Exotic pets abound, but have special needs
Are you a unique snowflake who needs an equally unique pet to fit your personality? Is a dog or a cat too “normal” for you? Then you might want to look into owning an exotic pet. In all shapes and sizes, from fairly common birds and gerbils to more extravagant creatures like Degus, Uromastyx and Bearded Dragons—there’s something out there for everyone. They’re more in demand now than ever before—but for your sake, and the sake of the animal you choose, be sure you know what you are getting yourself into.
I talked to a few local exotic pet owners to find out what drew them towards exotics, what life is like with them and what they like most about them. For Kris Van Dyke, owning a pig named Bootleg is basically like having a child.
“It’s amazing how much we miss that pig when we’re gone…we really love her,” said Van Dyke. “If you’re thinking about having a kid and you’re on the fence to know whether you could take care of them or not, get a pig—it really is the closest thing to having a child that I could imagine.”
UTC student Megan Jackson owns an albino hedgehog named Rosie, and says she loves her individuality. “She has a really big personality for a small animal. She runs around and likes to cuddle, and aside from the spikes, she’s really sweet.”
Snake owner Juney Shober thought snakes were interesting and wanted to branch out. “I have always been fascinated with the way [snakes] move and interact with the world, probably because it is so different from the way we do. I have and have had cats and dogs my whole life, so I decided to try something new.” Shober adds, “[My snake] is fascinating to watch…[and] I realize I may be alone on this, but I think he is cute!”
While owning a less than ordinary pet can be fun, it comes with its own set of challenges. Dr. Shannon Dawkins, a veterinarian, operator of Claws & Paws Mobile Veterinary Service, and exotic pet owner herself, explains, “The husbandry and nutrition in exotics is a lot different than for a dog and a cat.” For example, rather than just simply buying a bag of cat or dog food at a grocery store, getting the proper nutrition for an exotic requires an effort. Many exotics need a variety of foods for their proper diet.
“With most exotics—my birds for instance—there are some pelleted diets out there but they need to be supplemented with a lot of fresh food,” said Dawkins. “It can take a lot of effort, especially with reptiles that eat vegetables and insects. They need diversity with their insects, not just crickets, and then they need diversity in their vegetables as well, and that’s a lot of work to do every single day.”
Keeping exotics in the proper enclosures and conditions can be a challenge as well. “Most reptiles, as heterotherms, need more heat during the day than the average furry creature, so they sometimes require ultraviolet light sources,” said Dr. Chris Keller of the Chattanooga Aquarium. “Each individual species of reptile requires some knowledge of their natural history in the wild and some guidance with their captive husbandry. In other words, you need to know where they come from and what it’s like there before you make that jump to purchasing an animal.”
Added Dr. Dawkins, “If [the temperature] or humidity is off, you can start to see fungal infections, bacterial infections—they’re predisposed to those because of incorrect temperature and humidity. I see things like pathologic fractures in reptiles because they’re not actually getting true sunlight, and then they’re not getting an artificial UVB light to allow them to store the calcium and vitamin D. It’s something that could be prevented with paying attention to the details of these animal’s needs.”
Juney Shober explains his method for managing humidity: “I just use a little spray bottle, but some people use humidifiers for more exotic snakes. For temperature, I have an under-tank heating pad and a heat lamp.”
The correct temperature is not the only requirement that needs to be met in the housing of an exotic. Having enough space for the animal can also be problematic for potential owners.
“Particularly for your larger reptiles and birds—they really need a lot of space,” said Dr. Dawkins. “We have a macaw, and her cage is larger than the couch in the living room. We happen to have a big living room, but previously when we lived in an apartment, we didn’t have a couch because we had parrots.” Some pets can grow beyond what some owners might expect, so Dr. Dawkins recommends doing your research. “Some of these reptiles get bigger and bigger .You start off and you think, ‘Oh, it’s this little six-inch thing.’ Well, if you have it around long enough, it’s going to outgrow that little cage you have.”
Time can also be a major factor for pet owners. Dr. Dawkins says potential owners should consider that “some animals, like birds, really require you to be home a certain amount because they like a lot of interaction, whereas some of the reptiles are totally fine if you work a 14-hour shift. On the other hand, some birds live about 10 years, but if you get into big parrots, we’re talking 50 to 80 years. So you might need to think about long-term time as well.”
Yet another challenge for exotic pet owners can be finding a veterinarian with the proper training to care for these animals. Dr. Dawkins explains, “A lot of vets haven’t been trained on them so understandably they don’t feel comfortable seeing them.” Dr. Dawkins will see almost anything that isn’t venomous. “[Exotics] are different, and some drugs you cannot use in them, so sometimes it can be difficult to find someone comfortable treating their health issues.”
If you’re serious about wanting to own an exotic pet, Dr. Keller says, “Be sure that you have the financial resources to not just purchase the animal, but also to provide for all their extensive needs.” He also warns against just accepting what your local pet store might tell you. “Pet stores are often guilty of simply selling the animals and not truly caring about their welfare once they go to their new homes. They also sell a lot of equipment and supplies that are not needed or incorrect for that animal. Remember the salespeople are not necessarily trained or experienced.”
Dr. Dawkins expands that to information you might find on the Internet. “In this modern world, we always go straight to the Internet because Google has all the answers, and there’s some good information out there. But there’s also some information that’s not correct, and the person reading may believe something that is incorrect, unfortunately.”
With the long list of things you need to take into consideration, owning an exotic can be challenging and time-consuming. So is it worth it? Absolutely, says Kris Van Dyke. “We love that pig like a child, and we’re not that way with our other animals,” he says. “Out of all the pets I’ve had in my entire life, [Bootleg] is by far my favorite.” Megan Jackson agrees, saying she will seek out another exotic for her next pet. “They’re fun, and I like having something different.” Dr. Keller adds, “Some of them are extremely interesting and it can be a fun challenge to make sure that they thrive in your care.”
Just make sure that before you bring home that pig, snake, macaw or anything else you fall in love with, that you’re prepared to be a good pet parent to the exotic you’re adopting.