The Kinkajou: A Tropical Rainforest Animal and an Exotic Pet
What Is a Kinkajou?
The kinkajou lives in the tropical rainforests of Central and South America. It’s a member of the raccoon family. Unlike its relatives, however, the kinkajou has a long, prehensile tail which can curl around branches like a hand. Kinkajous are also known as honey bears because they like to lap up the honey from bees' nests with their long, narrow tongues. The name "honey bear" may also refer to the typical golden color of the animal's soft fur.
Kinkajous are usually solitary animals but are occasionally found in groups. They are hard to see in the forest because they spend their lives in the tree canopy and are nocturnal. They are vocal animals, so it’s much easier to hear them than to see them.
Kinkajous are captured for the exotic pet trade and hunted for their fur or meat. The fur is often used to make wallets or saddles. Despite these facts, the animals aren't endangered at the moment. There are kinkajou breeders in some countries that provide pets without affecting the wild population and ensure that the babies are used to humans from an early age. It's important to realize that captive kinkajous aren’t domesticated animals, however. Keeping a kinkajou as a pet is a major undertaking.
The kinkajou belongs to the family called the Procyonidae, like the raccoon. The scientific name of the kinkajou is Potos flavus. It’s the only member of the Potos genus.
A Baby Kinkajou
A kinkajou has a small head with small ears and relatively large eyes. Its body and tail are long and its legs are short. The coat is golden or brown in color but sometimes has a grey tint. The animal has soft fur. Its teeth and claws are sharp, things that a potential kinkajou owner needs to keep in mind.
Kinkajous weigh up to around eight pounds. Adults range from about sixteen to twenty-two inches in length, not including the tail. The tail is about as long as the rest of the body and helps the animal balance and hang from branches. The kinkajou also wraps its tail around its body to help keep itself warm at night.
The fingers on the kinkajou's front paws (or hands) are long and mobile. The paws are used to grasp objects. This ability, along with the prehensile tail, reminded earlier scientists of monkeys and persuaded them to classify kinkajous as primates. DNA tests have now shown that kinkajous are not closely related to primates.
The palms of a kinkajou's hands lack hair. The long soles of the animal's back feet are also hairless, which helps the feet to grip branches. Kinkajous can rotate their hind ankles one hundred and eighty degrees so that the feet face backward. This ability enables the animals to run backwards quickly and to climb down a tree trunk headfirst.
Kinkajous in the Wild
A kinkajou looks very similar to another animal in its family called an olingo. However, an olingo has a longer face and doesn’t have a prehensile tail. Olingos live in the same areas as kinkajous and have similar behaviors, so the two animals are sometimes confused.
Vision and Eyeshine
A wild kinkajou spends its day in a tree hole and emerges at dusk to feed. Its large eyes help it to see in the dim light. When light enters the eyes of the kinkajou at night the eyes glow, a phenomenon known as eyeshine.
Like many nocturnal animals, the kinkajou has a reflective layer called a tapetum lucidum (or simply a tapetum) at the back of its eyeball behind the retina. The retina contains the light-sensitive cells. Any light that passes through the retina hits the tapetum and is then reflected back through the retina, hitting more light-sensitive calls and giving the animal better night vision.
The kinkajou's pupils are dilated at night. The enables a viewer to get a good view of the eyeshine produced by the tapetum's action. Cats and dogs also have a tapetum and may exhibit eyeshine as well. Flash photography enhances the effect.
Playing in a Tree
Diet and Lifestyle
The kinkajou has a home territory, which it marks with a secretion from scent glands located on its belly, throat, and mouth. It generally searches for food alone. Kinkajous sometimes gather in a group to play with each other, groom one another, or feed in a particular tree, however. They may also sleep in groups. The animals produce a variety of sounds, including barks, screeches, and chitters.
Kinkajous feed mainly on fruit (especially figs), leaves, flowers, nectar, and insects. They occasionally eat honey, eggs, and small vertebrates. Their long tongue, which is about five inches in length, allows them to reach deep into flowers and crevices. Kinkajous often hang by their tail and hind feet to reach their food.
Kinkajous play an important role in their ecosystem. When they stick their head in a flower to drink nectar, pollen sticks to their fur. The pollen then brushes off the fur when the kinkajou visits another flower, enabling pollination to take place. In addition, when a kinkajou has finished eating a fruit and drops the remains to the ground, the seeds of the fruit are released into the soil.
Playing at Home
A female kinkajou gives birth to one baby per mating, or very occasionally two babies. The gestation period is three to four months. The female rears her babies alone and is a protective mother, carrying her babies upside down below her chest when she feels that danger is present.
The longest lived kinkajou (as far as we know) was Sugar Bear, who lived at the Honolulu Zoo from 1962 to 2003 and died at the age of forty. In general, though, kinkajous seem to live for about twenty to twenty-five years.
Playing With a Human
Kinkajous as Exotic Pets
Kinkajous are bred as exotic pets. This puts them in the strange position of not being a truly wild animal but not being fully domesticated either. Many generations of selective breeding are required to domesticate a wild animal.
