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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.”