Keeping Capybaras as Pets

AKA Giant Guinea Pigs

Capybara
Capybara outside in reeds. Getty Images/FLAVIO CONCEIÇÃO FOTOS

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.

Capybaras

In addition to it's common name, the capybara is also known as a capy and it's scientific name, Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris. It also has over 190 local names depending on the language spoken in that region.

 It 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. Riverbanks, marshes, streams and lakes are popular hot spots to find these big rodents where they keep their dry skin hydrated, munch of various water plants and grasses, and escape from predators. They are such avid swimmers that in the 16th century the Catholic Church classified them as fish so that they could be consumed on Fridays during the Lenten season.

Capybaras stand about two feet tall at their shoulder, are over three feet long, and also have webbed feet. They can hold their breath for about five minutes underwater, are highly intelligent, and can weigh over 170 pounds when they are full grown. In the wild these rodents live an average of nine years but captive capybaras typically live a few years longer.

Feeding Capybaras

The information that is available on feeding pet capybaras comes from the knowledge that zoos have accumulated.

Capybaras only eat about three to six plant species in the wild therefore specific diets must be offered to our pets.

The most common ingredient in a pet capybara's diet should be a 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, capybara 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, guinea pig pellets should be provided. These pellets have vitamin C in them and since that specific vitamin is light sensitive and has a short shelf life it is important to monitor the expiration date on the bag of food and keep it out of light. Dump any uneaten pellets each day and refill the bowl with fresh pellets. 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. Large bags of food can be purchased from a feed store or ordered online if your pet store does not carry 25 and 50 lb. bags of guinea pig food.

Grazing outside can be allowed if you are 100% sure there are no toxic weeds, fertilizers, insecticides, etc. in the grass. If you are not sure about what is in the lawn or field you are considering allowing your capybara to graze in then it is safer to keep them off of it.

Treats of vegetables can be occasionally offered but try avoiding sweet veggies and fruits otherwise your capybara may become addicted to the natural sugars. The droppings (feces) of your capybara will change from a normal olive shape if you are giving an inappropriate diet with too much moisture and sugar and not enough roughage. 

Housing Capybaras

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 three 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. Items that are safe for your capybara to chew on should also be provided (such as untreated wood, large dog toys that can be picked up and floated, etc.).

A large area fenced outside (over 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 four feet high and that there are no gaps that your rodent can squeeze through. Capys 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, your rodents should be able to live outdoors. 

Capybara Behavior

Known for their ability to swim and be extremely smart, capybaras can be very rewarding pets. One has even been known to be seeing guide rodent for a man! Rewarding your capybara's good behavior and tricks with sweet treats may be tempting but positive praise is just as effective, if not more effective for these smart pets.

Male capybaras may become problematic if they are housed together (even if they are neutered) so it is best to only keep one male per group of four to fourteen females in captivity. 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 (they don't have many sweat glands) and protect themselves from getting sun burnt. A shower with a hose or a quick dip in their pool will clean them up. They typically spend most of their day either in the pool or the mud.

Capybaras do not travel very much at a time considering their size but they have been known to walk almost half a mile while grazing during the day therefore an enclosure that will allow your capybara to move around and exercise out of the water is also important in addition to their swimming pool.

Spreading out hay around the enclosure will help recreate natural grazing and motivate your capybara to move around. 

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 they warm up to you. Capybaras can be nervous and shy and are very vocal with their own kind. Grooming each other lessens tensions so by offering your new capybara some food and combing them you can help relax your pet.

Capybara Vocalizations

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. Just imagine if you couldn't speak to anyone! 

Imitating sounds can help but the best way to keep your capy happy is to make sure they have at least one friend to talk to, groom, and swim with.

Capybaras aren't for most people, and they may not even be legal where you live, but if you are prepared for a large pet and would like one that is not aggressive then perhaps a capybara is right for you.