This month I want to talk about exotic animals as gifts for the holidays. It’s a common request by children to get a pet, and frequently the first pet is an exotic animal, especially the small mammals. I am definitely not opposed to the idea of having exotic animals as pets. Afterall, I make a living ensuring their good health. They can also be good companions and a good way to teach responsibility to children, however, they also have special needs above what is involved with the average dog or cat.
It’s important to do research into the needs of the animals and make sure that you know what you are undertaking by adopting the animal. For parents getting these animals for children, educate yourself first. Some animals require more than you may expect and you need to be sure that your child is caring for them properly. If they can’t then the responsibility falls to you.
Since I chose to write on this topic, I’m going to talk about some specific animals with a BRIEF introduction of some needs to be aware of before taking them in as a pet. Be sure to read the last section as well for a special tip for a really great extra gift idea if you decide that you can offer a good home to one of these animals.
Reptiles and amphibians vary greatly in the difficulty of care. Unfortunately, many times the information is not conveyed accurately at the store. Keep in mind that many retail employees are temporary employees even at a pet store and often have minimal training. Sometimes well-meaning employees answer questions without the proper knowledge that one would expect them to have. Reptiles require very specific ranges of temperature, humidity, specific furnishings, cage materials, cage size, food items, supplements and lighting. With the wrong information, you will have a very sick new pet very quickly. With the proper care, many of these animals will be good companions for decades!
Another consideration that is being recognized more for reptiles is the need for mental stimulation and enrichment. If kept in too small of a cage or not provided enough to occupy their minds, they do demonstrate sterotypy (abnormal behavior indicating boredom and frustration, like large cats in small zoo cages that pace along the bars). The good part of this, is that it’s fun to develop very intricate cages and work with training, toys and other enrichment items.
For the first-time owner, I would suggest:
- Corn snakes
- Bearded Dragons
- Leopard Geckos
- Russian tortoises
Until you have experience keeping reptiles, definitely avoid:
- Larger tortoises
- Aquatic turtles (i.e. red-eared sliders).
These particular reptiles are more complicated to care for and less forgiving of mistakes.
New reptiles should get a wellness check and a fecal parasite screening. If there are other reptiles in the home, I recommend a 2-3 month quarantine.
Exotic companion mammals require far more than just a cage for a good quality of life and good health. Unfortunately, there can be the impression that they are very easy to care for and that they can be happy just being in a cage. When people learn that they require more, then they end up at shelters or rescues.
Rabbits, Guinea Pigs and Chinchillas
Are all very social animals and usually do best in pairs or groups. They require a good amount of time out of the cage for mental stimulation and exercise. They should also see a veterinarian at least annually to make sure that they are healthy and that their teeth are in good condition. They also require hay to be available at all times and fresh vegetables regularly. The cage provided should be large enough to allow a lot of movement and toys for stimulation while they are home alone. Rabbits especially should be spayed and neutered for long-term health. If you can handle this care, though, they are excellent companions.
Are very sweet, social, intelligent animals. They should have time outside the cage every day and they should have a lot of stimulating toys to challenge their minds. They definitely do better when spayed or neutered and given a good quality diet. Rats develop mammary cancer far more frequently than other mammals, and surgery is required to treat the tumors when they occur.
Are very high energy and playful. Having ferrets in the home can sometimes be like having a perpetual 2 year-old. They also need to have a ferret-specific high protein diet. Unfortunately, they are prone to a number of unique health problems that can sometimes involve regular care. They will usually need dental cleanings about as often as a dog or cat. They require annual vaccines (including rabies vaccine required by law in Massachusetts). Their playfulness can get them into trouble and they may on occasion destroy some of your property, like chewing shoes. Again, if you can accept them for who they are, they are a great deal of fun to have around, you just need to be prepared.
Require a VERY specialized diet that is a mix of commercial foods, supplements and fresh fruits and vegetables daily. They are nocturnal, so they are great for shift workers, but can make noise that can make it difficult for some people to sleep at night. Many of them don’t enjoy being handled as much as other mammals, and they definitely do better in groups. As solitary animals, some develop significant psychological distress that affects their health.
Are also very active at night and many don’t like to be handled as much as one might think. In addition, it’s very important to be aware that they can carry tapeworms that can affect people, especially young children. Fecal testing should be done after adoption and hand washing should be emphasized with children who handle them. Again, if you are OK with a pet that is a great deal of fun to watch and you don’t mind noise at night, then you may consider hamsters or sugar gliders.
This is just a partial list, but some of the more commonly adopted mammals. It should give some ideas of the types of considerations that you need to look at for any mammals: cage requirements, dietary needs, medical needs and interaction.
Until you have experience, avoid:
- Sugar gliders
- Pot-bellied pigs
You may have heard that birds are very intelligent, and it’s true. Some parrots are estimated to have the intelligence beyond that of a toddler. This is both good and bad. If you’re looking for a good companion, you can find lots of ways to interact. If you are looking for a low maintenance animal, look elsewhere. With too little mental stimulation they can develop self-destructive behaviors. With a poor diet they can develop health concerns. Many parrot species are prone to similar cardiovascular disease as humans. They also have more frequent reproductive disease than other animals. When they do start to become ill, they are very good at hiding that fact, so they can have advanced disease conditions before they show signs. Be prepared for the possibility that they may need medical attention very quickly sometimes, and that it can be very involved care when it is needed.
For the first-time owner, I would suggest:
- Budgies (Parakeets)
Until you have experience, avoid:
- African Greys
- Eclectus Parrots
Routine health care, good diet, special lighting and a lot of mental stimulation are important to keep them happy and healthy. Be ready to spend a good deal of time with some species of birds, but you can also find a very good friend for life if you have the time.
Here’s my idea for a great holiday combination. If you have looked into the needs of an exotic animal and you think that it will be a good gift for your family or for a good friend and it’s time to pick out a special animal, then I have a suggestion. You can double the good of the gift if the animal also gets a great gift: a new home and a second chance! Shelters and rescues have exotic animals that are in need of good homes. By adopting one of these animals, you can give a special gift to your family member and the gift of a good home to one of these rescue animals.
Adopt, Don’t Shop!
Below are some rescues and shelters in the Boston area that I have worked with and can recommend. If there is one not mentioned, it doesn’t mean they aren’t good. I’m just sharing the ones that I have worked with a fair amount and with which I have the most familiarity.