A Guide to Legally Owning and Caring for a Pet Otter
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 different reasons, at least in the United States. Native birds are also federally protected.
Interestingly, however, otters could be legally obtained for private ownership.
States Where Pet Otters Are Possibly Legal
Are Otters Legal?
There are a wide number of laws and regulations regarding "exotic" animals as pets, so a direct answer cannot be given. 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.
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 to Find 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.
- 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.
Living With an Otter
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.
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, 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.