Does an Octopus Make a Good Pet?

The intelligent cephalopods are gaining popularity in home aquariums, but not everyone thinks they're suited for life in captivity.

Octopuses are intelligent and curious creatures. 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.

Intelligent Companions

Octopuses are intelligent creatures that like to explore their environment and often interact with their human keepers.

Gainesville, Georgia, 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 (aka a California two-spot octopus) 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 zip ties.

"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."

Care Requirements

While interacting with an octopus can be fun and fascinating, these are creatures with specialized needs that require time, space, and money. The tank (and the ongoing food supply) is likely to be far more costly than the octopus itself, which can cost anywhere from $20 to $1,000, depending on the type and where you get it from. (Note: Never buy a blue-ringed octopus. It's so toxic that even its sneeze could kill you.)

Whatley says the animals need at least a 55-gallon aquarium with a second large tank to hold filtration equipment. Others say 70 gallons is the minimum size for a softball-sized octopus, and that you should opt for a long and low style over a tall one, since it best replicates the octopus's ocean floor home. A sturdy lid is a requirement, too, as octopuses have a reputation for being talented escape artists. They are able to squeeze through impossibly small spaces.

Feeding an octopus can also be complicated and expensive. Your average pet store doesn't carry octopus food. Octopuses will hunt and kill anything that's their size or smaller; they'll hide from anything larger. They want (and need) to eat live prey such as grass shrimp, crayfish, and fiddler crabs, all of which must be kept in a second tank.

"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."

Downsides to Octopus Ownership

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."

Octopuses are not bred for captivity or companionship. They've never been domesticated. There's something distressing about taking such a brilliant, intelligent animal that is capable of strategy and problem-solving, memory, and playfulness—and keeping it for entertainment, novelty, or a background aesthetic.

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. Surely that's a sign that they should not be living in captivity, that keeping them confined is a form of cruelty, if their natural habits begin to fade away.

"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."

One octopus owner described his pet's tendency to squirt water from the tank across the room when it craved attention from its human owner. On several occasions, it even squirted ink onto the ceiling, which cost him a security deposit. Unlike a dog or cat, it can't come beg or whine when it wants to play. The owner wrote, "They won’t master the Rubik’s Cube, but they are likely smarter than any of your dogs and cats. It’s a different kind of smart though. You can’t throw a rubber mouse and expect you octopus to parade around with it. These animals require interaction and enrichment. They need interactive toys to play with. They need interesting habitats. They need to interact with their people as much as possible."

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.

Keep in mind, too, that these are incredibly fast animals, accustomed to swimming at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour (that's four times faster than Michael Phelps). A tank will never let them engage in that natural behavior; it's simply too confining.

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.

Maybe instead of this, you could be like Giovanni DiGarimore, the owner of a fish market in Morro Bay, California, who made headlines in 2019 by purchasing a 70-pound live octopus dubbed Fred from a fisherman and releasing him back to the ocean.

While it may seem odd for a fish market owner to take such a stance, DiGarimore professed a soft spot for octopuses. "It's just been a culmination of events through the last 10 years." While scuba-diving once in Fiji, he met one that made an impression: "Essentially, we played a game of hide and seek for 15 minutes under the ocean. It was an experience I’ll never forget."