When you first look at a capybara, you won’t quite understand what kind of animal you’re seeing. They appear to be a cross between an overgrown guinea pig and a beaver, which is appropriate, since they are related to both animals.
The capybara is native to almost all regions of South America except Chile, and is the world’s largest rodent. They are also kin to the porcupine, mara, and more distantly to the chinchilla and agouti.
In their native habitat, the capybara is called a “water hog.” The species is not threatened, and enjoys population stability in part because they breed easily and prolifically.
Capybara are hunted for their pelts and meat. A grease derived from their skin is used in pharmaceuticals, and the hide itself makes an unusually high-quality leather.
Farmers mistakenly view the animals as competitors for prime grazing land with domesticated livestock, primarily cattle, and kill them as nuisance pests.
These pressures have not, however, affected the wide distribution of the species, and capybaras actually benefit from deforestation that creates more available grassland.
Populations of capybara living along rivers do disappear in the presence of intense human populations, but overall, the species has proven remarkably adaptable and enduring.
Capybara are semi-aquatic, and prefer areas of dense forest near rivers, lakes, swamps, marshes, or ponds as well as flooded savannas.
One of their favorite pastimes is wallowing in mud, which they do when the heat rises at midday. In the afternoon and early evening they graze, then rest until midnight before continuing to feed until dawn.
Agile and swift, they can reach speeds over short distances comparable to that of a horse and seemingly turn on a,dime. Capybaras are also superb swimmers and can remain submerged for as long as five minutes.
A capybara vaguely resembles a barrel with legs. They are heavy animals with brownish to red fur covering the upper body, yellowish hair on their bellies, and vestigial tails.
There are no color or coat variations. The hair is wiry in texture and sheds only a few coarse strands at a time. As adults, their hair is thinly dispersed, which can make them easily subject to sunburn. They have no odor.
Size and Weight
Adults reach a maximum length of 3.51-4.40 feet (107-134 cm) and are 20-25 inches (50-64 cm) tall at the withers, the highest part of the back near the neck.
Their average weight is 77-146 lbs. (35-66 kg), with some wild specimens topping out at 162 lbs. (73.5 kg). Females tend to be somewhat heavier than males.
In stature, the hind legs are a little higher than the front. There are four toes on the front feet and three on the back, all slightly webbed.
Head and Jaws
The heavy heads end in blunt muzzles with small eyes and ears located near the top of the head. Since they lack a perpendicular jaw hinge, they chew their food in a grinding side-to-side motion.
They are somewhat similar to cattle in that they will often regurgitate their food to chew it again. Capybaras are also coprophagous, eating their own feces to maintain their gut flora and to more efficiently digest the high cellulose content of their diet.
Like most rodents, capybara’s teeth grow continually to compensate for the wearing action of their diet. They are born with a complete set of teeth and are ready to eat “adult” food immediately.
Also, like guinea pigs, they cannot synthesize Vitamin C and require supplementation to avoid issues with scurvy, a common health problem in this species.
To have healthy bones, capybaras require adequate amounts of sunlight, and will suffer debilitating deterioration if kept indoors constantly or in a shed with no sunny yard.
Capybaras have one scent gland on the snout called a morillo and an anal gland also used for scent marking. These structures are present in both genders, but are larger and more prominent in males.
The dark, hairless morillo is clearly visible as a raised semi-oval lump on the snout of males. It secretes copious amounts of a sticky, white fluid. The anal glands in males are lined with detachable hairs coated in a crystalline secretion. Both substances adhere to objects as a mark of territoriality.
Scent marking is accomplished either by rubbing an object with the morillo, walking over something to disperse the anal hairs, or by urinating.
Females typically do not mark territory with urine, and on a whole mark less frequently than males unless they are in estrus.
Capybaras communicate with a host of vocalizations that range from a very dog-like bark to an “eep” that is similar to a “wheek” in a guinea pig. They also growl, whistle, and whinny. As infants, capybaras let out an almost constant guttural purr.
They are highly communicative with one another and with the humans with whom they bond. Owner blogs are full of stories of their capybaras waking them up for breakfast, and communicating reactions spanning the spectrum from excitement and curiosity to annoyance.
Capybaras seem to possess an uncanny amount of emotional intelligence and pick up easily on their owner’s moods. For this reason they respond well to verbal praise and by nature are anxious to please.
Listen to the sounds your pets make and try to imitate the vocalizations when appropriate. Capybaras seem to especially enjoy this kind of “talk,” and will carry on complete conversations with you, even if you have absolutely no idea what you’re saying!
They also really like it when you get own on their level and act like one of the “herd.”
