IUCN Otter Specialist Group . . . leading global otter conservation Last Update: Tuesday January 3, 2012
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Questions and Answers: In-Depth Responses

I am interested in finding out particular plants and herbs that otters like. I am updating an otter enclosure, and wanted to find out which plants and things otters particularly like for their enclosure, as they use most of the materials in their beds. Is there a particular smell or herb they love? Or what can I use to make their home as natural as possible? They are asian short clawed otters.

Sarah Richards , 5 April 2007

Response from Lesley Wright, Research Associate, Bristol Vet School

The first and most important thing is that some plants are poisonous to otters and must be avoided. Anything on the poisonous list for dogs and cats has to be avoided, and anything with fruits or berries with poisonous seeds as well - some otters died in Florida because they had a loquat tree in their enclosure and they will eat fruits - loquats have cyanide in their seeds. Otter teeth are good at crunching and seeds that other animals would pass whole will be crushed and digested by otters.

Apart from that, otters do like berries and fruits like blackberries, blueberries, cherries and so on. Tney love grapes and lots of them like tomatoes too. Apples are also fairly interesting to them. They eat more fruit than people think, hence the need to include some fruit and veg in their diet. They like carrots and peas too. Not a huge amount, but a bit.

Otters don't seem to be very interested in plant scents as far as I've ever seen. Texture is more important to them. There doesn't seem to be an otter-nip like catnip for them.

They love to gather their own bedding. Bamboo is very popular, as are most long grasses. Avoid things with sharp edges to leaves like pampas grass, though, or paws will be cut. Whatever you use has to be very vigorous and fast-growing because otters will trash the planting quite quickly. Altogether, long grass and plants like butterbur and burdock they can hide under is a good idea. You will have to face regular replacement and replanting. Otters can sometimes be perverse about bedding choices though - I know one female who will only use holly leaves for bedding for her family! I've also watched pairs of otters determinedly manhandling quite large logs into their holts. Shrubs can be used to shut off lines of site and make the pen more interesting to the otters. A good plan is to lie down in the pen and see what it looks like from otter-eye-height - it can give you ideas for planting and other improvements. Flowers look nice and cheer up the pen, but to the otters they are just more plants to tear up and carry into the holt. Bulbs again have to be checked for toxicity as they will probably get found and possibly sampled during worming sessions.

I know one place that planted cabbages to attract cabbage white butterflies and provide safe caterpillars for the otters to find and eat. It worked quite well, although quite a lot of cabbage ended up in the otter holt. It's a good idea to plan some deep soil areas where otters can dig safely, and where live food e.g. mealworms can be dug in for them to find. Some places even put horse manure in to attract flies and subsequent grubs.

Otters also like high view points. If the pen area has eg an established apple tree, this can be made into a good viewing point plus source of leaves for bedding (and apples). They can climb and jump though so it shouldn't be too close to the boundary or they will be strolling about the zoo.

Whatever you plant the likelihood is that within a year the otters will have reduced it to mud and stones with a bit of grass, so it's best to build that into your plan so it will be easy to refurbish each spring.

Response provided 9 April 2007