Exotic pet keeping is increasing in the UK – growing numbers of pet-keepers are deciding to keep a less conventional pet. To many this seems incomprehensible so this article sets out to explain why people choose non-traditional companion animals and, if you are thinking of following this path, what to consider when making your choice.
By John Chitty BVetMed CertZooMed MRCVS
Firstly, what is an exotic pet? This is harder to answer than many think, though the intuitive answer is probably most correct! Basically, these are not the traditionally kept pets – ie. Not dogs,cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, etc. The remaining pets are quite a broad range including reptiles (snakes, lizards, tortoises), birds (parrots, finches, etc), and other small mammals (degus, chinchillas, skunks, ferrets etc).
SO, WHY KEEP THEM?
The benefits of pet keeping are well-known. These benefits can be social (eg.walking the dog enables meeting others) but mainly revolve around the care giving for a dependent pet. Those benefits may be seen irrespective of species.
Many would, however, question whether an exotic pet can return this care in the way that a dog would appear to. However, many owners form a very close bond with their exotic pet, and positive interactions, including training, can be performed with almost any pet.
A big advantage, however, of many exotics species (especially reptiles) is that they may be less time-demanding. For a family out to work all day, it is hard to provide the stimulation, exercise and interaction that a dog would need. However, a reptile will need much less and it may be easier for such a family to financially commit to provide and maintain a reptile’s required environment.
And the social aspect? Many exotic pet owners are very active online and on social media building communities of people with similar interests, or joining local or national clubs and societies.
With a vast array of potential pet species, this article cannot cover the needs of all species. However, the following are a selection of frequently-asked questions we receive in our practice.
Aren’t these wild animals?
Most pets we regard as ‘exotic’ are either not domesticated or have only been domesticated for a short period compared to dogs and cats
(though, interestingly, ferrets have probably been domesticated for longer than cats). However, this does not make them ‘wild’. Very few are taken from the wild with almost all in the UK coming from captive breeding. As a result none are ‘wild’ and very few could survive if released even in a natural habitat. A further result is that many more of these pets are ‘adapted’ to captive life.
Many confuse exotic pets with zoo animals kept as pets with many horror stories of pet tigers and lions in other countries. In the UK these more dangerous species are controlled by the Dangerous Wild Animals Act where keepers are licensed after an inspection that covers not just security, but also the animals’ welfare needs. As a result there are few problems in the UK with these species.
Don’t they carry infections?
Infections from exotic pets have received a degree of publicity. Probably the best known is the risk of Salmonellosis from reptiles, where Salmonella is a normal inhabitant of the reptile gut as opposed to us. That said, while infections to people do occur these are very low numbers compared to infections from other sources, especially food. There is also a risk of infection from any pet, for example toxoplasmosis from cats and pet owners should always consider personal hygiene after handling their pet.
Nonetheless, disease risks should always be considered whenever choosing a pet especially if you have children under 5-years old old people; or immunosuppressed people in the house.
For reptile owners, the government factsheet: Reducing the risks of salmonella infection from reptiles is recommended reading.
Can’t they damage the environment?
While some feral ‘exotics’ populations of animals are well-known (eg, parakeets in London) there is very little evidence of actual damage to the environment other than in localised areas, though, correctly, effects are monitored. Further, few of these populations originate from the pet keepers, but more often from private collections or accidental import. Most will not breed in the UK (eg redeared sliders) and this further reduces their impact. Nonetheless, there is certainly potential for accidental introduction of species that could breed here, which accounts for new laws preventing further ownership of some species (eg raccoon, coatis, etc).
It is also important to emphasise that abandoning or dumping unwanted pets of almost any species (or simply failing to prevent their release) is rightly contrary to animal welfare laws, and that probably the major impactor on wild animal levels in the UK is the cat – other countries have already introduced bans on cat ownership, or curfews in a bid to reduce the effect of cats hunting.
Aren’t they really difficult to keep?
Exotic pets can certainly be difficult to keep, but so can all pets. The crucial part is understanding their needs pre-purchase and realising that different species have very different needs. We are traditionally used to keeping mammals that are endothermic (generating Abandoning or their own body heat), but reptiles are ectothermic gaining body heat from the
environment. Therefore all reptile species (even tortoises!) require heat sources and a temperature range that mimics their natural climate. Remember – if it is not native to the UK it probably doesn’t like our climate!
As stated earlier, exotic species may have a reduced time-demand compared to a dog that needs regular walking, grooming, etc. However, this doesn’t mean that reptiles and small mammals require no time at all! There may also be considerable expense in setting up and maintaining a suitable reptile environment. Some species (especially pet parrots) may actually have a higher time demand than dogs or cats, and so it is always important to look at these needs before deciding they are right for you and your lifestyle, especially as there are very few parrot daycare providers, as opposed to dogs!
The same applies to diet – “we are what we eat” and a poor quality diet will result in disease. Compromising on quality or ingredient will, similarly, compromise health. So another consideration must always be whether or not you can obtain and store and give the correct diet to meet your pet’s needs; this also applies to amount, where obesity is as big a problem to exotic pets as it is to dogs and cats.
On the positive side, our knowledge of how to keep exotic pets well is increasing at a very rapid rate. There are some excellent web resources and societies that provide excellent keeping advice. For example, for tortoises http://www.tortoisetrust.org/ and http://www.britishcheloniagroup.org.uk/ are extremely reliable sources of information.
Do vets know about them?
This is definitely worth considering…and please consider this before your pet is ill or there is an emergency. Veterinary knowledge is increasing in many areas and it is very difficult for vets to be fully knowledgeable about all species. While vets should be capable of providing immediate first aid to any pet, I would always advise owners to seek out the nearest vet with further qualifications or experience with your species of pet…and best to find them before there is an issue. If you are lucky then there will be someone near you. If, however, your nearest vet is too far to travel then it is definitely worth considering what you will do when your pet is ill. This may mean rethinking your choice…or contacting a local non-specialised vet to assess their interest in your species, and whether or not they liaise with more distant specialists.
While pet fora are a source of information about knowledgeable vets, there are also well-maintained lists of exotics’ practitioners, eg https://www.bvzs.org/images/uploads/BVZS_Specialist_list_2019.pdf and https://www.vetark.co.uk/pages/Vets-Search-Results.aspx?vt=&area=
Do you need more than one?
This is a very important question – some species are social and some are most certainly not! Others may mix, but only with certain individuals or in certain sex ratios. The latter criterion can be really difficult as some are really hard to sex when young.
Another effect is that of hand-rearing, especially with parrots. Hand-rearing will make parrots much more adapted to humans, and less to other birds. However, it will not take away the need for social company nor the drive to form a lifelong pair bond, therefore owners of hand-reared parrots should not leave their bird alone for long periods each day and will have to work to prevent the bird forming an unhealthy pair bond. Owners of parent-reared parrots will have fewer problems with this, but should always keep two or more birds (preferably of the same species or species group).
Reptiles are generally not social and are usually happiest kept singly. This is especially true where males are kept, as aggression and hypersexuality can result at certain times of year. Some species, eg Bearded dragons, will tolerate keeping in small groups but only in the correct ratio (generally one male to two females) and with enough space and hiding places.
Again, the key is good research about your choice of pet as this will impact on size and space of enclosure required or if you need more than one enclosure so aggressive males can be separated in breeding season.
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