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Can You Legally Own a Pet Otter, and How?

Updated on January 26, 2017
Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa is an exotic pet owner, zoo attender, and plant obsessed person and doesn't think there is anything wrong with that.

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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 keep exotic pets like fennec foxes, wild cats, and marmosets legally. Other zoological animals, like those in the link below, are not kept as pets because they are illegal or unobtainable, at least in the United States. With those and other exceptions, if the animal can be kept in a zoo, it can probably be privately owned.

But is it legal? 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 have bans on big cats, primates, and bears. In states that allow more surprising species as pets, the majority of counties and towns don’t allow it.

Giant otter
Giant otter

Are Otters Legal?

Most or all states will likely ban possession of native otters and the Marine Mammal Protection Act strongly protects marine species (sea otters), but there is one species, the Asian small clawed otters, which should be legal in some states. If a state doesn’t prohibit the possession of so-called non-domesticated carnivores, the family Mustelidae of which they are a member, and doesn’t have an awful list of ‘non-regulated’ species that deems all animals not on it illegal, these otters might be legal! But buying an otter as a pet will obviously be discouraged by animal control and Department of Health officials.

Facts about the Asian Clawed otter

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

Baby Asian River Otter

Are Asian Otters 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 in even the exotic pet keeping community. They are considered to be very high-maintenance, as you would imagine, when it comes to housing them, providing enrichment, and keeping them safe and secure as they are not house pets. Otters are not ferrets; they are not animals that should be kept with the intention of cuddling it.

I can not 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

Caging

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 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 shouldn’t cut it. There should be hollowed out logs, shrubs, trees aptly placed—various cage furniture that will make the space more interesting.

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 get 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
  • Outside of warm climates, supplementary heat is necessary for land and water.
  • Pool should make up about 30% of the enclosure
  • There should be a dry area

Diet

  • 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, ect. 20-30% should be fish.
  • Other Foods—Vegetables, insect prey, crayfish, monkey nuts, soft-boiled eggs, ect. can also be offered to supplement the diet, and this can be fed with a ‘scatter’ method irregularly to ward of stereotypic behavior, something that occurs when certain animals are fed at specific times. This is only a very simplified introduction to feeding, and more information can be found in the links at the end of the article.

Living with an otter

Otters are also 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 like dogs, cats, and ferrets, especially with strangers. People who like to interact with their pets physically will be disappointed. When you see cute baby otters interacting with their keepers—such as those in the videos here—remember that these are pften socialized babies not having undergone maturation yet.

Otters are personable, entertaining little creatures as you would expect from their reputation. One can discover many popular videos of them interacting with their caretakers involving ways other than direct contact. It is extremely important for otters—and really all animals—to have diverse enrichment provided. Food items can be frozen in ice cubes on hot days, feathers (direct from the animal so the scent is present) can be sprinkled in various places, and food can be placed out of reach so the animal needs to work out how to get it down. There are many food dispensing devices available for dogs and cats that must be manipulated to dispense treats that are excellent for species that hunt and forge.

Otters are also very spiritual
Otters are also very spiritual

Where to find a pet otter?

And here comes the biggest obstacle if you are still intent on owning this aquatic creature…where can you find one? They are extremely uncommonly offered 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 seen them offered for sale occasionally on Exoticanimalsforsale.net in the past, but not for a while.

An Alternative to an Otter

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, requiring larger 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, there's no reason these popular domesticated animals can't be a fine substitute for their larger and aquatic brown cousins.

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      ManNewt 2 months ago

      So, witchcraft is used on the animals?

    • Melissa A Smith profile image
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      Melissa A Smith 2 months 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.

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      ManNewt 2 months 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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