Capybara – The Complete Guide (habitat, diet, care…)

How do I start a guide about capybara, my favorite animal? No, I do not own one, nor will I ever own one, but I’ve made this capybara guide as a means to helping fellow animal lovers that are maybe contemplating about getting this lovable, giant rodent. For me, there are simply too many hurdles in procuring and caring for this amazing animal.

This extensive guide is a result of countless blog posts, documentaries and a few books that are available that cover capybara husbandry, best of them, in my opinion, being Capybara. Facts & Information by Lolly Brown.

By now you probably know that capybaras are giant rodents native to South America, in fact, they are the largest living rodent in the world.

They are known as chigüire or chigüiro in Colombia and Venezuela, capivara in Brazil, and less commonly carpincho.

In Japan, they are called カピバラ and are arguably the country’s favorite animal. One zoo, in particular, is attributed for making capybaras Japanese bathing superstars: Izu Shaboten Zoo in Shizuoka prefecture. The zoo introduced capybaras to hot springs full of fruit, citrus in particular, and there was no looking back.

Related post Want To See Capybaras 24/7? Now You Can, Via Live Stream From Taronga Zoo

Capybara‘s Size

Because capybaras are the biggest rodent in the world, many people that first hear about capybaras are interested in their size. Are they a little bigger than a guinea pig? Are they bigger than a beaver?

Here is the answer to the burning question of how big is a capybara. Capybaras can grow from 106 to 134 cm (3.48 to 4.40 ft) in length, stand 50 to 62 cm (20 to 24 in) tall, and typically weigh 35 to 66 kg (77 to 146 lb), with an average of 48.9 kg (108 lb). They are somewhat comparable to a large dog, maybe a labrador.

I hope this answers your question. Now let’s dive into some other capybara specifics like their food, habitat, temperament, etc.

What Do Capybaras Eat?

Capybaras are grazing animals, just like cows, and grasses form the staple of their diet that also includes aquatic plants, as well as fruit and tree bark.

Like other species of rodents, their four front teeth grow continuously throughout their life meaning that they must gnaw and chew their food to grind them down. Their favorite things to chew on are – stones and tree bark. There are rodent stones readily available to buy. If capybaras have access to your home, keep cables behind furniture or out of reach of capybaras as they sometimes go out of their way to gnaw on them.

>>>Related post Whoa! Capybara’s Teeth Are Amazing – 6 Unusual Facts About Them<<<

They are also what is called, autocoprophagous, in other words, they eat their own feces. Why do they do that I hear you saying? They eat their own feces as a source of bacterial gut flora, to help digest the cellulose in the grass that forms their normal diet, and to extract the maximum protein and vitamins from their food.

The kind of poop they eat is called cecotrope, also caecal pellets, or night feces. The cecotropes are different in composition to the usual oval-shaped feces, and contains up to 37% more protein and 30% less fiber. Cecotropes are passed through the intestines and subsequently reingested for added nutrients.

Can capybaras eat meat? Capybaras are strict herbivores and therefore should not eat meat. If you remember the mad cow disease, it is thought that cows got infected by being fed meat and bone meal that contained the remains of other cattle who spontaneously developed the disease. You shouldn’t mess with Mother Nature.

It is essential for capybaras in zoos or being kept as pets, to have a diet that replicates as closely as possible their natural diet in the wild. Because capybaras did not evolve to eat two or three meals a day, they must be allowed to graze when they are hungry. They can eat up to 3 kg (6.5 lbs) of plant material in a day and depending on availability, aquatic plants make up as little as 0.6% or as much as 87% of their diet.

In the wild, capybaras will go into fields and eat melons, squash, grain, sweet potato, corn, bananas, and manioc leaves, so it’s relatively easy to feed them in captivity as they already have these natural tastes.

You can put capybaras on a twice per day feeding routine that should involve hay as a major staple of their nutrition and health that will provide great nutrition and a tool to grind their teeth. Grinding and chewing the hay prevents overgrowth and formation of dental spurs. You can read more about capybara‘s teeth here.

Hay should smell clean and dry with no mold or dust. Some of the high fiber hays that offer a good protein mix are:

  • mountain grass
  • orchard grass
  • brome
  • timothy
  • alfalfa

Alfalfa should be introduced slowly into the diet to avoid gastrointestinal issues but is also the richest of the above. Clover hay should be used sparingly.

On the opposite end is timothy hay which is considered a standard and is affordable.

In addition to hay, any of the following can be given to capybaras:

  • kale
  • spinach
  • endive
  • romaine
  • monkey chow
  • rodent chow
  • yams
  • carrots
  • broccoli
  • corn
  • potatoes
  • bananas
  • apples
  • pears
  • watermelon
  • cantaloupe
  • peanuts
  • bamboo foliage

Plants like azaleas, pieris, and rhododendrons are extremely toxic, and you should make sure capybaras do not come into contact with them.