Kinkajous often make friendly and even affectionate pets and can be very sweet, but they may not be completely trustworthy. Some kinkajous have bitten and clawed their owners after the pets were startled when they were resting or when they became overly excited. A famous bite took place in 2006 when Paris Hilton's pet kinkajou "Baby Luv" bit her arm while playing. Kinkajous may be sweet as youngsters and then become aggressive as they grow up. Neutering is said to help prevent aggressive tendencies.
A Kinkajou and a Coatimundi
A Kinkajou in the Family
Many Kinkajou owners report that their pets are active, playful, and amusing animals once they wake up at around 7 p.m. Despite being almost completely arboreal in the wild, in captivity they play on the ground. They also climb and jump over furniture and people. It's important that nothing fragile or expensive is around when a kinkajou is playing. Owners may have to get used to the prehensile tail being wrapped around their neck as the kinkajou climbs over them.
According to the Chicago Exotic Animals Hospital website, kinkajous are most active between 7 p.m. and midnight. The website also states that a period of two to three hours of daily attention is needed in order to maintain a connection between a pet kinkajou and humans. This commitment needs to be kept in mind by anyone who wants to have a kinkajou as a pet, especially if the person has work, family, or personal obligations.
Kinkajous can't be litter trained, but they sometimes like to "do their business" in particular places, urinating and defecating from a high perch. Once an owner recognizes where these favorite places are, protective sheets can be placed below the perches to make clean-up easier. There will probably still be frequent accidents, though.
A Kinkajou and a Dog Playing Together
A pet kinkajou will need a large cage for those times when it can't be supervised and for an undisturbed place to sleep during the day, since it's mainly nocturnal. It will also need a carrying container for visits to the vet. The cage should contain play items like branches, ledges, and toys.
Some owners report that the best setup is to have a special, safe room for the kinkajou. This room should contain furniture and a floor covering that is easy to clean as well as fun things for the kinkajou to do. The pet can then be let out of its cage to play.
A safe and interesting room would provide peace of mind for the owner and fun activity for the kinkajou. The problem with this setup, though, is that the room becomes similar to a zoo enclosure, unless the pet is allowed to visit other areas of the home (or outdoor areas) as well. Kinkajous can be trained to walk on a leash and harness and taken outside. A secure harness is important to prevent them from escaping.
Being a good kinkajou owner is a demanding job, as is true for any exotic pet. The pet needs a lot of attention in order to stay healthy, happy, and safe and to remain confident and friendly around humans.
It isn't legal to own a kinkajou in all places. Where it is legal, a permit is sometime required in order to own one. Kinkajous are expensive animals to buy, costing between $1500 and $3000 US (according to my research).
Human Health Concerns and Pet Kinkajous
At least some kinkajous carry a bacterium called Kingella potus in their saliva. This bacterium was discovered in 2005 in an infected wound caused by a kinkajou bite. The bacterium causes severe gastrointestinal discomfort and other problems such as a headache and a fever. The infection requires medical treatment.
It's also been discovered that the feces of some pet kinkajous contains eggs of a roundworm called Baylisascaris procyonis, which is commonly found in raccoons. Pet dogs can also become infected with this roundworm. Human infection by the worm can cause serious neurological symptoms and may even be fatal. If someone owns a kinkajou, it's very important to dispose of the animal's feces regularly, clean areas where feces collects with boiling water or steam to destroy any roundworm eggs, wash hands thoroughly after touching the pet, its feces, or its cage, and getting the pet and a fecal sample checked regularly by a vet. Deworming treatment may be useful.
It's important to find a vet who is willing to treat a kinkajou and who is knowledgeable about the animals before bringing a pet kinkajou home. This may not be an easy task.
Life Cycle of Baylisascaris procyonis
A Kinkajou, Dog, or Cat for a Pet?
Kinkajous are interesting animals. The babies are cute and it's fun to watch them play. Buying a kinkajou from a breeder—if you can afford it—doesn’t hurt the wild population. However, it seems to me that if a family containing children wants a pet of comparable size to a kinkajou that is reasonably certain to be friendly throughout its life and to fit into the family's lifestyle, it’s better to buy an animal with a long history of domestication, such as a dog or a cat. Even with these pets it’s a good idea to buy the pet from an accredited breeder who is carefully trying to maintain a friendly personality in each generation of animals that he or she produces.
- Kinkajou information from the San Diego Zoo
- Facts about the kinkajou from the Hogle Zoo
- Potos flavus facts and status from the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature)
- Kinkajou care from Chicago Exotic Animals Hospital
- Lawson PA, Malnick H, Collins MD, et al. Description of Kingella potus sp. nov., an Organism Isolated from a Wound Caused by an Animal Bite. Journal of Clinical Microbiology. 2005;43(7):3526-3529. doi:10.1128/JCM.43.7.3526-3529.2005.
- Roundworms in pet kinkajous from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
© 2011 Linda Crampton