Is an Exotic Pet Right for You?

What is an “Exotic” Pet?

It’s a common sight in our waiting room to see one person waiting with a dog, another with a cat and another with a bird, reptile, rabbit, ferret or some other less traditional pet.  Although most of them might not really be classified as an exotic animal some are less common than others.

In veterinary medicine the term “exotic animal” is used very loosely to mean something other than a dog, cat or farm animal. You might also hear the term “pocket pets” used to describe things like mice, rats, hamsters and similar sized critters. For many of my clients, an exotic animal is anything other than a dog or cat.

Many people are attracted to exotic animals because they are different, but having and caring for an exotic animal can be labor intensive and sometimes financially intensive. The expression “Look before you leap” is one to consider before taking on the responsibility of caring for any animal but is even more significant when it comes to an exotic animal. Let’s take a quick look at some of them.


There are many different species of birds sold as pets. Some are small and relatively quiet, at least as birds go, where others are large and can be very noisy. Some can be easily hand tamed while others are difficult. Some need very special diets.

Some need very large cages to keep from damaging their feathers. Some can be very destructive to furniture or anything they can get their beak on. And, some birds can give you a very painful bite. A few can even break bones.

It is very important to know all the specifics about the type of bird you’re interested in before you buy it. Fortunately, these days doing some research of various types of birds, or any animal for that matter, is much easier than it was even ten years ago. You don’t even need to sit at your computer any more. Just grab your phone or tablet to find the world at your fingertips.

They’re social animals!

First of all, birds are very social animals. They live in groups called flocks. Birds interact with each other all day long and you, as their caretaker, become part of the flock, so unless you have a flock of birds, you will need to interact with your bird. Without appropriate interaction some birds can develop behavioral issues that can be severe.

To put a bird in a tiny cage without significant interaction is cruel. If you want a pet you will just look at a few minutes a day, don’t get a bird.

Finches & canaries

Finches and canaries are small and reasonably quiet, at least compared to most parrots. They are difficult to hand tame, so if you want a bird that will sit on your finger, this group probably isn’t for you. Their songs are really quite pleasant to listen to even if they are kind of repetitive.

They are smaller birds, so you don’t necessarily need the large cage that you would need for a large parrot, but you can never have a cage that is too large. In nature birds fly from tree to tree and often cover great distances in a day. Don’t skimp on a cage.


The parrot family of birds is one of the most popular and contains a large variation in sizes, shapes and colors. The parrolett, one of the smallest, weighs in at less than one ounce, while one of the larger macaws can weigh in at about two pounds. Some are great talkers and can mimic voices and sounds.

One of my clients has an African Grey parrot which is one of the best talkers. Her bird can mimic her front doorbell so well that she is never sure if it is the bird or the front door. She “answers” her front door several times a day. Parrots love to “chew” on things and can be quite destructive if they have the chance.

The bird’s lifespan

Another important consideration with owning a parrot is their lifespan. The lifespan of a common budgie, also call a parakeet, is generally about 12 – 13 years where a macaw could live 70 years or more. You might need to consider who you will care for your birds when you are too old to, if its lifespan is that long.

Have you considered the noise?

Birds can also noisy. A budgie or cockatiel would most likely be fine in an apartment because their vocalization is not loud, where a larger cockatoo might be heard three floors up when it starts screaming and can get you evicted. And birds are messy. They seem to enjoy throwing their food around. They are such great seed dispersers in nature because they are slobs.

I have told many people, “If you want a quiet, neat pet, a bird is a poor choice.


Reptiles are quieter than birds for sure but they are much higher maintenance pets, because they have very specific temperature, humidity, habitat and nutritional requirements. That means they require much more attention to keep them healthy. Because different species have different requirements, if you have more than one species the time needed for their care will increase.

Reptiles are commonly called “cold blooded” because their body temperature is largely dependent of their surroundings. They don’t like being cold and don’t do well if they are not kept at the proper temperature.

Because reptiles generally can’t generate their own body heat, which is where the term “cold blooded” started, it is up to you, the pet owner, to find out what temperatures the species you want to keep needs to be kept at and then provide those temperatures.

Please note that I used the term temperatures (plural). Reptiles in nature experience daily and usually, seasonal changes in temperature. If you want to keep your reptile healthy, the first order of business is to provide the proper temperatures.

As with birds, you really can’t have a cage that is too big for a reptile but you can have one that is too small. Before you buy a reptile at the pet store or a reptile show, find out how big it gets and how much area it needs.

Some reptiles can grow quite large. For example, you can buy an iguana at the pet store that is less than 12 inches long but it can grow to be almost 6 feet long. A 20 gallon aquarium won’t be useful for very long for those guys. Some tortoises can be purchased when they weigh less than a pound but end up reaching 70 pounds or more. It is important to know what you are getting into before you buy.

Then there is the question of what to feed them. This is where many potential reptile keepers drop the ball. Proper nutrition is critically important for all of us, reptiles included. Looking into what a reptile needs to eat involves so much more than a five minute conversation with the person at the pet store. I have seen far too many reptiles come in to see me, near dead, being fed, “what the guy at the pet store told me.”

Insect-eating reptiles in nature eat many different kinds of insects and all the insects they eat have also eaten well and have full intestines. Feeding one type of insect, that is also malnourished, will lead to a malnourished reptile. Herbivorous reptiles eat multiple kinds of plants, and do very poorly eating only lettuce, even if it’s romaine. The point here is that you need to find out what your reptile needs and then ‘feed what they need.’

And, we don’t want to forget UV light. Most reptiles need it to produce vitamin D to help absorb the calcium from their diet. Insufficient amounts of UVB light can lead to metabolic bone disease, a bad disease. Natural sunlight through a window won’t work. Glass filters out most UV light. Even those UV bulbs that are made for reptiles need to be replaced regularly, as the amount of UV light they produce can decrease after 6 to 12 months.

The point is that reptiles have very specific needs and are pretty high maintenance pets. If you don’t provide what they need, they will not survive long. More reptiles are brought to me, near death, than any other group of animal, because the person caring for them didn’t give them what they needed. Take the time to find out exactly what they need and then give them what they need.

Small Mammals

This group of animals is pretty diverse, including things like rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, mice, hamsters, ferrets, chinchillas, prairie dogs, hedgehogs, sugar gliders and several other less common species.

As with most other animals, each has specific dietary requirements, and though they have a larger range of temperatures they can tolerate, they do have a preferred range that they do best in.

Some have greater housing needs. In nature, sugar gliders, for example, live in trees and glide from tree to tree. They will not do as well if kept in a small cage.

The nutritional needs of each type are also different. For example, if you feed rabbit food to a guinea pig it can develop a vitamin C deficiency (scurvy) because, like humans, guinea pigs need vitamin C in their diet to be healthy. Rabbits can make their own vitamin C, so their food doesn’t contain enough for a guinea pig.

The teeth of rodents and rabbits (incisors and molars) grow continuously throughout their life because their natural diet contains high amounts of fiber, which can wear their teeth down. Without enough fiber in their diet, their teeth can over grow. Once their teeth start to overgrow, many rodents will need regular dental care for the rest of their lives.

The take home message here for any type of animal you consider having is to know what you are getting yourself in for before you bring them home. Find out what their nutritional requirements are, as well as what kind and size of cage you need and if they need specific lighting or bedding. And, find out what you can expect from their behavior.

Never base your decision to buy on how a baby animal behaves. Many animals behave very differently when they are a baby than when they are an adult.

So, look (on the internet) before you leap (to the pet store).