The Kinkajou: A Tropical Rainforest Animal and an Exotic Pet - PetHelpful - By fellow animal lovers and experts
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The Kinkajou: A Tropical Rainforest Animal and an Exotic Pet

Linda Crampton is a writer and teacher with an honors degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about living things.

A kinkajou at a wildlife rehabilitation center

A kinkajou at a wildlife rehabilitation center

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, it has a long and prehensile tail that 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. Kinkajou breeders in some countries 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 one as a pet is a major undertaking.

An illustration of a kinkajou showing the prehensile tail

An illustration of a kinkajou showing the prehensile tail

Did You Know?

The kinkajou belongs to the Procyonidae family, like the raccoon. Its scientific name is Potos flavus. It’s the only member of the Potos genus.

Physical Appearance

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 animal'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 the animals 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 and Olingos

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 its eyes at night, the eyes glow. This phenomenon is 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.

Distribution of the kinkajou in the wild

Distribution of the kinkajou in the wild

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. They often hang by their tail and hind feet to reach their food.

The animals 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. Also, when the animal has finished eating a fruit and drops the remains to the ground, the seeds of the fruit are released into the soil.

Reproduction

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.

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 animals 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. The animals may be sweet as youngsters and then become aggressive as they grow up. Neutering is said to help prevent aggressive tendencies.

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 their pet 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 the animal 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 accidents, though.

Cage Requirements

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 room for a pet kinkajou. The room should contain furniture and a floor covering that is easy to clean as well as fun things for the animal to do. It 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.

Keep in Mind

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).

A kinkajou making good use of its tail

A kinkajou making good use of its tail

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
  • Get the pet and a fecal sample checked regularly by a vet.

A vet should be consulted about the possible benefits and disadvantages of a deworming treatment for the pet.

Vets

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

The kinkajou can take the place of the racoon in the life cycle of the roundworm shown in this diagram. VLM and OLM are different forms of the disease caused by the roundworm.

The kinkajou can take the place of the racoon in the life cycle of the roundworm shown in this diagram. VLM and OLM are different forms of the disease caused by the roundworm.

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, it’s better to buy an animal with a long history of domestication. Domesticated animals such as dogs and cats are more likely to be friendly throughout their lives and to fit into the family's lifestyle. If a family contains young children, it might be best to get a dog or cat from an accredited breeder who tries to maintain friendliness in their animals instead of buying a kinkajou.

References

  • Kinkajou information from the San Diego Zoo
  • Facts about the kinkajou from the Hogle Zoo in Utah
  • 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
  • Roundworms in pet kinkajous from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Questions & Answers

Question: Are kinkajous cute?

Answer: That decision is up to you. Different people have different ideas about what makes an animal cute. I might consider an animal to be cute when you consider it to be ugly, and vice versa. As the saying says, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

© 2011 Linda Crampton

Comments

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 02, 2020:

Thanks for the comment. It's sad to think of animals existing only in captivity, but if we continue to destroy rainforests it might become common.

Chaz Case on March 01, 2020:

The natural habitat of the kinkajou are rainforests.

Unfortunately according to analysis of satellite data, tropical rainforests are being destroyed at a rate of at least 8 million hectares or 31,000 square miles a year. If the current rate of deforestation continues, it will take less than 100 years to destroy all the rainforests on the earth. Keeping kinkajous as pets may be necessary for their survival.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 20, 2018:

One example is kinkajous eat fruit and then distribute the seeds to new areas in their feces. Another example is related to the fact that they extend their long and narrow tongue into a flower to obtain nectar. By doing this, they pick up pollen from the flower. They may then pollinate another flower from the same species when they visit it.

Jasmine on December 18, 2018:

how do kinkajous contribute to the rainforest

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 11, 2017:

Kathy, I think that it's important that you contact the breeder of your kinkajou to ask him or her your questions. The breeder should be an experienced expert and the best person to help you. If for some reason the breeder can't help you, I would suggest that you contact another breeder or a vet who is experienced in treating kinkajous.