What Is The Ideal Habitat For A Capybara?

The ideal habitat for a capybara is the South American savanna and dense forests with plenty of water to dip in. But if you’re considering having a pet capybara(s), there’s an essential list of items to check-off.

Capybaras are a highly social species and can be found in groups as large as 100 individuals, but usually lives in groups of 10–20 individuals. If your capybara is a pet then you are their herd and you should consider getting two capybaras straight away so they can have a companion even though they do get on really well with other animals including cats and dogs.

>>>Read also Roaring Wild Animal Quotes<<<

As capybaras sleep with their fellow herd members are you prepared to let a 100 pound capybara sleep on your bed?

Room to swim

Capybaras are semiaquatic mammals and are hence outstanding swimmers and need a pool or a pond that is at least 120 cm (4 feet) deep. You have to be really careful in letting capybaras use your swimming pool as the chlorine in the water is potentially really dangerous to capybaras.

Capybaras tend to drink the water they swim in and so chlorine should be kept to minimum levels or capys should have their own pool. You can use a formula that is low in chlorine, and is relying on minerals instead.

There is also the issue of defecating and urinating in the water, meaning that pool/pond/water tank cleaning is a huge part of having a capybara as a pet and it should be fit in the design or planning of habitat design.

In a best case scenario, your capybara will have a pool big enough to swim in as they are really graceful in the water performing acrobatics, diving and rolling like dolphins.

House training

There are other serious preparations in order before you get your capybara settled especially if you intend to keep them in your home. Getting rid of all your carpets is one of the preparations as capybaras tend to mark their territory with pee and/or poo. Some folks even remove the furniture from most of their house where their pet capybara will spend their time as to prevent them from hurting themselves.

Saying that capybaras are also highly intelligent and can learn almost anything from a patient owner. If you do not give them gentle correction and consistent discipline, the above paragraph will become your reality.

Capybaras are anxious to please and even verbal disapproval can go a long way and while teaching them to do anything, consistent and above all patient repetition is the best. You will soon see that they respond to whistles, treats, and verbal directives.

While there’s enough evidence to support that house training capybaras can be done with great success, that doesn’t mean that doing it is practical in the greater scheme of capybara husbandry, because if you opt into having a capybara as a pet, you will have to have outside space to keep it anyway. They are not apartment or house pets!

The biggest rodent in the world can grow up to weigh up to 150 lbs or 66 kg.

Potential problematic behavior

Aggression and biting

Capybara‘s primary defense is biting and their big and sharp incisors can leave a nasty injury on yourself or someone else. In the beginning, the best solution will be to let them initiate most exchanges. They should also not be grabbed too quickly as they might interpret that as a threat.

As all animals, individual capybaras have distinct personalities so some of them will be more prone to defensive and biting behavior.

Capybaras are in general, mild, gentle and not easily provoked and that is why so many different animals get along with them in nature.

largest rodent
I don’t care

Digging and escaping

Two capybaras can live well in a spacious backyard if they have plenty of room to run, play and swim, places to hide and an impenetrable fencing system.

Yes, wonky wire fencing won’t do as they will squeeze or push through the slightest possible crack if the opportunity presents itself. Sturdy, wood fencing is preferable.

If your capybara escapes, that could very well be the last you will see of it.

Should you get a Capybara as a Pet?

Capybaras are bright, intelligent, and affectionate animals and they are crowd favorites in zoos all over the world. But as with any exotic animal, you should not go out there and get one on a whim. They simply need the right environment, but then again, so do snakes or tigers and as we’ve seen that doesn’t deter people from getting them.

Like most animals, capybara is rather small when young, but that soon changes and you might have to keep it outside in an extensive backyard with water as it grows.

Many people give up on having a pet capybara while they are in the research phase as they realize there are many issues and obstacles in getting one.

The question to ask yourself is: Can I give this super intelligent animal a home and care it deserves?

Do They Make Good Pets?

Yes and no. Yes in a way that they’ll get along with other pets you might have because they are friendly for the most part. Yes in a way that you can train them if you’re persistent.

They also do not shed hair, do not have an odor, and are not aggressive by nature.

The other side of owning one is that they are the largest rodent you can get, coming up to 146 lbs (66 kg). They need access to deep enough water for them to submerge, dive and swim, and access to mud. They prefer to defecate in water as well.

Capybaras are herd animals and should be kept at least in pairs in an outside enclosure with adequate access to sunlight.

I could continue like this for a whole day, but let’s just leave it at – they are complex pets to own.

Legal Considerations

if you decide to have one as a pet, make sure you are in the clear with all legal considerations of owning a capybara. You do not want to get in trouble with multiple Government agencies once you get one.

Laws are at best murky regarding unusual exotic animals.

In the UK, potential owners must acquire a license to keep a capybara and contact local council for more information. You should also be prepared for your home to be inspected and have a detailed care plan.

