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
  • Liberty Smith

    they are the most adorable things ever. the deers look so cute, and the sloth looks like it is smiling

  • Melissa Francis

    My life is so much more amazing with National Geographic. Learning and discovering makes me feel so much more whole….I would say…

  • Tim Stoffel

    First of all, to Lisa Wathne and crew at the Humane Society of the US, bacteria would make poor pets! Their goal is no pets, or other use of animals by humans, of any kind, for any reason.

    Second, although I am not at all opposed to the conecpt of a pet sloth– or pet otter for the right people, there are certainly easier to work with animals out there. We hold 2-toed sloths and they have some fairly complex husbandry requirements, including a warm, high humidity habitat. Vets for sloths (and otters, for that matter) are few and far between.Otters require a habitat containing lots of water and a lot of space. These are expensive to build and maintain. But if you have the resources to do it properly, I am all for it!

  • Phil Gardner

    I adopted a dog from a rural Montana shelter. This dog resembles and has many characteristics of a coyote. I have read about coy-dogs (coyote-dog hybrids) and am very curious to find out if our dog is one. I cannot find a DNA test available to determine this. Any suggestions?

  • Roger Tyson

    Speaking of weird pets…

    On the lighter side of pet ownership…

    “My Pet Vortex”:

    Having a rift in the space-time continuum is one thing…


    …but keeping it off the bed is REALLY hard!

  • Brian Edwards

    I decided after many years and many pets that I was not going to keep any more pets where the care and feeding were not well documented and reliable. I did this for the welfare of the animals concerned. Mind you that leaves me with a dog, a cat, chooks and seed eating cagebirds which are enough extra mouths to feed.

  • Arietta

    How quickly does a lion’s mane grow? For example, if you shaved a lion’s mane off, how long until it grows back?

    Why haven’t moose been domesticated? They seem like they’d be much more useful than horses.

  • Dylan M

    Not mentioning the bacteria, algae, and/or mold that grows in the fur of sloths … blech …

  • Liz Langley

    @Phil Gardner Your question is answered today in this week’s Weird Animal Questions – thank you!

  • Liz Langley

    Thanks, Arietta! Your lion’s mane question was answered in this week’s column (link below)…working on your moose question as we speak. 🙂


  • prabir kumar ray

    Much amazed to know about many animals .i become much interested .please help me in subject so I can bag more knowledge.

  • ace cruz

    i once had a pet mexican painted tarantrular spider….not to mention that not many of my family membersdidn’t appreciated it ;; thought that i was crazy to have a pet spider,it lived with me for 4 years,i loved her ….named her zeny . she was red,yellow and black,grew to about the size of a adult human man’s hand. it hurted me when she past , i even gave her a burrial,never again to own a pet spider

  • Liz Langley

    @ace cruz
    Totally understood – I’m sorry about your pet. I’ve had insects and lizards as pets and felt the same way when they passed.

  • Bernard Black

    The Best pet to keep is a Politician!

  • Demetri

    lol@ Liberty Smith

  • Pat Thobu

    shelters ate gull of domesticated and non domesticated animals, that man’s fancy leads them to believe they are in need of something more, some thing no-one else has. if you are a wild animal, admire it, then leave it be. put YPUR friends our children in cages instead of upsetting Gods order of things, especially since you will lose your magic for that animal. I have spent my life trying to fix noted people’s fantasies. looking for something to do, go volunteer in a shelter where you can see first hand what your stupid egos do. animals belong to God. let him care for them.

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