Kathy Walters on March 11, 2017:

I have a 11 week old baby an I know u dnt need to bath them but if I wanted to can I use ferret shampoo? Also to control her biting can I use ultra bitter? I also am having a hard time giving other fruit she would rather have banana instead, what can I do to get her to eat? I did try honey an it's not working. Finally why is she always wanting in my mouth an is it healthy?

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 12, 2016:

Thanks for the comment, Tyler. The kinkajou is certainly an interesting animal. Like all exotic pets, it requires a lot of careful attention, though.

Tyler Murphy on December 12, 2016:

The Kinkajou is a very social and playful animal, when I found out you could keep one as a pet I FIPPED! this animal is my number one favorite animal. By the way, nice job on the facts.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 25, 2015:

Hi, ArtDiva. Thank you very much for the comment. You've raised some good points!

ArtDiva on May 25, 2015:

Well, I guess, as an indoor/outdoor pet, the yard better have a tree for a kinkajous to play in. So many of these little species are so cute, and perhaps socialization as a domesticated animal may keep from extinction, the plight of so many species. If you can train a rabbit, why not a kinkajous. Good reading, and as usual, Alicia, well done.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 22, 2015:

Thank you very much, tzwrites. I agree - the kinkajou is adorable! It would be expensive to provide suitable living conditions to keep a kinkajou happy and healthy, though.

tzwrites on January 22, 2015:

Great Hub! This little creature is adorable. I wish I could keep it as a pet but I'm sure they are really expensive and you have to have the proper conditions for these animals.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 07, 2012:

Hi, Courtney. I don't know the names of all the places that allow kinkajous to be kept as pets. You could do an Internet search to see if they can be kept legally in the part of the world where you live. Even though kinkajous are bred in captivity for the pet market they aren't really domesticated and can be hard pets to care for!

Courtney on September 07, 2012:

i am very much intrested in buying a kinkajou I would like to know where it is legal to hve one.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 20, 2012:

Hi, angela_michelle. Thanks for the comment. Kinkajous are fascinating! They aren't endangered, but some concern is developing about their population status.

Angela Michelle Schultz from United States on April 20, 2012:

Despite my love for zoos, I don't believe I have ever seen a kinkajou in real life. They seem very fascinating, and look a lot like a lot of other animals, with very unique faces. For some reason I always thought they were endangered.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 31, 2011:

Thank you very much for the comment, and for the vote too Eddy! Kinkajous are interesting animals to observe and study. I enjoyed writing about them.

Eiddwen from Wales on December 31, 2011:

I loved this one.

I had never heard of a kinkajou and this made this hub even more inyeresting.

Your video clips are also amazing.

I have to vote this one up up and away.

Take care

Eddy.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 30, 2011:

Hi, Danette. Yes, owning a kinkajou would mean that there would be more messy papers to be cleared up! I'm in the same situation as you - even if I was considering bringing a kinkajou home (which I'm not), I have lots of pets at home already and I wouldn't have the time to give a kinkajou the attention that it would need. Thanks for the vote.

Danette Watt from Illinois on December 30, 2011:

I had never heard of a kinkajou before this. Interesting animal, especially the feet that turn 180 degrees! Don't think I'd want one for a pet though, I have a bird (and dog and cat) and the bird is enough to worry about with papers on the floor, etc. Voted up

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 30, 2011:

Hi, drbj. Yes, although the Labrador was playing (my dogs sometimes make similar sounds during games), I could tell that she was nearing the end of her patience and was determined to keep the kinkajou under control! In the comments that accompany this video on YouTube the woman who produced the video says that her dog helps train her kinkajous. I don't think that many dogs would agree to this job! Thank you for the comment and the vote, drbj.

drbj and sherry from south Florida on December 30, 2011:

Fascinating, Alicia, and very well done. The kinkajou romping with the dog in the video is very playful and the Labrador looks almost, but not quite, ready to bite him in some franes. Good thing the dog is so gentle and patient. Thanks for this treat. Voted up.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 30, 2011:

Thank you very much for commenting and for the vote, kashmir56! I appreciate your visit.

Thomas Silvia from Massachusetts on December 30, 2011:

Hi AliciaC, this was a very interesting ans entertaining hub, i really enjoyed reading it ! Great videos !

Vote up !