How to Legally Care for a Pet Sloth
While the interest in keeping sloths as pets has soared recently, there is very little care information available on this delicate species. These animals are rare in the pet trade, however they are available in some specialty pet stores and breeders that offer them online (typically only to experienced homes). There should be an appropriate guide that can provide an introduction to suitable sloth husbandry and other important information concerning their status in captivity and the wild.
Can you buy a pet sloth?
The answer as mentioned previously is yes; they are available on exotic pet websites and classifieds occasionally. They are usually in the $2000-$6500 price range, but that is just the purchase price of the animal alone. Since they are not non-human primates, they may even be legal if they are not strictly defined in your state’s wild animal ordinance.
Perhaps the appeal of these unique animals is their ‘charisma’; they look like lazy lounge lizards that you can wrap around your neck, similarly to the lemur plush toys with Velcro on their hands that are sold in zoos. Sloths also have interesting faces, and their lethargic movements make them appear to be a low-maintenance pet. However, they are not. Sloths are extremely hard to care for in captivity in the long term, even at the professional level.
Owner getting sloth
What exactly are sloths?
Two-toed sloths are within the genus Choloepus and they are the only surviving members of the family Megalonychidae. The Linnaeus's two-toed sloth (Choloepus didactylus) and Hoffmann's two-toed sloth comprise this genus.
Bradypus is the genus of the three-toed sloth. Two-toed sloths give birth to only one baby with a gestation of about 6 months to a year, and the babies reach sexual maturity at 3 years of age.
Sloths cannot walk on land but they can swim well. They are mostly nocturnal. In the wild, they are mainly folivores, also consuming berries, flowers, twigs, and some animal protein. The weight of two-toed sloths is approximately 12-19 pounds, depending on the state in their defecation cycle, as their poop can account for up to 40% of their body weight. Sloths have evolved to do nearly everything upside down.
Sloths are certainly unique and fascinating. They use the bathroom once very few days, descending down from the trees to bury their droppings. They also have symbiotic algae growing on their fur that is their main form of protection.
The current state of sloth husbandry is still in the preliminary stages, hence why they are not commonly seen in zoos. There is much research that still needs to be done with them, making their indiscriminate sales a bit of a concern. There are two types of sloths; two-toed and three-toed. Three-fingered sloths do not survive outside of their natural habitat, so you will only see two-toed sloths available that are captive-bred; specifically the Linnaeus' two-toed sloth.
A good portion of the information provided here comes from the Sloth Captive Husbandry Research Center, which is one of the few facilities focusing on the captive care of two-toed sloths. Unfortunately, this facility doesn't believe in educating pet owners on how to care for their sloths, despite the fact that they were very active in the pet trade a few years ago, even selling sloths as pets.
Feeding captive two-toed sloths is part of their challenging care. In the wild, they consume specific vegetation. The domesticated vegetables and fruits we find in the grocery store are unique from the densely fibrous and bitter leaves of their jungle habitat—this provides insight into why meeting the dietary needs of sloths is not a simple endeavor. Zoological grade prepared diets for high-fiber-eating animals such as Mazuri High Fiber Sticks and other leaf eater foods might provide adequate nutrition in addition to supplementary vegetables (preferably those low in sugar) such as squash, baby carrots, green beans and sweet potatoes mixed in.The Sloth Center also writes:
"mix 1/2 tsp of food-grade diatomaceous earth (internal parasite control); 1/2 tsp of crushed freeze-dried Silkworm Pupae or cruhed dried meal worms; 1/2 tsp powdered blue-green algae (protein, vitamins, minerals); 1/2 tsp TNT; 1/4 tsp Embauba powder into their base diet".
Water of course, should always be available in the form of a bowl that is accessible in the higher areas of the enclosure as well as the ground. Being good swimmers, sloths may also enjoy taking a dip in a large pool. The gut of the sloth is fragile and the diet should be concocted through an educated approach. Continued research of the optimum captive sloth diet is certainly needed.
