Does an octopus make a good pet?
The intelligent, 8-legged cephalopods are gaining popularity in home aquariums, but not everyone thinks they're suited for life in captivity.
Wed, Feb 19, 2014 at 01:49 PM
Photo: Jorge Guerrero/Getty Images
Octopuses can make appealing pets. They're beautiful and intelligent, and because they can live in an aquarium, they seem like they'd be low-maintenance.
But do they make good pets? It depends on whom you ask.
Octopuses are intelligent creatures that like to explore their environment and often interact with their human keepers.
Gainesville, Ga., resident Denise Whatley, who has had 33 octopuses since 2006, teaches them that if they come to her hand in the tank, they'll get attention. Watch her 8-month-old octopus named Cassy come to her in this 2011 video.
"The home-kept species often seem to enjoy a short petting session if they acclimate to humans," she said. "However, I try to note that petting may be more like a cat scratching an itch than any form of affection. On the other hand, they do know individuals and interact differently with different people."
Rose Blanco-Chamberland maintained two saltwater aquariums before she added a bimaculoides named Cthulhu to the mix.
She was impressed by how smart the octopus was and provided toys to entertain him. Cthulhu enjoyed chasing toys around his tank and had quite the affinity for zipties.
"One of his favorite things was when I would put live food in a baby food jar, screw on the lid and then drop it into his tank," she said. "He would have to work out how to open the jar and that was incredible to watch."
While interacting with an octopus can be fun and fascinating, these are creatures with specialized needs that require time, space and money.
Whatley says the animals need at least a 55-gallon aquarium with a second large tank to hold filtration equipment.
A sturdy lid is a requirement too, as octopuses have a reputation of being talented escape artists.
Feeding an octopus can also be complicated and expensive — your average pet store doesn't carry octopus food.
"Octopus are hunters so it is really important to feed them live food. I had a holding tank in our back bedroom where I would keep his food and I generally dropped two or three live critters in there a day for him," Blanco-Chamberland said.
"I also did have frozen krill but only fed him that if I happened to run out of live stuff. He didn't really enjoy it."
However, even if you provide the best possible care for an octopus, Katherine Harmon Courage says they don't make good pets.
Courage, the author of "Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea," points out that because octopuses are difficult to breed in captivity, most pets octopuses are caught in the wild — and they’re better off there.
"They are incredibly intelligent and seem to easily get bored," she wrote in Scientific American. "One study revealed that octopuses in small tanks outfitted with flowerpots, stones, beads and shells still showed signs of distress and even self-mutilation. Your average fish tank setup probably isn’t going to cut it."
Courage also notes that cephalopods in captivity probably won’t be as entertaining as you'd expect.
Many species are nocturnal and will spend daylight hours hiding. In general, the animals spend a great deal of time in their dens, and as they get to know a confined environment, they'll spend even less time outside of them.
"Octopuses are shy animals so it takes time to establish a relationship," Whatley said. "Some never acclimate to a captive environment or to human keepers."
Octopuses are also very sensitive to changes in their water, especially pH balance, and will require a lot of attention.
Blanco-Chamberland said keeping her pet's water clean was the greatest challenge.
"Octopus are very messy eaters and the water quality degrades very quickly as a result. If you don't do regular water changes and have proper filtration your octopus will not survive long."
When taken care of properly, an octopus kept in a home aquarium won't live more than a couple of years, so even the most dedicated and responsible pet owner won't have long to spend with them.
"The biggest downside by far is the short lifespan. The home sized animals only live about one year and the dwarfs often less," Whatley said.
Blanco-Chamberland urges prospective octopus owners to make sure they're prepared for the financial and time commitments the animals require. She also recommends buying from a reputable source.
"I've heard too many horror stories of people purchasing a sick or dying octopus from a fish store because the store was more interested in making money than selling a healthy pet."
Whatley advises people to do husbandry research and avoid exotic species because even experienced keepers have difficulty with them.
"Properly prepare a tank for a variety of species and understand that your tank set-up will take longer than you will keep the first octopus residence," she said.
In this clip from Animal Planet's "Tanked," actor Tracy Morgan looks to build a better aquarium for his giant Pacific octopus, Bwyadette, who Courage says lives in a tank that's too small for her size.
Related on MNN: