How to Pick the Right Exotic Pet for your Family

June 6th, 2017 by Red Bank Veterinary Hospital

Traditionally, cats and dogs are the most common household pets. Most owners understand the social nature, time requirement, and cost of care associated with these popular pets and often make informed decisions before adopting a cat or dog. The same factors should be considered before adopting an exotic pet. It can be challenging to decide which scaled, feathered, or furry exotic pet best fits your lifestyle and family dynamic.

Preparation

First and foremost: avoid impulse adoptions! While it can be very tempting to immediately bring home that baby bunny from the pet store, resist the urge. It is imperative to research the pet’s specific requirements to ensure that you can provide proper care for the entire life of the animal. Specific questions to research include:

  • What is the long term commitment? Many exotic species live 5, 10, 20, or over 50 years! Ensure that you have a plan for your pet if your living situation changes in the future.
  • How much time and attention will the pet require? Exotic pets vary from fish, requiring minimal social interaction, to large parrots that require multiple hours of daily interaction and should always be supervised when out of the cage.
  • What is the adult size of the animal? Baby iguanas are small, cute, and tempting, but keep in mind that these reptiles can grow up to 6 feet long!
  • What size cage is needed? Animals may require larger cages than are advertised at the pet store. For example, most commercial hamster cages are too small. In addition, many of these pets require out-of-cage exercise. For this reason, larger exotic pets may not be feasible in a small apartment.
  • When is the pet most active? Some pets are nocturnal, like hedgehogs and sugar gliders, and will stay up during the night jumping in the cage or running on their wheels. Other pets are diurnal and will be most active during the day. Picking a pet that is most active when you are home and available is recommended.
  • What other equipment is required? Certain species, including most reptiles, have very specific temperature, humidity, and lighting requirements. These pets may need additional heat sources, ultraviolet lights, thermometers and hygrometers.
  • What is the diet? Commercial diets may or may not be available for the species you are interested in. Diets of exotic pets range from frozen/thawed mice offered only once weekly to elaborate salads that need to be prepared fresh daily.
  • What are the social needs of the species? Some exotic pets, like sugar gliders, should not be kept solo while others, like most hamsters, should not have cagemates.
  • How much will this pet cost to maintain? Many exotic pets can be purchased cheaply or adopted for free, but the initial set-up cost for the cage and furnishings can be pricey. Depending on the species, the diet may also be costly. In addition, all exotic pets require veterinary wellness exams. Some species may also need vaccinations, heartworm prevention, and parasite prevention. Extra money should be available in the event of a pet health emergency.
  • Is this species compatible with children? Some exotic pets are delicate and could be easily injured by improper handling while other species could injure the child through biting or scratching. In addition, many exotic species are capable of carrying diseases that could cause illness in humans.
  • Is this pet noisy or destructive? Exotic pets may have a natural tendency to chew, dig, or scratch. This can lead to damage to your house and furniture or injury to the pet. Look into recommendations for “pet-proofing” your home- this may involve elevating electrical cords, removing poisonous houseplants, and changing cleaners. In addition, some pets are loud and could disturb family members or neighbors.
  • Is this pet legal in my state, borough, or town? Exotic pet laws vary by location and should be well researched prior to purchasing a pet.

Species Options

Birds

A large variety of bird species are kept as pets and can range drastically in size and personality. Species also vary significantly in cost. In general, birds are very social and highly intelligent, but they can also be noisy and messy. Some birds require daily interaction, while others- like canaries and finches- prefer minimal handling. Large cages are required for most species to ensure ample room to perform normal behaviors. When exercising outside of the cage, birds must always be supervised. Large windows and ceiling fans pose a potential risk to pet birds. In addition, birds are highly susceptible to household toxins, especially fumes from overheated nonstick cookware, cleaners, and smoke.

 

Ferrets

Ferrets are extremely playful and inquisitive pets that are highly entertaining to watch. These animals are usually easy to litter train and fairly quiet. Due to their mischievous nature, it is essential to always supervise ferrets when they are out of the cage to prevent ingestion of foreign objects, trauma, or escape. Unlike many other exotic pets, ferrets require yearly vaccinations and parasite prevention. A variety of diseases can occur in older ferrets that may require surgery or medical management. Despite most ferrets being surgically de-scented prior to sale, ferrets have a slightly stronger odor than most other exotic pets.