In the United States, individual states require you to apply for an import permit from the relevant state agency, usually the agriculture department or the department of fish, game, and wildlife.

In addition to that, the owner will typically need to have a general license for an exotic pet.

How Long do They Live?

Capybara lifespan ranges from 8-12 years in captivity while in the wild, it is much shorter, averaging at 4 years. They are prey animals to many vicious predators such as jaguars, pumas, eagles, caimans, and anacondas among others.

Although capybaras are currently considered by the IUCN Red List to be of least concern of becoming extinct, their populations have been largely affected by hunting in the past. People also, eat capybara meat and produce leather from their skin.

How Expensive is it to Keep a Capybara?

There’s a simple answer to this question, believe it or not, and it is – they are freaking expensive. Not only in terms of money, but also time. Having a capybara is a full time job and the only way you will get a vacation is if you get another experienced person to care for it while you’re gone.

Capybara itself is rather cheap, roughly in the range of a large pedigreed dog; around $600. As there probably aren’t many breeders in your country, if any, you will have to ship your new pet from South America and that is not cheap.

There are many hidden and less hidden costs as well. Think, vet bills and food, having a big enough enclosure, strong fencing, water features, permits and so on.

Your best shot at getting this information would be to contact an existing owner. Alternatively, go on their blog, somewhere like Dobby The Capybara‘s blog. Unfortunately, Dobby is deceased, but the blog is still a valuable resource.

What Is The Temperament Of A Capybara?

Capybaras have a mild temperament and that’s why you’ll see so many pictures of other animals chilling on capybaras back. They’ll get along nicely with other animals/pets including cats and dogs.

They may live for 12 years in captivity, more than double their natural lifespan but still not too many people recommend them for a pet because they are demanding to take care of and they can have a nasty bite. Yikes!

If you’re getting two capybaras, make sure they’re not both males as there could be animosity and fighting even if neutered.

A pet capybara will need someone to be with them most of the time because they are sensitive and social herd animals. It is a lot like having a three year old kid. They will follow you EVERYWHERE.

List of Rodents By Size

Common nameScientific nameMax body mass kg (lb)
1. CapybaraHydrochoerus hydrochaeris91.2 kg (201 lb)
2. North American beaverCastor canadensis50 kg (110 lb)
3. Lesser CapybaraHydrochoerus isthmius45.4 kg (100 lb)
4. Eurasian beaverCastor fiber40 kg (88 lb)
5. Cape porcupineHystrix africaeaustralis30 kg (66 lb)
6. Crested porcupineHystrix cristata27 kg (60 lb)
7. North American porcupineErethizon dorsatum18 kg (40 lb)
8. Indian crested porcupineHystrix indica18 kg (40 lb)
9. CoypuMyocastor coypus17 kg (37 lb)
10. Patagonian maraDolichotis patagonum16 kg (35 lb)
Information for the table pulled of Wikipedia

Largest Extinct Rodent

Josephoartigasia monesi © N. Tamura

If you thought capybaras were big, wait till you see this big boy! Josephoartigasia monesi is the largest rodent known that lived approximately 4 to 2 million years ago during the Pliocene to early Pleistocene. Its, almost complete skull, was discovered in 1987 on the coast of Río de la Plata in Uruguay but scientifically described only in 2008.

Josephoartigasia monesi was named after national hero of Uruguay José Gervasio Artigas and the paleontologist Álvaro Mones.

By comparing the skull with various existing species of rodents, researchers estimated the body length at 3 m (10 ft), with a height of 1.5 m (5 ft) and a median weight of 900 kg (2,000 lb).

Somehow, I don’t think JoMo would fit in your backyard pool! You’d have to upgrade to an Olympic-sized pool.

Related post Boop! These Are The Cutest Rodents In The World

Related Questions

Do people eat capybaras? Capybaras are considered to be a delicacy in some South American countries (I’m looking at you Venezuela). Their hunting is forbidden in most countries so the people farm them for their meat and leather.

Read more about this in our post Do People Eat Capybaras?

Do capybaras bite? Capybaras can indeed bite you with their huge, up to 8 cm big, incisors. Be careful with young kids around them, as mock play or being irritated can provoke a bite, as many other animals would.

Do they make noises? Capybaras make a wide variety of noises, ranging from barking to alert others of danger to whistles, clicks, grunts and even purrs in younglings.

Do capybaras get sunburn? They can indeed get sunburn as their coarse hair is spread thinly over their skin and that’s why they wallow in mud or spend their time typically in water or shade.

Are they nocturnal? As crepuscular animals, capybaras are most active during dawn or dusk. Only if they get threatened by predators or humans will they switch to being nocturnal.

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Adrian Volenik

I've lived around animals my whole life and I hold a Diploma in Animal Physiology. When I'm not reading or writing about wild animals, health and fitness, and technology, you can find me playing with my son and two cats. My pastimes include running, playing video games, and solving the NY Times crossword.