Exotic pets: the ‘other’ category

When many of us think about pets, the first things that come to mind are dogs and cats. Our canine and feline companions, after all, make up the majority of household pets in the United States. However, there are a variety of other animals that make wonderful companions, furry and feathered, even scaly and slimy. 

Some of the more common “exotic” species we encounter are the small mammals: from rabbits and ferrets to guinea pigs and hamsters, even rats. These cute and cuddly little animals can make wonderful pets, and are typically very good with children. However, it is an often-overlooked fact that these animals require a significant amount of care and attention, and some degree of routine maintenance. These animals have many unique physiological characteristics that can cause significant problems if not attended to. For example, rabbits have a unique type of dentition, called hypsodont, in which their teeth grow continuously. Dental abrasion, or wearing down of the teeth, is critical to their oral health so the teeth do not overgrow, causing significant problems. This is typically accomplished by chewing a high-fiber diet consisting mostly of hay. However, if there are any subtle problems with occlusion, or if they are not provided with sufficient material to chew, the teeth will not wear properly, and veterinary attention is required. A veterinarian can file or “float” the teeth to provide that wearing-down. Rodents share this type of dentition as well.

Not only does a high-fiber diet provide the abrasive action required to maintain oral health, it also provides the nutrients necessary to keep these “hind gut fermenters” healthy, and prevent gastrointestinal disease. By providing a proper diet, we can help keep the bacterial population in their intestinal tract healthy and doing its job.

In addition to the unique anatomy and physiology of these exotic animals, each species has particular diet and housing requirements. For example, the cage required to house a rabbit differs greatly from that required to house a chinchilla or ferret. Because of their different lifestyles, they require different arrangements of floors and bedding. Some enjoy small, cozy nests to rest in while others enjoy larger boxes. Some drink from water bottles, some are fine using a bowl. Some require a heat source and special lighting. Some species can even develop behavioral problems if not housed properly. For example, some birds will develop stereotypical behaviors, such as feather picking, if not provided with sufficient stimulation, proper light-dark cycles and a well-balanced diet.

In some states, there are also legal issues that come into play. Did you know that it is illegal to own a Sugar Glider (a favorite “pocket pet”) in Pennsylvania? It is very important to be aware of local laws and policies on pet ownership before obtaining any exotic pets. Not only that, but many apartment buildings have their own policies on pet ownership. This often focuses mainly on dogs and cats, but may also extend to small mammals, birds and reptiles.

That brings us to an important point. Reptiles, including snakes, turtles and lizards, can be some of the most difficult-to-care-for species. With their unique dietary and habitat requirements, they often fall ill simply due to a lack of core nutritional and physiological needs. For example, snakes require very specific temperature control, ultraviolet light balance and humidity levels. They may refuse to eat simply due to inadequate climate control. They can also get very large: Iguanas can reach 5-6 feet in length, and some snakes, such as the Burmese Python, can reach 20 feet! Many pet owners are not prepared for this when they first purchase a 6-inch iguana or 2-foot snake. 

The best advice I can give to anyone interested in getting a pet from the “other” category is to do the research. These animals can be loving, affectionate and absolutely fascinating to live with and observe over time. Some species have incredible longevity: Certain types of snakes can live up to 30 years, and some birds 30-40 years or more. When purchasing an animal, you are making a very important commitment to that animal: to care for them and provide their basic needs throughout their lives. Keep in mind that not all veterinarians work with exotic species. Find one you can trust to work with you to achieve a lifelong bond with your companion.


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