A Guide to Legally Owning and Caring for a Pet Otter

Updated on May 30, 2019
Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa cares for a variety of exotic animals and has completed a certificate in veterinary assisting and a bachelor's degree in biology.

Asian small-clawed otters
Asian small-clawed otters

There are many exotic pets that people fantasize about owning — baby penguins, panda bears, dragons — but they are often shocked to hear that some people can and do legally keep exotic pets like fennec foxes, wild cats, and marmosets. Other zoological animals like meerkats, raccoon dogs, slow lorises, and pangolins can't be owned privately for many reasons, at least in the United States. Native birds are also federally protected.

Interestingly, however, otters can be legally obtained for private ownership.

Are Otters Legal as Pets?

There are many different laws and regulations regarding "exotic" animals as pets and they vary from state to state, so the answer depends on where you live. I can only make educated guesses as to where they might be legal due to researching what isn't legal. The only way to know for sure would be to contact your state's Department of Agriculture/Fish and Game, and even they sometimes don't know.

With that said, most or all states will likely ban possession of native otters, and the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act strongly protects marine species (sea otters). But there is one species, the Asian small-clawed otter, which could be legal in some states.

If a state doesn’t prohibit the possession of "non-domesticated carnivores" or the family Mustelidae (of which Asian small-clawed otters are a member), and it doesn’t have an awful list of "non-regulated" species of which all not named on it are considered illegal, then these otters might be legal! But even if this is the case, keeping them as a pet will be discouraged by animal control and the Department of Health.

States Where Pet Otters Are Possibly Legal

North Carolina
New York
South Dakota
Call state wildlife officials to confirm.

Unclear Laws and Regulations Regarding Otters as Pets

All states have bans on at least some exotic pets, even states that are notorious for having lax pet laws. For instance, in Nevada, lions and elephants are technically legal to own but not 3-pound fennec foxes. Most states make their laws for certain animals unclear and otters could be regulated under some laws when it appears they are legal under another law. For example, most states have bans on big cats, primates, and bears, but in states that allow more surprising species as pets, the majority of counties and towns don’t allow it.

Where Can I Buy a Pet Otter?

If you still want to own this aquatic creature, the biggest obstacle you will face is this: where can you find one?

They are extremely uncommon, and you would likely need to contact a broker who can track down a breeder or import one. The latter option may be ethically questionable given the species’ vulnerable status in the wild, and brokers are unlikely to tell you where the animals are obtained (which is standard in the industry). I’ve occasionally seen them offered for sale on exoticanimalsforsale.net in the past, but not for a while.

Facts About the Asian Small-Clawed Otter

  • They are the smallest otter species in the world.
  • They live in freshwater wetlands and mangrove swamps in Southern Asia.
  • They are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
  • In the wild, they feed on mostly invertebrates and occasionally frogs.
  • Habitat destruction, hunting, and pollution threaten their conservation.

Do Asian Otters Make Good Pets?

What is a good pet? I tend to state that there’s no such thing as a good or bad pet — it depends on what you’re looking for in an animal. However, Asian small-clawed otters, despite being the otter species best suited for captivity, are not commonly kept, even in the exotic pet-keeping community.

They are considered to be very high-maintenance, as you would imagine. It takes a tremendous amount of time, effort, patience, and experience to house them, provide them with enrichment, and keep them safe and secure. No matter how much you fantasize about them, you must accept the fact that they are not house pets. Otters are not ferrets; they are not animals that should be kept with the intention of cuddling it.

I cannot recommend any otter species as a personal "pet," although a few have maintained a strong bond with their handler their entire life.

— Ken's Exotics

How to Care for Otters as Pets

If you have managed to acquire an otter, please make sure you know how to care for it properly and that you are committed to keeping it for the entirety of its lifetime. Below is a basic care guide.


Captive otters require caging. No, you don’t need to have a massive zoo enclosure with a natural lake (although it wouldn’t hurt), but housing Asian small-clawed otters will still present a challenge for the average person or even an advanced exotic pet keeper. The cage should have a decent size that allows the animal adequate room to exercise and forge. Instead of citing specific sizes, I would recommend simply imagining what you would deem an acceptable length and width for a very energetic and playful carnivore that will spend most, if not all, of its life in the enclosure. In such a case, the average dog run won't cut it.

The fact that these otters require a tropical climate may be why they tend to be kept mostly by zoo professionals. You will need to provide a heated area for them when temperatures drop below 50°F. The ideal temperature for their pool is 75-85°F, but they also need a dry area because if they are wet all the time, they can develop health issues. Depending on the size, the cage should provide at least 30% water. Otters do climb, adding to the complexity of the habitat, so a top is required. Fencing needs to extend in-ground because they can also dig out.

In summary:

  • Cage should be outdoors.
  • Cage should have a top and fencing needs to extend in-ground.
  • If you do not live in a warm climate, supplementary heat is necessary for land and water.
  • Pool should make up about 30% of the enclosure.
  • There should be a dry area.
  • There should be hollowed out logs, aptly placed shrubs and trees, and various cage furniture that will make the space more interesting.


