Fur, Feathers, Shells, or Scales?
Exotic animals can make great pets – but do your homework first.
photograph by Dreamstime
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.
Well, what about birds — pets that can be found in many homes in America?
One of the biggest issues with birds is proper diet,” says Pope. “Bird seed is just not satisfactory. It’s like a person eating candy all the time; it has the same nutritional value. We try to get them on foods that are complete diets, just like the special foods they make for dogs and cats.”
Hollywood Feed offers ZuPreem “premium daily bird food” that is a “fruit blend with natural flavors.” Two-pound bags run anywhere from $10 to $16, and different blends are specially formulated for specific birds: Parakeets require a different diet from, say, cockatiels and parrots.
But the biggest issue with birds, say both Pope and Hannon, is keeping them in cages their whole life. “Birds are very sociable and incredibly intelligent animals,” says Hannon. “It is absolutely amazing what species like African Greys can do. And humans have proven that the more intelligent you are, the more neurotic you can become. You can’t just put these animals in a cage and ignore them, but that’s what happens.”
Both veterinarians recommend letting birds interact with people, and even fly around the house, but they caution that owners need to keep an eye on them. “They’ll get into things, just like a dog,” says Pope. “They’ll fly into windows, land on stove burners, even fly into toilets and drown. And a real problem is ceiling fans.”
One option is trimming their wings, which does not mean cutting into muscles or bones; it’s just the removal of certain feathers that affect their ability to fly long distances. “It’s not to prevent flight,” says Hannon, “it’s to control it. We want them to be able to flutter down and land safely without hurting themselves.” He calls some short-tailed birds such as cockatoos “bumble-bee birds” — they are already “aerodynamically challenged” because of their small wing size. “If their wings are trimmed improperly and they can’t fly, and something spooks them and they jump from their perch, they’ll hit the ground like a brick. So, even with trimming, we want them to be able to fly.”
But Hannon also points out that birds have something in common with an animal not known for its flying ability: tortoises. Both live incredibly long lives. Turtles can live more than 100 years, and parrots and macaws can live as long as 60 or 70. “These are pets you’ll have to put in your will,” he says.
In the long run, Hannon says, “Birds are very high-maintenance animals. I do not recommend someone getting a bird as a pet unless they can put the time into it.”
Are “pocket pets” a good option?
That’s actually a term we don’t like to use,” says Pope. “They’re really not designed to be carried around in somebody’s pocket.” Cute and cuddly, these little critters don’t take up as much space as, say, a collie, but they have special problems of their own. A kid wanting a hamster, for example, really needs to research all the different varieties. Petco, for example, offers such types as Fancy, Long-Hair, Short-Hair, Roborovski, Djungarian, Chinese Dwarf, and more, and each has slightly different requirements for diet and habitat.
Some basic rules about the small mammals can mean the difference between life and death for them. Guinea pigs, for example, are very sociable creatures and get along fine in the same cage. Put two male hamsters in the same cage — and determining the sex is not easy — and the next morning owners will probably find just one, very fat hamster. We’ll spare the details.
Ferrets, always popular pets, have scent glands that can create an incredibly foul odor that permeates their bedding — and your clothes — unless that gland is surgically removed. Many pet stores, in fact, have already done that before the animal is sold. And though gerbils sure look cute rolling around a room in those clear plastic balls, Pope warns against them. “They can roll downstairs or get lost under beds,” he says. “And owners tend to forget about them and leave them inside all day long.”
And all these “pocket pets” can develop a wide range of diseases. On a visit to Pope’s clinic, he was treating a ferret suffering from pneumonia, and a hamster with “wet tail” — a pretty descriptive term for diarrhea. On the day we visited Hannon, he was examining a pet rabbit brought in for an eye infection. That’s actually a fairly routine procedure for a veterinarian who has treated a seahorse for a swimming bladder infection, and has operated on the famed Peabody ducks after they swallowed pennies dropped in the hotel fountain where they spend their days. (Pennies contain zinc, which is toxic.)
What’s the hardest thing about owning fish?
Now, there’s always fish, of course. But again, an impulse buy — you just couldn’t resist those gorgeous Silver Mollies, at Petco for just $2.49 — can turn into considerable expense. An aquarium is just the first step. After that you’ll need pumps and filters and heaters and all sorts of gadgets to maintain an aquatic environment that is clean and the correct temperature. Feeding isn’t as easy as it seems, as anyone knows who has had a goldfish; fish can die from too much food, or too little. And those fancy saltwater aquariums, with the truly exotic fish and other creatures like hermit crabs? Forget it unless you are willing to perform almost daily tests on the water to make sure the saline level is correct.
So where does that leave somebody wanting an unusual creature for a pet? Somewhere between the clerk in a local pet store who says, quite emphatically, “Nobody needs an exotic pet,” to the veterinarians who advise doing plenty of research before buying one. “I sometimes wish people would call before they get a pet,” says Hannon, “and ask me, ‘What do you think of this?’ And then I can ask them, ‘Did you consider A, B, C, and D, before you decided on that particular pet?’”
The Internet, of course, is a great resource, but as always, make sure the information is accurate and reliable. “There are a lot of ‘Billy Bob’s Bearded Dragon’ pages,” says Hannon, “with some guy who says he’s been breeding them 20 years and knows all about them. Well, just because it worked for him doesn’t mean it’s right.”
Keep in mind one thing: “Pets are work anyway you look at it,” says Pope.
And above all, even though a surprising number of Memphians have them, don’t even consider a monkey. “Owning a capuchin monkey is like having a 2-year-old kid,” says Hannon. “A 2-year-old that you’ll have to watch over for the next 35 years.”