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10 Things You Must Know Before Adopting Exotic Pets

Sure, it's cute, but is that pot-bellied pig really the best pet for you? A pet expert weighs in with what you should know.

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The world of exotic pets

Exotic pets—birds, reptiles, small mammals, and even pigs—are among the most rehomed pets there are. (Rehomed means their original owners gave them up.) People think the ball python looks cool, or that the sugar glider is super cute, or that the teacup pig is adorable. But when the python outgrows its enclosure, or the sugar glider is difficult to feed, or the teacup pig is a lot bigger than a teacup, owners become overwhelmed and place them for adoption, or, abandon them entirely. When looking for a list of exotic pets, there are many things to consider besides how the animal looks.

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What you have to consider

“Small mammals, reptiles and birds can make excellent additions to the family—check out these adorable family-pet photos, but they are very different from dogs and cats,” says Gabby Schrader, DVM. “Before you bring your new pet home, be sure to research their specific husbandry needs. Food, supplements, temperature and humidity can make all the difference in your animal’s health. Some animals, like pocket pets only live a few years, but reptiles and birds can live over 50 years.” Schrader also notes the importance of knowing where your local exotic animal veterinarian is, as not all vets will treat them.

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The first thing to consider when adopting an exotic pet is their housing. Reptiles need heat sources, birds need cages, but a cage sufficient for a cockatiel won’t work for a macaw. Pocket pets and other small mammals all have specific housing requirements as well. Do they climb? Burrow? Do they use a litter box like ferrets? All these questions should be answered before you bring your pet home so you have the perfect enclosure ready for them on arrival. And check out the 50 things your pet wishes you knew.

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Veterinary care

This can’t be stated too strongly: Not all veterinarians care for all types of animals. Exotic animal vets are much less common than small animal (dog and cat) vets, and many small animal vets don’t have the equipment required to do extensive treatments on exotics. Ask your small animal vet for a recommendation or visit your local pet store and ask who they suggest. (By the way, here are 26 secrets that pet store owner won’t tell you—but you should know.) When deciding the best exotic pets for you, make sure you have access to a vet who treats them.

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Bearded-dragonOndrej Hajek/Shutterstock

Behavior and temperament

If you’re looking for a snuggly pet to cuddle up in your lap, a bearded dragon may not be the best choice. Likewise, if you spend 60 hours a week at work and are rarely home, a social animal like a parrot is not the pet for you. (In fact, you probably don’t have time in your life for any sort of pet.) Understanding your pet’s unique temperament, behavior, and enrichment needs is very important in ensuring a high quality of life. It’s easy to make mistakes even when adopting conventional pets. Don’t make these msitakes when adopting a shelter dog. 

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Exotic pets can have exotic dietary needs. From pig chow to frozen pinkie mice, it’s important to meet your pet’s specific dietary needs and avoid medical problems caused by nutrient deficiencies. Understanding that your pet needs to eat mice or crickets means being willing to feed them mice or crickets. Or if your pet is a vegetarian, plan on doing a lot of chopping and slicing to provide them with fresh vegetables and/or fruit every day. And make sure you’re aware of the hidden dangers to your pets that are in your house.

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Legal questions

One big question to answer before adopting your exotic pet is if it’s even legal in your state or town. Many states ban exotic animals that could damage the ecosystem if released or if they are able to breed with native species. Bringing home a pet and bonding with it, then having your pet confiscated, can be both traumatic and costly.

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Size and lifespan

The average adult size of your pet and its lifespan are other important considerations when deciding whether to adopt an exotic pet or not. A tortoise adopted when you’re a child can not only outlive you, but, depending on breed, can grow to several hundred pounds. Many species of reptile and bird can live over 50 years, so arrangements must be made for care in the event of your death. Owners of long-lived pets frequently add clauses in their will to provide for their pets. You’d be shocked at the 50 secrets your veterinarian won’t tell you.

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People with weak immune systems should also be wary of adopting exotic pets, as some, like reptiles, carry salmonella in their gut. Proper handwashing is of paramount importance, as is keeping the animal’s enclosure clean. If children or older adults will be handling the pet, extreme care should be taken to ensure proper hygiene.

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Other pets

One other important consideration is the presence of other pets in the home. A home with indoor cats may not be the right place for a sugar glider for instance. Ensuring that old pets are compatible with new pets is one of the most important factors in adopting an exotic pet. Countless exotics are rehomed or abandoned every year because of problems with other pets.

Kristi Pahr
Kristi is a freelance writer out of South Carolina, USA. She was a graduate veterinary technician with 10+ years in veterinary medicine before deciding to stay home and raise her children. Since becoming a freelancer, she's been published at several national outlets, including but not limited to Paste Magazine, Bustle, and Romper. She specializes in health and wellness, parenting, mental health, and animal care.