloepus didactylus (Linnaeus's two-toed sloth) and Choloepus hoffmann (Hoffmann's two-toed sloth)

Adult Size: up to 2 feet from head to toe; up to 17 pounds

Lifespan: more than 30 years in captivity

Can You Own a Sloth?

Legality

As of 2022, it is legal to own a two-toed pet sloth in Alabama, Florida (with a permit), Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, New York, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, South Dakota (with health certificate), and Texas. Other states may allow sloths, but their state laws do not explicitly state it. Some laws ban boarding sloths, crossing state lines with them, and other restrictions. Contact your state and local officials to verify if it is legal for you to own, board, or transport a two-toed sloth where you live.

Ethics

Wild mammals like sloths rarely fare as well in captivity as they do in the wild because it is impossible to replicate every aspect of their natural environment in captivity. Therefore, owning a sloth has the inherent risk of being harmful to the animal in terms of health or general well-being. Sloths, by nature, do not communicate in ways that are easily interpreted by humans, so it is difficult to recognize signs of stress or displease. This makes ownership challenging for even the most conscientious person. While it may not constitute outright cruelty, owning a sloth is not entirely ethical.

Things to Consider

The illegal pet trade also captures wild sloths for sale, which is unlawful and highly unethical, so you should seek a reputable source when purchasing a sloth. Three-toed sloths are often sold illegally, and they do not adapt well to life in captivity where they are likely to die.

Sloth Behavior and Temperament

Sloths are wild animals that are mostly nocturnal in their natural habitats, but captive sloths may change their schedule and stay awake more during daylight hours.

These slow-moving animals do not like being petted, groomed, or bathed. Unlike most other animals, they do not show obvious external signs of stress. Instead, their instinctual response to perceived danger is to remain still. As a result, it can be difficult to tell when a sloth is scared or agitated. In some cases, if a sloth feels threatened, it will use its sharp claws and teeth and can cause serious injury. This can happen in captivity when humans or other pets behave aggressively.

Sloths are naturally quiet animals. They hardly make a noise. They don't move quickly, either. Their limbs are adapted for grasping, hanging, and climbing-not walking or running. They can cling to tree trunks or hang upside down from branches without effort but crawl clumsily (and very slowly) on the ground. They are excellent swimmers and can hold their breath underwater for up to 40 minutes.

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How to Create a Happy Home for Your Sloth

Housing

In the wild, two-toed sloths spend all their time in tall trees. In captivity, they need plenty of trees or structures to spend their day hanging from. While they pose little danger to people or pets who keep their distance, sloths can easily be hurt, so they should be kept in a secure enclosure for their protection.

Within a sloth's enclosure, position climbing logs, poles, and branches for climbing within reach of each other. Sloths do not jump between trees like lemurs and monkeys.

Sloths naturally live in the rainforests of Central and South America where it is very hot and humid. In captivity, they need the same climate conditions to thrive. People use heaters and humidifiers to recreate a tropical atmosphere of about 90 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit with 80 to 90% humidity. Sloths that remain too cold for too long will experience a drop in body temperature, and their digestive system will shut down. You can take your sloth out of its makeshift rainforest-like room for short periods, but it must go back to its room most of the time, including sleeping hours.

What Do Sloths Eat and Drink?

One of the hardest parts of owning an exotic pet like a sloth is trying to replicate its natural diet in captivity. Sloths eat leaves, mainly those found on the trees of Central and South America. They sleep about 20 hours a day and usually forage for food at night, so offer food every night. Feed a "leaf eater food" such as Marion Leaf Eater pellet food or Mazuri High Fiber Sticks, which zoos feed their sloths. In addition to the pellets, offer lettuces, dandelion greens, carrots, apples, green beans, sweet potatoes, and an occasional grape as a treat. You cannot feed leaves off the trees in your backyard to your pet sloth, and always avoid leaves with pesticides or chemicals on them.

In the wild, sloths get their water from dew on leaves or water contained in their food. In captivity, secure water and feeding bowls high up in the enclosure as well as on the ground. Also, strap big lettuce leaves and greens around the enclosure and on branches where the sloth likes to hang out.

A sloth's metabolism is so slow that it can take up to three weeks or one month to digest food. They pee and poop about once a week.

illustration of care sheet of sloths as pets
The Spruce

Common Health Problems

Before purchasing a sloth, find an exotic animal veterinarian in your area who has the expertise to treat this unusual pet. Sloths in captivity are susceptible to nutritional deficiencies, digestive disturbances, respiratory problems, and physical injuries. Dietary issues are the most prevalent issue since it is quite challenging to replicate a sloth's natural diet in captivity.

Exercise

Sloths do not need any more exercise than they naturally get in the wild, which means they simply need trees or structures to climb and hang on. In the rainforest, sloths climb very tall trees, so if you have the room, consider giving your pet a high ceiling with tall features to climb. Their slow movements and equally slow metabolism make sloths a low-maintenance pet when it comes to exercise.

Grooming

Sloths do not like to be touched much, and they do not need to be bathed. Trying to wash a sloth will only stress your pet, and their fur maintains a naturally balanced cleanliness thanks to the microorganisms that live in the sloth's coat. When it comes to their long claws, clipping is not an option. Unlike dogs and cats, you can't just clip a sloth's sharp claws to prevent it from scratching; sloths need their claws to grip onto trees and move naturally. Clipping a sloth's claws could prevent it from using its body properly, and the animal's physical and mental health could suffer as a result.

Size Information

Adult two-toes sloths can grow to be just over 2 feet in length from head to toe, and they can weigh up to 17 pounds.

Pros and Cons of Keeping a Sloth as a Pet

Sloths are an easy pet to keep if you have the space, money, and time to commit to owning one. They are exceptionally quiet and require no effort to exercise, but they also do not like being touched and prefer to be awake during the night. Creating the ideal habitat and climate for a sloth is a challenge since they need trees to climb and hot, humid living conditions year-round. Visiting a sloth in the wild or at a zoo would be much less effort with a similar reward.

Purchasing Your Sloth

Sloths are costly animals, typically priced around $6,000 up to $10,000 for a captive-bred baby, which is the best option for most people. Steer clear of adult sloths unless you are buying from a reliable source as they may be illegally wild-caught and will not do well in captivity.

There are very few legal breeding facilities where you can purchase a two-toed sloth. Sometimes exotic pet stores sell them, but it's wise to research their sources so that you're not supporting the illegal pet trade.

An exotic pet broker will likely be your best way to find a sloth. Seek a seller who proactively gives you a lot of information about the animal and asks a lot of questions about you and your ability to care for a sloth. Some sellers may not even sell to you if you are not a zoo or registered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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FAQ
  • Do sloths smell bad?

    Even though they don't take baths, sloths do not smell much at all. Staying scentless helps them hide from predators. But, in the wild, they do have tiny bugs and algae growing in their fur.

  • Do sloths go to the bathroom in trees?

    Actually, sloths make a big effort to do their business on the ground. Once a week, they slowly climb all the way down from the tree branches to poop in the leaf litter on the ground. Then, they climb back up the tree!

  • Are sloths social animals?

    Males sloths are primarily solitary creatures; females sometimes live in small groups and stay near one another in the treetops.

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