In captivity, a capybara lives 8-12 years. In the wild, however, they easily fall prey to jaguars, pumas, eagles, caimans, and the anaconda among other predators. Consequently, the average age at death is four years.
Capybaras submerge themselves in water for minutes at a time to escape predators and will even sleep in the water with only their noses exposed. As needed they can close both their noses and ears to protect these orifices from an influx of water.
Capybara groups graze on home ranges of about 25 acres (10 hectares) eating both grass and aquatic vegetation. They will eat fruit if it is available, and tree bark, but they are highly selective.
They are extremely gregarious and social animals and typically live in groups of 10-20. These units consist of 2-4 adult males, 4-7 adult females, and a number of juveniles.
The social structure is a hierarchy built around a dominant male. Subordinate males serve distinct roles on the periphery of the group, playing lookout at night and signaling the herd with alarm calls in the event of danger.
Do They Make Good Pets?
Like many exotic animals with unusually good natures, the capybara has been brought into the pet trade. Just because they are kept as companion animals, however, does not necessarily mean this is a good idea.
Before you consider adopting a capybara as a pet, you should carefully consider each of the following factors.
Highly Specific Habitat Needs
Because capybaras are semi-aquatic, they must have access to both water and mud. They prefer to defecate in water, and they use mud to cool down and to protect themselves from potential sunburn.
Although they can be taught to defecate in dry pans, they still must have enough water to submerge, and preferably to swim, which means owners should have some amount of outside space for their pets.
Social Herd Animals
Domestication involves more than an animal simply living in harmony with man. The animal’s needs must be met in both a physical and emotional sense for the arrangement to be successful and mutually beneficial.
Capybaras are not just social, they are intensely social. They are as intelligent as dogs and crave constant companionship.
If capybaras are kept in a one-on-one relationship with a human, their separation anxiety will go off the charts if left alone. This is true even if you attempt to get the capybara to sleep alone at night.
These animals are most successfully kept in captivity in small groups outdoors. Capybaras are perfectly amenable to human interaction under these circumstances and are highly affectionate, which is why they have become popular in petting zoos.
Learn Well and Are Trainable
Due to their high level of intelligence, a capybara can learn almost anything from a patient owner with an understanding of how to train an animal. These creatures certainly can assimilate what is and is not acceptable behavior.
If they do not receive gentle correction and consistent discipline, a capybara with “inside” privileges will chew the carpet, gnaw the table legs, yank down the curtains, and come up with a whole host of equally creative and destructive “projects.”
They are remarkably anxious to please, however, so discipline really need be little more than obvious verbal disapproval.
If this is countered with loving praise for things done well or correctly, a capybara can acquire good “manners” rather quickly. This does not change the fact, however, that they do ultimately grow too large to be exclusively indoor pets.
Try to think of all communication with a capybara as a two-way street. They have a complex communication system within their groups built on vocalizations and body language.
When you become part of their “group” in captivity, a capybara will give as much information as they receive, asking for things they want or enjoy.
In teaching a capybara to do anything, consistent, patient repetition is best. They will respond to whistles, verbal directives, and treats.
They easily learn their names, and will perform various dog-like actions to get food including “twirling,” and standing on their hind legs.
There are many owner stories online about house training capybaras complete with photographs. There’s more than enough evidence of success in this arena to silence even the worst naysayer.
When you show one of these animals what to do, and are consistent with your instruction, they are typically quite happy to accommodate you.
It also does not hurt that they are, by nature, very clean and prefer not to soil their habitat, which is excellent if they’re living in the house with you!
Having a housebroken capybara works best, however, only when the animal is still small enough to practically live inside. As your capybara grows, it really does need to take its “business” outside.
Since some capybaras will only defecate in water, the growing scope of the potential problems should be readily apparent.
Owners can opt to offer their pets both wet and dry litter trays, but if the capybara wants to be in the water, you automatically have problems.
You’re talking about an animal that will weigh 77-146 lbs. (35-66 kg). A “pan” of water may actually be more like a “tub,” which means splashing, potential water damage to your home, and difficult clean-up and maintenance for the owner.
Again, just because the capybara can be taught to do something does not mean the doing of it is actually practical in the greater scheme of husbandry.
Ultimately, if you have a capybara, you will have to have outside space to keep the animal. This is not an apartment pet!
Biting and Aggression
Capybaras can bite. In fact, biting is their primary defense. They should not be grabbed quickly, an action they interpret as threatening.
When your capybara has learned to trust you, you can approach the animal more directly. In the beginning, however, it’s best to let a capybara initiate most exchanges, especially those that are affectionate, which can make them problematic with overly enthusiastic children.