This extremely delicate species should have well-planted housing to meet its needs. This would consist of a large walk-in aviary-type enclosure with a decent height (around 8 feet high) with branches, ropes, and other apparatuses for the animal to cling on to as it would in the wild. This would obviously be an expense, and these cages are not typically sold by pet dealers.
It may be simpler to build this type of enclosure, or provide a special room in a quiet area. It might seem unusual to call sloths 'active', but they do need a large amount of space so they can carry out their forging activities in a non-congested area. There should also be opportunities for forging enrichment such as strapping on vegetable leaves around the enclosure. Whatever structure is chosen as the enclosure, it should have the appropriate temperature control.
Temperature and Humidity
Sloths have such limited musculature that they cannot shiver to keep warm and their body temperature is dependent on their surroundings. Therefore, as one may guess, this fragile animal is highly sensitive to fluctuations in temperature and exposure to prolonged periods of 'extreme' heat and cold, which could be deadly. Therefore, housing this animal outside during the summer in Texas or Florida would pose issues, as would keeping them outdoors during the fall and winters of most states. Keeping the sloth indoors is likely to provide the best temperature gradient, which should closely mimic the rain forest climate and its humidity levels (jungles tend to have high humidity levels around 90-100%) .
While the number of exotic pet vets is on the rise (although many so-called 'exotic' vets won't see anything other than typical pets like ferrets, guinea pigs, and birds), the likelihood of getting a vet experienced with sloths is absurdly slim. Obviously, the best vet, and probably the only vet that should be used with this extremely unique animal is a person who is certified (or highly experienced) in the care of zoo animals and wildlife.
These vets can do things like take important fecal samples annually to check for parasitic infection, however it is likely that even zoo vets may have no hands on experience with this uncommon animal. This makes maintaining perfect heath even more essential, as there are few safety nets for mistakes. Sloths are prone to many issues as they have a complicated and sensitive gut. They are also prone to stress; even moving sloths in their native home has resulted in a 30% mortality rate. Therefore, it is important to limit handling. Sloths are not 'cuddle' pets.
With proper care, sloths can live more than 30 years.
Illegal Wildlife Trade in Sloths
There is another important aspect of sloth husbandry that deserves mention. Sloths, along with a few other species are popular animals that are taken illegally from the wild to be sold as pets in their native countries. Often, the exotic pet trade in the United States is wholly blamed for the activities of a few individuals, but exotic pets arrive from many sources, including captive breeding.
If seriously considering an at-risk species, they should always be bought directly from a seller who is the breeder, or can provide in-depth information on where the animal comes from. There is nothing wrong with professionals taking a small number of animals from the wild for propagation, as long proper quarantine procedures are followed and if it is sustainable in the long run.
Conservation Status (Linnaeus's two-toed sloth)
Least Concern: The populations of this species are presumed to be large, and sloths are not in direct conflict with humans (they are unpopular as bush meat, and they live high in the trees). Populations however may be declining due to habitat loss, and there is insufficient information on their population density. They are present mainly in protected areas.
So let's review the needs of these animals if you haven't made it through reading this entire article.
- Sloths are extremely sensitive to stressful captive conditions: transportation, improper or changes in the temperature, low humidity, and too little space can all severely impact captive sloths.
- They need large, aviary-like housing, a specialized diet, enrichment, and high humidity should be maintained.
There are many videos floating around with people playing with sloths, mostly from their countries of origin in rescue centers, and this may present this animal as a hug-able human-looking teddy bear. However, they are challenging and delicate, and should only be attempted by individuals willing to keep them with a professional and scientific approach.
Much more needs to be learned about this species, and keepers should keep up with the latest findings; however this is a great thing to do with all exotic pets. Private ownership of wildlife can be positive thing, but only if it's done properly.
If you are frustrated that this animal is not the perfect companion that it has been often made out to be, just remember another fact: The Linnaeus's two-toed sloth has been recorded seeking out and feeding on human fecal matter from latrines. That just may be enough to render their appeal neutral.