Melissa cares for a variety of exotic animals and has completed a certificate in veterinary assisting and a bachelor's degree in biology.
What Are Finger Monkeys?
You may have come across what is often referred to as a "finger monkey," an impossibly tiny primate that can literally cling to a human finger, resembling the toys of the same name. Are these adorable little creatures real and if so, do they make good pets?
The first answer is yes, so-called "finger monkeys" are real animals. These smaller New World monkeys are called callitrichids, although there's a catch. The term "finger monkey" is extremely misleading.
While there are tiny monkeys in existence such as the pygmy marmoset, which is the smallest known monkey species, the smaller monkeys that are sold as pets in the Western world are the larger marmoset and tamarin species that do not fit on a human finger when they reach adult size.
The focus of showing these animals clinging to human fingers appears to be a marketing gimmick originating from some sellers to promote interest in the small primates and possibly make them look like more attractive pets. This is very unfortunate because all primates are challenging pets for the typical pet owner.
"Finger Monkey" Species
These are the small monkey species that are commonly available in the exotic pet market. At full size, none of these species are small enough to latch onto a human finger. They also make up for their smaller size with tremendous care requirements.
- Common marmoset (Callithrix jacchus) This is by far the most common and popular pet primate.
- Black-tufted marmoset (Callithrix penicillata)
- Geoffroy's marmosets (Callithrix geoffroyi)
- Cotton-top tamarin (Saguinus oedipus)
- Red handed tamarin (Saguinus midas)
Caring for Small Monkeys
No matter what the size, primates of all species present a unique challenge to keep healthy and happy in captivity.
As one might guess by their close relation to humans, monkeys and other primates are socially and relatively cognitively complex. While all pet mammals need some level of enrichment, monkeys are quick-witted and will tire more easily of the toys their owner provides and can be very demanding of their time, similarly to many parrot species.
One of the biggest issues with monkeys as pets is that they need social enrichment unless the human owner can be with their pet at least 90% of the time, and this is highly unlikely to be feasible for most.
All monkeys should probably be housed with at least one other monkey of their own species. Many primate species are also notorious for becoming possessive and aggressive when they imprint on humans and may even ferociously attack strangers!
"Finger Monkey" Checklist
Do you still think you are ready to own a small monkey species? Ask yourself the following questions:
- Are primates legal in your state and area? Is legislation being proposed to ban them in the future?
- Do you understand that marmosets can have unpleasant bathroom habits and that their urine is known to smell really bad?
- Are you prepared to own a demanding creature for 15+ years?
- Are you willing to adopt at least two monkeys or provide substantial time with one, which is likely impossible for people who don't work at home?
- Will you forgo your vacations unless you can find a rare caretaker who understands the unique challenge of primate care?
- Are you aware that primates can catch human diseases like the common cold and Herpes simplex virus type 1 and that it can be FATAL to them?
- Do you have a veterinarian who is willing to see primates? Remember, just because a vet sees exotics does not mean they accept monkeys!
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Which Species Is Best?
While there is not a substantial difference between the small monkeys as they all require a lot of care and understanding, some species are said to have better temperaments and possibly reduced smell.
Anecdotally, the common marmosets, which are the most widely available, are said to be the smelliest and the most aggressive (when raised singly) species.
However, do not seek primates if these qualities are deal breakers for you; these are animals that do best with an owner who is tolerant and flexible when it comes to their less desirable qualities. Monkeys are not as adaptable to human preferences as some other pets can be.
Don't let their size fool you, marmosets and tamarins may be the size of "pocket pets" but they are active, "intelligent", and inquisitive.
The bigger their cage is, the better success you will have with maintaining them.
In fact, it is possible to keep them much healthier both physically and psychologically in a large, aviary-type, walk-in enclosure with multiple individuals. Doing this might make them less involved with their humans but they will be easier to care for.
As for monkeys that are kept in a companion pet fashion, a spacious cage is invaluable because it gives you more room to place enrichment, hang their foodstuffs from different places, and allows for plenty of exercise.
You won't want to depend on letting them out of the cage for their activity needs because monkeys aren't necessarily the cleanest. They can also be destructive when allowed to free-roam. Giving them plenty of cage space keeps them from soiling your carpet and furniture, and also keeps them from potentially threatening your visitors!
Diet for Marmosets
Marmosets and tamarins should have a healthy, whole-food, omnivorous diet with a base of a commercially-developed primate biscuit from a reputable dealer. They can be fed a wide variety of items in addition to their nutritionally-complete prepared diet, including but not limited to:
- Fruit (especially those high in vitamin C)
- Acacia gum
- Cooked pasta
Enrichment: Keep Them Foraging!
Once again, the importance of keeping primates enriched cannot be overstated. Academic textbooks might go into specifics to make this concept overly complicated, but the easiest way to understand how to successfully keep monkeys enriched is to create ways to keep them actively searching for food. Foraging is the "job" of monkeys throughout their day and that is what consumes their time in the wild.
In captivity, one doesn't need to necessarily replicate "natural" behaviors as much as they just simply need to give their monkeys something to do to invest their time.
Hiding food and treats in different and interesting ways, such as within puzzle feeders, inside containers, or in a challenging location, such as on an unstable surface, is a must. You'll also want to provide novel enrichment, which means giving the animals something new to explore each day.
If You Still Want a "Finger Monkey"...
Please be aware that this article and others are a general introduction to primates and their care. Hopefully, you've gained some insight into whether or not a marmoset or tamarin is a good option for your lifestyle or what you consider to be reasonable as far as the level of care you'd like to commit to them.
If you want to know more about primate ownership, it would be a good idea to talk to owners and join Facebook groups for more in-depth discussions. Remember, everyone's experience with monkeys varies and we don't know as much about them compared to traditional pets like dogs and cats.
References for This Article
- Duncan, Ashley. Marmoset Monkeys- The Basics in Petcare. 2021.
- Freeburn, Sam. Husbandry Guidelines for Common Marmoset. 2008
- Primate Care.com. Tamarins.
- Veterinary Surgery Ark. Marmoset Care.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2022 Melissa A Smith