Capybaras do have distinct personalities. Some individuals will thus be more or less prone to this type of defensive or startled biting behavior. Overall, however, capybaras are gentle and not easily provoked.
Digging and Escapes
Capybaras don’t dig, which is a plus in terms of preserving your yard, but as large as they are, these animals will squeeze through the slightest possible crack. They can also push through any kind of flexible wire fencing, so wood fencing is preferable.
Two capybaras can live well in a spacious backyard, but they must have plenty of room to run and play, places to hide, and completely secure fencing.
They must have access to water, so a pond is ideal. Depending on the climate, a shed lined with straw and potentially outfitted with a source of heat will also be necessary.
Under such circumstances, a capybara won’t actively seek a means of escape, but if one presents itself, the animals will take advantage of it. A fleet footed and potentially frightened capybara on the loose can be all but impossible to re-capture.
Male or Female?
The question of gender is a standard one in adoption considerations for almost any species. This is not a relevant issue with capybaras, however.
The personalities of both genders are equally good, and the final choice of a companion should be predicated much more on individual personality.
Most pets develop mature natures that are more or less in concert with the kind of attention and husbandry they receive from their owners. A well-cared for capybara is typically a well-behaved capybara.
Capybaras and Other Pets?
Until your capybara reaches a sufficient size to defend itself, all interactions with other animals should be closely supervised. In all likelihood when you acquire your pet it will be about the size of a guinea pig or a large rabbit.
At a young age, either a dog or cat can seriously injure a capybara. The larger the animal grows, the less likely cats are to be interested, but aggressive dogs should be watched at all times.
Although less so than other rodents due to their size, it is still possible for other pets, especially dogs, to see a capybara as prey.
Typically, however, capybaras are gentle giants and get along quite well with other animals. You can get an idea of just how placid they are from the website Animals Sitting on Capybaras at animalssittingoncapybaras.tumblr.com.
Garibaldi Rous, one of the Internet’s more famous capybaras that died in February 2014 was well known for his great affection for other animals, including a propensity for hugging cats.
His website, “Capybara Madness: A Pet Capybara’s View of the World,” at www.gianthamster.com, is an excellent resource for people wanting to explore all facets of life with a pet capybara. The archives span seven years and cover a huge range of topics.
As is often the case with the more unusual exotics, laws can be murky regarding capybaras.
In the United States, most states require that prospective owners apply for an import permit from the relevant state agency, generally either the agriculture department or the department of fish, game, and wildlife.
Before the animal can actually be brought into the state, it will be examined by a government veterinarian. This inspection will eliminate the presence of infectious diseases and evaluate the animal’s overall health and the quality of the care it has and is receiving.
In addition to the import permit, the owner will typically need to hold and maintain a general license to keep an exotic pet.
This ensures that the individual is accountable for the safe transport and maintenance of the animal, including keeping it in a proper habitat.
Similar laws apply to capybara ownership in the UK. Potential owners must acquire a license to keep the capybara, and should contact their local council for more information.
Applicants should be prepared for their homes to be inspected, and they must present a detailed care plan on which their suitability to own a capybara will be judged.
Estimated Purchase Price
Putting an accurate estimated cost on an animal like a capybara is extremely difficult. If you can find an exotic animal breeder and purchase a captive bred capybara, you will pay around $600 / £360.
If you have to purchase and import a capybara from South America, the price may not be substantially different for the animal itself, but shipping and associated expenses can range from $3,000-$8,000 / £1,804-£4,811.
Pros and Cons of Capybara Ownership
Since these factors could be considered positive or negative based on your own individual perception, I simply want to reiterate some major points in this list.
– Capybaras are large. Individuals average 77-146 lbs. (35-66 kg).
– They do shed, but only a few single hairs at a time. The hairs are wiry and very easy to vacuum up.
– Capybaras have no odor.
– While they are agreeable to interaction, it’s best to let them initiate the contact.
– They do not like to be grabbed, and can sometimes be frightened by an unexpected hug.
– They are not aggressive by nature, but they can bite if they are frightened or feel threatened.
– They need access to water in which they can submerge themselves and to mud.
– If they do not have access to mud, they can sunburn.
– They prefer to defecate in water, but will generally be agreeable to using a dry pan.
– They are herd animals and should at least be kept in pairs.
– They do best when kept outside with adequate access to sunlight to maintain the health of their bones.
– They cannot synthesize Vitamin C and are thus susceptible to developing scurvy.
– They are expensive pets, costing at minimum $600, while travel expenses for importation can cost thousands of dollars.