  • An otter’s diet can vary in captivity. They are carnivores with a high metabolic rate, requiring them to consume 20% of their body weight per day.
  • The base can consist of nutritionally-complete cat food.
  • 70-80% of the diet can be meat-based and can consist of day-old chicks, chicken, venison, rabbit, etc.
  • 20-30% should be fish.
  • Vegetables, insects, crayfish, monkey nuts, soft-boiled eggs, etc. can also be offered to supplement the diet. This can be fed irregularly with a "scatter" method to ward off stereotypic behavior — something that occurs when certain animals are fed at specific times.

This is only a very simplified introduction to feeding. More information can be found by referring to the Asian Small-Clawed Otter Husbandry Manual.

What Is a Pet Otter Like? Do They Make Good Pets?


Otters are usually kept outdoors because they emit an odor. They smear their droppings, which they produce constantly to mark their territory.


Otters and most exotic pets may not like to be restrained, especially with strangers. People who like to physically interact with their pets will be disappointed. When you see cute baby otters interacting with their keepers — such as those in the videos here — remember that these are often socialized babies that have not yet undergone maturation.

Nevertheless, otters are personable, entertaining little creatures, as you would expect from their reputation. You can discover many popular videos of them interacting with their caretakers in ways other than direct contact.


It is extremely important that you provide diverse enrichment for otters — and all animals for that matter. Some ideas include:

  • Freeze food in ice cubes on a hot day.
  • Take feathers directly from the bird so the scent is present, and scatter them in various places.
  • Place food out of reach so the animal needs to work out how to get it down.
  • There are also many food dispensing devices available for dogs and cats that must be manipulated to dispense treats. These toys are excellent for species that hunt and forge.

Otters are also very spiritual
Otters are also very spiritual

What Legal Pets Are Like Otters?

Domesticated minks are actually semi-aquatic and far more readily-available, if legal. However, like all mustelids that aren’t domesticated ferrets, they are also challenging to keep, and will require large enclosures and extensive enrichment. Also, according to mink expert Joseph Carter, their bites can cause severe injury, although this is likely not worse than anything an otter bite can inflict.

Then there are, of course, ferrets. If you like animals you can cuddle, ferrets are popular domesticated pets and can be a fine substitute for their larger and aquatic brown cousins.

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

  • Are otters legal in Pennsylvania?

    Yes, but you would have to be granted a permit, which isn't easy.

  • Are otters legal to have as pets in North Carolina?

    Non-native otters are.

  • Are otters legal pets in California?


  • Are pet otters legal in Canada?

    Probably not. Different provinces have different laws.


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    • profile image

      Jerry Holly 

      4 days ago

      I understand how people strongly oppose having otters as pets. These animals are also preys in the wild and keeping these animals as pet increase their chances of survival greatly

    • profile image


      7 weeks ago

      I was headstrong about owning an otter and this article actually dissuaded me... people are insane nowadays, would you rather there I have not come across this information then got an otter and regretted? Or someone actually get it and have no proper information on how to care for it? Listen people, trying to stifle information will only lead to more of that thing your trying to stop... don’t be ignorant.

    • profile image


      7 weeks ago

      This article is very upfront and honest, however when reading the comments I was overwhelmed with all the ignorance. I have to say that most though not all of the comments cause me extreme concern regarding our society today. The comments definitely show that MOST of you should probably NEVER OWN ANY PET because your way of thinking is... WOW!! I just have no words for it!

      Great job on this article, Melissa! Sometimes people can't handle the truth. I guess they'd much rather be coddled and have everything handed to them SMH

      We are living in a world full of ignorant, entitled, beings who have little/no respect for anyone or anything. It's scary to think of what it'll be like in just 5-10 more years.

    • profile image


      8 weeks ago

      I thank you for the info! I was looking into purchasing a friend but after all this I think it’s not the best for either of us. And for those shaming her in the comments. She did nothing wrong she’s a vet giving you advice on a animal that people love and right now have are popular. She’s advising you not

      To. But if you do decide to own an otter telling you how to properly care for your new family member. Stop being sensitive everyone

    • profile image


      2 months ago

      You should remove this article and every advise on owning exotic pets. All you say and recommend is ethically against your Vet degree! I do not even need to mention you all the reasons why. You should be ashamed Mellissa!

    • profile image


      2 months ago

      A certified veterinarian giving advise on how to get an exotic animal to own as a pet? EXOTIC ANIMALS ARE NOT PETS. They belong in the wild, where they can swim, run, hunt and live freely. In the wild they live in families of up to 15, which contrasts with their life in captivity. Not to mention the sad ways in which they are breed, in cages, only to then be separated from their significant others. Animals and mostly exotic ones are not our toys or our means to make money. Mrs Smith, inform yourself, go back to University to learn the BASIC ethics of your job.

    • profile image


      3 months ago

      where can you buy otters

    • profile image

      Bettina Hayes 

      4 months ago

      The woman in the video DOES SAY she would 100% NOT recommend an otter as a pet...

    • Melissa A Smith profile imageAUTHOR

      Melissa A Smith 

      6 months ago from New York

      Shame on you! : They are not illegal to breed. You just made that up and got angry for no reason.

