Do Squirrel Monkeys Make Good Pets?

Illegal Pets to Own In the United States: Monkeys
l i g h t p o e t/Shutterstock.com

Written by Drew Wood

Updated: April 23, 2023

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Squirrel monkeys, native to Central and South America, are one of the smallest primate species in the world. They can fit snugly in the palm of your hand, have big, heart-melting eyes, are eager to learn, and are constantly ready to play. What’s not to love? Well, as it turns out, maybe a lot of things . . . Read on to find out for yourself, do squirrel monkeys make good pets?

Illegal Pets to Own In the United States: Monkeys

Oh the cuteness, the CUTENESS! Who could resist the face of a squirrel monkey?

What Are Squirrel Monkeys?

Five or more similar species are classified as squirrel monkeys. They live in the warm tropics of Central America and South America. They’re among the smallest of all primates, growing only 9-13 inches long and weighing only 1-2.5 pounds full-grown! These monkeys have tails that reach 14-17 inches long – longer than their bodies. Their fur is short and grey black on their backs and white and yellowish-orange underneath. They are omnivorous, eating insects, small animals, eggs, flowers, fruit, and leaves with gusto.

Squirrel monkeys are most active during the day. They’re often affectionate, caring, and fun-loving. Young and old alike are unendingly playful. They communicate with all kinds of sounds, including loud screeches and screams. Squirrel monkeys are social creatures, roaming in troops of anywhere from 20-500 individuals, playing, chasing each other on the ground and up and through the treetops, and sometimes fighting in violent bursts.

Their behavior becomes more aggressive as they reach puberty and especially during the mating season. They can inflict serious and even sometimes fatal wounds on each other when conflicts get out of hand or when a younger or lower-status individual runs afoul of a mature adult. Squirrel monkeys use waste products as a means of communication, throwing feces at each other or predators when angry, and putting urine on their hands and feet to mark their territory as they run around.

Smallest Monkeys: Squirrel Monkey

Squirrel Monkeys are tiny and cute individually, but a force to be reckoned with in troops of 500!

Conservation Status and the Pet Trade

The conservation status of this species differs with their location and exact species. In Central America, for example, some species are classified as “endangered” due both to deforestation and the capture of monkeys for the pet trade. In several countries of South America, however, they are plentiful and considered of “least concern.” This means this is not a species that is likely to go extinct in the world as a whole, but if you purchase a specimen sourced from Central America you may be contributing to the disappearance of the species from that region.

The pet trade is not only of concern for the survival of the species, though but because of the cruelty of the system. Cute, unusual, exotic pets like these can fetch up to $4,000, creating a huge incentive for poachers to catch them regardless of conservation efforts in their area. Because potential pet owners want cute little babies they can cuddle and put in diapers and train, poachers find the most convenient way of collecting monkey babies is to shoot their mothers, then pry the terrified baby from her back. A high percentage of the babies die within their first week of captivity because they have not yet been weaned and cannot survive without their mothers’ milk.

After all this trauma, unfortunately, many pet monkeys end up in rescues because their owners did not anticipate the complex care needs and long-term commitment of caring for a monkey as a pet. So let’s look at some of the pros and cons of owning a squirrel monkey as a pet, so that you can make the most informed decision possible.

Tragically, poachers often kill mother monkeys to steal their babies for the pet trade.

Pros and Cons of Squirrel Monkeys as Pets

Pros!Cons!
Affectionate. Squirrel monkeys can be sweet and affectionate, genuinely enjoying spending time with their human friends and missing you when you’re gone. As primates, their human-like characteristics fascinate.Need a lot of space. Wild monkeys spend nearly all their time playing in the treetops. Pet monkeys need a lot of space to climb, jump, and play – more so than most are able to provide.
Playful and energetic. Squirrel monkeys are active in the daytime, so this works well with most people’s schedules. They’re extraordinarily energetic and entertaining.Need to be in groups. Monkeys are highly social creatures and suffer if left alone. If you can’t get two monkeys, it’s better not to get one. You should be prepared to spend a great deal of time socializing with your pet(s).
Intelligent. Monkeys are among the smartest creatures in the world, and squirrel monkeys are especially intelligent. They can be trained to respond to commands. Their intelligence means they need a lot of stimulating activities.Noisy, messy, and embarrassing. They have a wide variety of loud calls. They break things accidentally when they play and on purpose when they’re mad. Additionally, they like to throw feces! They put urine on their hands and feet and walk around to mark territory. And they masturbate anytime they feel like it!
Long-lived. When you and your monkey buddy build a strong friendship, you can be happy in knowing squirrel monkeys live up to 25 years in captivity.Behavior changes. Over time, a monkey’s behavior can change, especially at puberty. They can become more aggressive.
three squirrel monkeys sitting on a tree branch

Monkeys are social creatures. People who have them as pets should have at least two, and a large secure enclosure with plenty of room.

Is it Legal to Own a Squirrel Monkey?

In 2023 it is legal to own a pet monkey in 25 states, and illegal in the other 25 out of concerns for conservation, injuries to children and pet owners, and the fact that a high percentage of pet monkeys end up in rescues and animal shelter because they have been too difficult to handle. You can see if they’re legal in your state at this site.

Even if monkeys are legal in your state, note that some states have other regulations, such as a minimum age to be a pet monkey owner, a long application process, and high fees, periodic wellness checks to make sure your monkey is being cared for properly, and steep fees for violation of regulations. As you can imagine, these rules exist because of so many cases of neglect and abandonment of pet monkeys.

Check with your state wildlife officials to find out the current state of regulations in your area. Check also with your town or city government and homeowners’ association as they likely also have some restrictions on exotic pet ownership.

Conclusion: Enjoy This Creature in the Zoo

Owning a pet squirrel monkey brings a lot of problems that outweigh the benefits to you or to the animal. The path to owning this kind of pet is one that often begins and ends unhappily. Most people will find out they don’t have the time and resources to take on this long-term responsibility. However, you can still enjoy these remarkable creatures in the zoo or at animal rescues, as well doing as much as you can to help preserve them in their natural habitat.


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About the Author

Drew Wood is a writer at A-Z Animals focusing on mammals, geography, and world cultures. Drew has worked in research and writing for over 20 years and holds a Masters in Foreign Affairs (1992) and a Doctorate in Religion (2009). A resident of Nebraska, Drew enjoys Brazilian jiu-jitsu, movies, and being an emotional support human to four dogs.

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