 

Rabbits

Rabbits

Rabbits are incredibly cute and quiet pets that can be either very active or very docile. While many rabbits do not prefer to be picked up, most will readily accept petting. Rabbits require a large amount of room to run and exercise when not in the cage. In addition, due to their natural desire to dig and chew, they should only be allowed into “rabbit-proofed” rooms with elevated or covered electrical cords and should always be supervised. Rabbits need a very specific diet to ensure adequate gastrointestinal function and grinding of their teeth.

 

Rodents

 

Rats are incredibly intelligent, social, and interactive pets. Their movements are slower and more predictable than mice or hamsters, making them ideal pets for children. Rats typically do best in multi-rat households. While mice are similarly playful and intelligent, they are more skittish than rats and can easily escape through small gaps. A variety of hamsters are sold as pets, and each species has a unique appearance and personality. Syrian hamsters are recommended for households with children as they are typically calmer. Unlike other rodents, most hamsters should be kept solitary as they may fight if housed in groups. Hamsters tend to be nippier than some of the other pet rodents.

 

Fish

 

Fish can fit into almost any lifestyle. They are quiet and beautiful. Start-up cost for equipment and supplies can be pricey depending on the type of tank desired. Water quality needs to be monitored closely for these pets.

 

 

Reptiles

Reptiles have very specific requirements regarding temperature, humidity, nutrition, lighting, and enclosures that vary greatly between species. Most reptile species are quiet and produce minimal odor. In general, reptiles are not very social and most species prefer to be housed alone.

Lizards make fascinating pets and range in size and personality. Some recommended species for a first-time owner include leopard geckos or bearded dragons due to their calmer demeanor and comparatively reduced care requirements. Iguanas are difficult pets that require a very large cage and a very specific fresh diet. These lizards can become very aggressive inflicting a painful bite or tail slap making them less suitable for homes with children or inexperienced owners.

Snakes are typically docile and easy to handle making them ideal pets. The enclosure must be secure as snakes are escape-artists. Most species kept as pets eat frozen/thawed mice, so the owner must be comfortable feeding this item. Ideal starter snakes include corn snakes, ball pythons, and some king snakes.

Pet chelonians- turtles and tortoises- are often favored because of their sweet personalities. However, these pets have very specific requirements that must be met to maintain health. Some species can grow very large, and lifespans of pet turtles and tortoises range from 10-100 years making this pet a huge commitment. An ideal species for a novice is a captive-bred Eastern box turtle. Care of aquatic turtles is more complex and should be reserved for more experienced owners.

 

Other Species

hedgehog with catYou may come across a variety of other exotic pets available for sale ranging from scorpions to pet skunks. As with all other species, in-depth research is recommended to determine if you are capable of caring for the animal properly. In general, invertebrate pets such as tarantulas have relatively low care requirements. However, these pets are not very social and can be easily traumatized with improper handling. Hedgehogs are cute, quill-covered nocturnal pets that are fun to watch but difficult to handle. These pets are illegal in some areas. Sugar gliders have increased in popularity recently. These marsupials are nocturnal, require a highly specialized diet, and should be kept in multi-pet groups to avoid behavioral abnormalities. Compared to similarly-sized rodent pets, sugar gliders require much more attention and care. Primates do not make good pets and are not recommended.

Hedgehogs are cute, quill-covered nocturnal pets that are fun to watch but difficult to handle. These pets are illegal in some areas. Sugar gliders have increased in popularity recently. These marsupials are nocturnal, require a highly specialized diet, and should be kept in multi-pet groups to avoid behavioral abnormalities. Compared to similarly-sized rodent pets, sugar gliders require much more attention and care. Primates do not make good pets and are not recommended.

Before and After Adoption Day

Once you have decided on which species is right for your lifestyle and home, purchase the cage, supplies, and diet required prior to adopting. This will help reduce stress for both you and your new pet on adoption day! Exotic pets can be adopted through rescue groups, shelters, humane societies, or purchased from pet stores or private breeders. More information about shelter groups for different species can be found at:

New pets should be quarantined, or kept separate, from any pre-existing pets in the household for a certain amount of time to prevent spread of any diseases. The recommended time interval is 1-3 months depending on the species involved. Veterinary examination of the new pet is recommended to ensure overall health, review care requirements, and perform any necessary diagnostic tests. For more information about what to expect during an avian health exam, visit: http://www.aav.org/page/healthexam.