What is an exotic pet? Good question.
In my experience, it’s anything but a dog or a cat. That leaves a lot of fantastic creatures that people keep in their homes in between the “dog” and “cat” label.
Veterinarians usually specialize in large or small animal medicine. Large means, well, large, like cows and horses. Throw in the other ruminants — and don’t forget the poultry. “Small animal medicine” means dogs and cats.
So what’s in between?
Who sees the bird, the degu, the rabbit, the, ferret, the rat, the guinea pig, the iguana, the monitor, the canary, the Amazon, the, well … I think you know where this is going. Who sees these fascinating creatures?
It’s a vet who is dedicated to becoming specialized in some or all of these critters and referring when necessary.
Don’t just run out and buy the first cute exotic pet that you stumble across. Think about how a pet is going to fit into your busy lifestyle, and what you reasonably have time for.
“Read all about the animals and their care and then decide on a species that will suit you and your circumstances best,” advises David Manning in 50 Really Exotic Pets. “Consider the accommodation, equipment, feeding and handling requirements.”
This is a process — in other words, it may take some time. Some exotics are large and will need outdoor accommodations as well. Be sure to think things through and understand what you’re taking on.
Below are some specific exotic pet precautions.
Exotic Pet Precautions
Birds (Avian Medicine)
Parakeet to canary to cockatoo to un-tamed macaw: It’s a big bird world out there, and we need to know their idiosyncratic needs. An African gray is not an Amazon is not a rosella.
Avian medicine is a specialty. My respect to those veterinarians who are changing the world for our feathered friends.
There is no simple handbook for these guys. They are an extremely diverse category.
Does your vet know everything she should about the iguana left in a dorm room for the summer? The monitor lizard who won’t eat? The snake who might be egg bound? The badly colored gecko?
Like I said, big world out there …
According to Dr. Shawn Messonnier, DVM, writing in Exotic Pets: A Veterinary Guide for Owners, you should ask yourself 4 questions before you get a reptile:
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- Do I want a pet just to look at, or do I want to handle and socialize it?
- How much time can I devote to my pet?
- Can I afford proper medical care?
- Can I make or buy the correct habitat (home) for my reptile?
Amphibians and Chelonians
What about the African dwarf frog with a bad leg or the turtle that was found under the couch for several weeks? Oy.
Is a rabbit like a ferret or a guinea pig? Or a chinchilla? No, it is not. If we treat them all as the same species, that’s not cool. All these guys are special. They require special treatment.
You’ve got your hamsters, your mice, your rats. Throw in the occasional degu. Don’t forget those gerbils. Do you treat them the same? No, you don’t.
What’s a degu, you ask? Check out this video of a particularly affectionate one:
Animals Who Are Not Easy to Fit Into a Category
The micro pigs, the sugar gliders. The occasional squirrel or pet skunk or — well, let’s not go down this road of crazies. Ask me to take out the canines of a monkey? I don’t think so.
Perhaps in a later article I’ll discuss how hard it is to diagnose, anesthetize, do surgery, etc. on these guys, but I think I’ve made my point today — treating these guys is not easy.
“Veterinary care for birds and exotic pets has gotten quite specialized in the last few decades,” says Dr. Douglas E. Knueven, DVM, adding that “many veterinarians … refuse to treat these unusual pets altogether.”
Obey the Law
Different parts of the country — and other countries — may have different laws pertaining to what you can or cannot legally keep as a pet.
“Pet ownership laws vary from state to state sometimes even from city to city, so a creature mentioned in this book or even for sale in a pet store may not be legal to own,” warns Manning.
Some laws are archaic, but until they’re changed, they’re still laws. For example, ferrets are widely popular, but they are illegal to own in California and Hawaii. Getting caught with a ferret means a hefty fine — and worse, you may lose your furry friend.
Other animals carry restrictions as well, from hamsters (which are illegal to own in Hawaii) to snakes.
While not necessarily a legal issue, check with your homeowner’s insurance to ensure coverage will continue while you house an exotic that could be considered dangerous.
What’s Your Budget?
Not a very exciting part of the process but a vital one, nonetheless. Exotic pets have their own needs, from special aquariums to aluminum fencing and more — and it can add up quickly.
Considerations should include:
- Veterinary care
- Supplies such as toys or aquarium add-ons
All these things are necessary for the health and happiness of your exotic pet — and in some cases, the safety of your neighbors. Be smart, responsible and financially prepared.
Your Household Size
If there are children in your household, consider your choice of pet even more carefully.
Young children or guests can’t always be trusted to handle animals properly, and when we’re dealing with exotics, this can be dangerous for both the pet and the people involved.
Snakes, lizards, spiders and large mammals can cause injury or sometimes even death. In many cases, these animals are not as trainable as the standard dog or cat.
In addition, children or guests may be careless about replacing cage covers properly or handling, causing injury to the animals.
Don’t let your kid get a hedgehog for her bedroom and don’t buy the snake that your son is supposed to take care of if you can’t back them up with support. Don’t keep the bird in the cage for 10 years without changing anything but the water.
We are responsible for these creatures who may not belong in a suburban bedroom or a garage. Or a dorm room. Or in a hutch. Or in a cage. We must take responsibility. We must do the right thing.
My heart breaks when an exotic pet comes in because the caretaker neglected to research its needs. Before you give the green light on buying an exotic pet for your household, think of the requirements that must be met to give these animals a good life in your home.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. Writer Melissa Smith contributed to this article. It was reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS, and was last updated May 19, 2019.