Fur, Feathers, Shells, or Scales?

Exotic animals can make great pets – but do your homework first.

photograph by Dreamstime

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If you’re a teenager, probably one of the best moments in your life comes when you finally convince your parents to let you buy that cool-looking ball python you saw at the pet store. And if you’re that kid’s mother or father, probably one of the worst moments of your life comes when FedEx delivers that box of frozen rats you’re supposed to keep in your freezer, for as long as that snake lives.

“You can’t just go out and buy Purina Snake Chow,” says Dr. David Hannon, veterinarian with Avian and Exotic Animal Veterinary Service, now affiliated with Memphis Veterinary Specialists in Cordova. “My 13-year-old daughter keeps a corn snake in a terrarium in her room, and we just ordered some ‘mice on ice’ for it. We have to hide that in the freezer because my wife can’t stand to look at it.”

Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of exotic pets.


What is an exotic pet, exactly?

Exotic pets means just about 
everything except cats and dogs. They are often grouped into avians (birds), reptiles and amphibians, and the so-called “pocket” pets like ferrets, gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, rats, mice, and other small mammals.

Many of these are fascinating, beautiful, and intelligent creatures. But they only make good pets — and “good” means for the owner and the animal — if owners take the time to research their needs. And make no mistake about it: Though some can be cheap to buy (a hamster costs about $13 at Petco), many exotic pets can be expensive to maintain.

“A lot of these pets are impulse buys,” says Dr. Ralph Pope, veterinarian with All Creatures Pet Hospital in Collierville. “That’s not a good way to buy a pet. You need to research it before you buy it. That applies whether you are buying a house, a car, or even a turtle. Make sure you understand the basics.”

Back to snakes, for example. As Hannon points out, “There is no such thing as a domestic reptile. These are wild animals, and the less you handle them, the healthier they tend to stay. These are not creatures that are used to being handled, and that leads to stress, and stress leads to disease.”

People tend to forget that many of the largest and most beautiful species, such as bald pythons and even some boas, come from tropical countries, mainly Asia and Africa. Because they are cold-blooded, they require a warm, downright toasty environment. “The biggest health issue I see with snakes is that people take these tropical animals outside, into their yard or someplace, and it’s 62 degrees,” says Hannon. “That’s too cold. Even 68 degrees is too cold, and they’re going to get sick.”

And that cute little snake you found in the cage at the pet store is going to grow — and grow. “People go out and buy a Burmese python, and when it’s three or four feet long, it’s cute,” says Hannon. “But they don’t realize it can grow to be an 18-foot-long, 200-pound snake that’s big enough to eat your neighbor’s dog.”

Before that happens, many snake owners try to donate their boa to the zoo, but the zoo already has plenty of snakes, so some owners actually release them into the wild. Anyone hiking in Shelby Farms or canoeing the Wolf River, though, doesn’t really have to worry about being attacked by a giant boa constrictor, because the cold weather here will kill such a snake quickly. But that’s hardly fair to the snake. “Most people just don’t realize what they are getting into,” says Hannon.


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