    • profile image

      Shame on you! 

      6 months ago

      All 13 species of otters are wild animals, extremely sensitive to environmental changes, and are a marking, latrine species. Over half of all 13 otter species are endangered or vulnerable and are not legally breed - they have to be capture, usually by killing the mother and confiscating the pups. Given their sensitivity, less than 10% are likely to survive to adoption.

    • profile image

      Joe miller 

      11 months ago

      if you want to have a wire sort of cage and live in a winter climate would i have to make a little room with heating

    • profile image

      Leah Fitschen 

      11 months ago

      Can otter be potty trained?

    • Melissa A Smith profile imageAUTHOR

      Melissa A Smith 

      12 months ago from New York

      faithsteeley No

    • profile image


      12 months ago

      Can you have an Asian small clawed otter as a pet in the state of Georgia

    • profile image


      12 months ago

      Add your comment....

    • profile image


      14 months ago

      Is it illegal to own an otter in the UK?

    • profile image

      Carl Bailey 

      15 months ago

      Check out Otter Bingo and Otter Kotaro on U-Tube.

    • profile image

      Old Granny 

      15 months ago

      If I become rich in my future I will definetly buy a otter

    • profile image


      15 months ago

      Im from Saudi Arabia how can buy one ?!

    • profile image


      15 months ago

      This is great for kids like me to learn about otters

    • profile image


      16 months ago

      I just bought a baby otter and it is really scared and it attack me how to tame and make him bite me

    • profile image


      16 months ago

      I’m in Canada, BC, and it didn’t say anything about owning a pet otter, and I left a comment on the other page, but I was wondering if it’s legal in BC. Thanks.

    • profile image


      17 months ago

      Unless you do what Joseph Carter does for his mink to keep them busy, I wouldn't recommend them as pets to most people. Even ferrets are not necessarily easy pets but the first thing I would recommend as a mustelid for a pet.

    • profile image

      Otter Lover 

      17 months ago

      States where Otters may be legal, New York. Are otters legal in New York? No.

    • profile image


      18 months ago

      At least highlight that it’s for America

    • profile image


      19 months ago

      how much is a sea otter

    • profile image


      19 months ago

      can u own a otter in ohio or any other place please respond because im in highschool and i have plans to move to a place that allows pet otters please respond this important or my dreams wil be crushed to live a happy life

    • profile image


      19 months ago

      really i cant find any where to own one now i feel depressed so where

      can i get without doing anything hard

      cus im planning to move to a state that allows them whith a friend. please can someone help

    • profile image

      Alexis Burns 

      20 months ago

      Where can you find a otter??????

    • profile image

      Charles sim 

      20 months ago

      Valentina z not all exotic pets are ripped away from their habitat some are rescued. Also do you own any dogs or cats? They werent always domesticated they were rescued or ripped away from thier habitat as well for generations. Its not like they are using them for fur or food. When you see horror movies about canibbals or something you feel freaked out do you eat meat how do you think the cows,pigs and lambs feel and so on. Point is people that invest this kind of money on pets love them. If i found a fox or coyote i would raise it. Do you know they have a higher rate of dying of starvation in the wild or dehydration or cars or other animals or hundreds of other things can kill them.my home is a safer place for most animals. My dogs have full access to run outside and play in the backyard but they choose to stay inside on a bed watching tv and eatting treats. Just saying because you want an exotic pet doesnt make you a bad person.

    • profile image


      21 months ago

      IM SO SAD READING THESE COMMENTS AND THIS ARTICLE IN GENERAL! Have you think for A SECOND how do they take them from their habitat?? They force them, they are not pets, they are not our possession, they belong to nature! It’s so sad everyone just don’t care about an species wellbeing just for the fact you as a human want to be cool having a otter pet.

      It’s time to wake up and change, seriously. Poor animals in those cages, would you like to be in jail ? NO

    • EricFarmer8x profile image

      Eric Farmer 

      22 months ago from Rockford Illinois

      On one hand, this sounded somewhat cute but some of the things you listed as negatives really turn me off owning an Otter as a pet.

    • profile image

      Angela Trainor 

      22 months ago

      I’m looking to train otters at the zoo to learn how to care for exotics. Are there any research programs to help repopulate endangered species of otters such as the Congo clawless otter which so little is known about. It could benefit the scientific community as well since little is known about their behaviors.

    • profile image


      23 months ago

      Can I buy a baby otter. Because I love otters.

    • profile image


      24 months ago

      i love otters

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Hi I'm looking to buy a otter I want to know how much they go for

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      So, witchcraft is used on the animals?

    • Melissa A Smith profile imageAUTHOR

      Melissa A Smith 

      2 years ago from New York

      People in Japan are notorious for doing whatever they want and making it work. They would come to the nano-reef forums posting spotless 10 gallon tanks loaded with fish including tangs. They have exotic pet stores with meerkats in rabbit cages. I don't approve but it amazes me the animals aren't showing obvious signs of distress.

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Well I did come come across an instragram account of a pet otter in Japan, and I never saw a outdoor cage in the account. Would it require witchcraft for an otter to stay alive like that? Also They really have an annoying squeal.


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