Anteaters as Exotic Pets

Lesser anteater
Lesser anteater on a log outside. Getty Images/Picture By Tambako the Jaguar

You don't see pet anteaters everywhere but that doesn't mean they aren't out there. There are four kinds of anteaters in the wild but one of them in particular is a favorite among people who choose to have this South American, insect eating mammal in their homes.

Names: Lesser anteater, Southern anteater, Tamandua tetradactyla, Collared anteater

Size: 13-35 inches long plus the tail (which can be an additional 15 to 26 inches) and weighs 3.3 to 18.5 pounds.

There is great variation depending on the geographic location that the animal originates from. 

Lifespan: Average life expectancy is about 7 years but some people report their pets living into their upper teens.

Anteaters in the Wild

The lesser anteater is a unique animal that is closely related to sloths and armadillos. They are native to multiple countries in South American and are solitary animals. Anteaters can be found in trees (yes, this anteater can climb!) and on forest floors. They are constantly searching for insects to eat, visiting many nests each day to get their fill of ants and termites.

Lesser anteaters spend a lot of their time climbing and their prehensile tails come in handy to help keep them from falling off branches. Their tongues are also very long to help them get food from hard to reach places and is covered with tiny hooks called filiform papillae to aid in capturing their prey.

Anteater tongues can be up to 16 inches long and if that isn't long enough for them to get to the insects they are after they will use their large claws to tear apart an insect nest. 

Although their sight is poor, lesser anteaters have great senses of smell and hearing. If they are threatened or being attacked they will back up against a tree (or grab onto a branch with their tail and hind legs), stand on their hind legs (if they are on the ground), and use their claws to grab their attacker.

They don't need to see well to defend themselves. Their bad smell is also a good defense (they can spray a foul material from their anal glands that is four times as bad as a skunk's) as well as their hissing.

Getting a Pet Anteater

Ranging in cost between $3,500 and $8,000, lesser anteaters aren't for everyone. The price of one of these unique mammals will deter most exotic pet enthusiasts from even entertaining the idea of having one but for those that like the rare and unusual and aren't afraid to spend the money, a lesser anteater might be an option.

Housing a Pet Anteater

Lesser anteaters spend on average about half of their lives in trees therefore ample opportunities for a pet anteater should be provided. Sturdy tree branches can be used to allow your anteater to climb both indoors and outdoors. Mounted limbs should be strong enough to hold the weight of your anteater and have varying diameters for the health of your anteater's feet (just like a pet bird). 

Anteaters have very low body temperatures for a mammals so they must be kept at or around room temperature at all times. Aim to keep your anteater in an environment that is 65-85 degrees Fahrenheit. Room temperature is ideal but fluctuations up or down are okay.

If a lesser anteater is exposed to prolonged temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit they are at risk for developing heat stroke. They will get too cold and could also become sick if they are kept in temperatures below 65 degrees for too long. 

Outdoor enclosures must provide both space for climbing, exploring, and protection. A hollowed out tree stump or house for your anteater to sleep in should be provided as well as heating elements if it gets too cold outside. If they are allowed to roam indoors you should make sure they are in a safe room while unsupervised.

Housebreaking a Pet Anteater

Anteaters are difficult to potty train so if they are housed indoors be prepared for skunky smelling urine. Some owners have success training their anteaters to use pee pads but anteaters also like to mark their territories, especially their beds.

Defecation usually occurs while they are in trees so make sure nothing of importance is under a hanging limb. Pee pads placed throughout the house, the anteater's enclosure, and under branches and limbs is the best way to attempt to keep the messes contained but be prepared to do a lot of cleaning when accidents occur.

Feeding Pet Anteaters

Like most exotic pets, diet is critical to the well-being of a pet anteater. Zoos and breeders have researched the needs of lesser anteaters so daily diets for pet anteaters have been developed using that information.

Anteaters have acidic stomachs, high protein requirements, no teeth, and eat a lot of insects. Most owners allow their anteaters to eat the ants they find on walks outside and supplement their diets with purchased ants but the bulk of their meals comes from commercially available feed. Insectivore diets, leaf eater diets, and cat foods are all used in different combinations and they come in kibble form or powders that can be supplemented with ants, termites, fruits, honey, and even some raw meat. Most zoos feed a high protein insectivore powder mixed with water with added insects, honey, and fruits. Remember to only offer soft foods to your anteater since they don't have teeth to chew! 

If you are able to provide live ants to your anteater be sure to also make it an enrichment opportunity. Anteaters spend the majority of their time searching for food in the wild and this not only provides them with a meal but also mental stimulation. Consider putting ants on a small branch, in a container with dirt or rocks that your anteater can push around, or think of another creative way to make your pet work for their food. Old logs and stumps that are rotted and can be torn apart by your anteater are great (and usually free) options for both enrichment and food for your anteater.

Health Problems of Pet Anteaters

You may have a difficult time finding an exotics vet that is able and willing to care for your anteater but it is vital that you spend the time doing so.

Anteaters are prone to developing respiratory diseases (much like a common cold) from drafts and chills as well as foot problems (like cracked paw pads) and dry skin from being in environments that are not humid enough. Organ failure, that can be detected by doing annual blood screening, can also occur if you are feeding inappropriate diets or not providing enough protein (chitin) in your anteater's diet.

Behavior of Pet Anteaters

Lesser anteaters are not social creatures so they prefer not to have any other anteater friends. Most pet owners prefer to purchase a young, hand raised baby anteater to keep them tame. Large claws and potent anal gland secretions are the two most dangerous parts of an anteater but they can also hiss and mark their territory with urine. 

Tame adult anteaters may damage furniture with their claws from climbing on it as well as urinate or defecate on things you can't wash but they cannot do any serious harm from biting since they don't have any teeth. If your anteater feels threatened they will most likely hiss, spray their anal glands, back up against something and grab at the person, animal, or object with their sharp claws. 

Anteater Considerations

If you are seriously considering getting a lesser anteater as a pet then don't forget to focus on both the pro's and con's of these animals. Anteaters need special food that you can't just buy from the pet store, smell, urinate and defecate where they want, are expensive, and need a lot of space to climb and roam. This unique pet isn't for most people but for those that are die hard anteater lovers, the negatives are often overlooked by all the positives.