Your Weird Animal Questions Answered: Is a Sloth a Good Pet?

This week on Weird Animal Questions, we’re focusing on the critters closest to your heart—pets.

If we were going to domesticate another species like we did with cats (sorta) and dogs (yeay!), what would be the best candidate?—Charles Martin via Facebook

A. We didn’t domesticate the dog so much as the wolf domesticated itself, and then became the dog we know and love today. (See a related video: “The Start of the Domestic Dog.”)

A photo of white-tailed deer.
White-tailed deer. Photograph by Lisse Tarnanen, National Geographic Your Shot

Brian Hare, director of Duke University’s Canine Cognition Center in Durham, North Carolina, told us by email: “It is likely that in the case of many domesticates that they chose us, not that we intentionally created them.”

For instance, he said, “wolves that were fearless, interested, and friendly toward humans were more likely to take advantage of reliable resources [such as human waste and garbage] as humans began to settle more permanently around 12,000 years ago.” (Read how animals were domesticated in National Geographic magazine.)

What’s more, “we are likely in the largest self-domestication event in our species’ history as a host of animals begin to take advantage of urban environments and relative safety,” said Hare, who is co-author, with Vanessa Wood, of the new book The Genius of Dogs.

The authors write in the book that carnivores like bobcats, foxes, and coyotes have been moving further into our urban areas. Hare also notes that deer have become a more frequent part of the urban landscape.

Why can’t I have a pet otter? How about a pet sloth?—Susan Moynihan via Facebook

Otters aren’t suitable as pets, according to Lisa Wathne, captive wildlife specialist at the Humane Society of the United States.

A three-toed sloth. Photograph by Theresa Lord, National Geographic Your Shot

“Otters are semiaquatic, very active, and social animals,” Wathne said in an email. The mammals also require a lot of water to swim in, a lot of fish to eat, and other otters for company.

Not to mention the fact that “otters have sharp claws and teeth and the ability to inflict serious and painful bites.” They even eat alligators. (Related: “How a River Otter Can Bag an Alligator for Lunch.”)

Sloths aren’t good pets either. They require a specialized diet, a constantly warm and humid environment, and need to spend a lot of time suspended from high branches.

Even so, sloths are a new “fad” pet, and continue to be obtained through illegal animal trafficking. “It can be difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether or not a sloth was taken from the wild,” Wathne said.

If you do have your heart set on an exotic pet, check into federal, state, county, and city laws as to whether the animal is legal in your area. (Read more about exotic pets in National Geographic magazine.)

Are certain types of vehicles especially likely to arouse the urge to chase in dogs?—Robert C. Brooke

Chasing specific vehicles or even bikes and skateboards can be due to an association the dog has made with that vehicle, Jennifer Bolser, chief clinician at the Humane Society of Boulder Valley in Colorado, said in an email.

For instance, the dog might think every vehicle of that make “should have his owner in it,” Bolser said, and the owner may not even be aware of it. (Read this 1922 story of a dog who reacted to a particular make of car his owner once had.)

Delivery vans are another matter. “When delivery drivers come to the door, the dog barking ‘chases’ them away, which is very reinforcing for that behavior,” said Kirsten C. Theisen, director of pet care issues at the Humane Society of the United States.

When dogs identify those types of vans on the street, they may react in the same protective way, but it’s much more risky. (Take National Goegraphic’s dog quiz.)

“Dogs should never be allowed to chase any vehicle, as it puts people and the dog in great danger,” Theisen said.

Got any pressing animal questions? Leave them below!

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Liz Langley is the award-winning author of Crazy Little Thing: Why Love and Sex Drive Us Mad and has written for many publications including Salon, Details and the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter @LizLangley and at www.lizlangley.com