Exotic Animals 101: The Inside Scoop From an Exotic Animal Vet

Here’s something aspiring pet owners don’t always realize: having a pet you care for as a companion doesn’t mean you have to be a dog person, or even a cat person.

As exotic animal vets ourselves, we know there are thousands of species that are relatively easy to care for and provide loving companionship like a dog or cat. And in fact, an “exotic pet” is really any pet that isn’t a cat, dog, or farm animal. This includes small mammals and rodents, birds, reptiles, amphibians… the list goes on.

Exotic animals can no doubt make for unique, fun, and interesting pets. Their husbandry, meaning how they’re cared for, can be challenging but when you get it right keeping exotic animals as pets can be very rewarding.

Choose The Right Pet For You

People often ask us which exotic animals specifically make good pets— the key to answering this question depends on how much time the new pet owner is willing to dedicate to caring for these species.

Lifestyle plays a huge role in choosing the right pet. Depending on what kind of animal you are looking for, you need to consider the needs of each type of species whether it be reptile, amphibian, hedgehog, bird, chinchilla, or even a wallaroo!

For example, reptiles cannot produce their own heat and are dependent on external heat sources for survival. Humidity, sometimes having to feed live food, temperature gradients, enclosure size, substrate (the bedding you use in the enclosure), and food variety are just some of the considerations when choosing your exotic pet.

Consider Your Pet’s Lifetime

In addition to lifestyle and care taking, you should know that some pets like parrots and species of tortoises can live a very long time— close to 100 years! Taking into consideration who will take over your pet someday should be part of your decision (you wouldn’t be the first exotic pet owner to put your tortoise in your will).

In instances like these, adopting older animals in these species can be a better idea than committing to a lifetime with a baby. And this can give older pets who have lived longer than their humans a second chance.

With that in mind, you should also consider a trial period with an older animal to make sure that a specific pet is a good fit for you. This will be for not only yours but also the animal’s benefit.

As an example, parrots can be extraordinary companions but are often persnickety with their humans. Some prefer women and some prefer men— my parrot only likes people who wear glasses. They can become stressed and sometimes aggressive if they are not in a comfortable environment. Trial periods of several weeks can be a good way to determine if everyone will be a good fit.

Maintenance Needs For Exotics

Regular maintenance for some pets is deeply important for their overall health. Certain bird species, like parrots, need to have their wings clipped to prevent them from flying places where they can get hurt or lost. And their nails and beaks should be trimmed and polished frequently to prevent overgrowth.

Then there are reptiles that need to be soaked in water regularly to maintain their hydration or to help them through a process called ecdysis (shedding of their old skin). And even chinchillas need regular dust baths to stay clean— their coats are so dense (about 80 hairs per follicle!) that they should bathe in dust rather than water.

It’s important to consider these specific up keep and maintenance requirements that certain animals come with before you set your sights on an exotic pet.

Ease of Care

Some exotic pets are just plain easier to keep than others. If you are interested in a snake, for example, ball pythons are good ‘starter’ snakes. And veiled chameleons are easier than say, a Jackson’s chameleon. But just because one species is a little easier than the next doesn’t mean it will not take considerable effort on behalf of the human.

What makes taking care of an exotic pet so challenging?

Here’s an example: some species, like that Jackson’s chameleon, need water delivered in special ways. They should be provided plenty of water in the form of “rainfall” frequently. In the wild, they drink water droplets from leaves so they must have their environment misted several times a day to ensure there is plenty of water available for them. An ultrasonic humidifier is also recommended to keep their enclosure humidity at the proper levels.

In short, if someone is willing to put forth the extra time, effort, and monetary investment necessary, they can successfully house the more challenging species. But it’s certainly not as easy as pouring dog food into a bowl.

Common Problems Heard By an Exotic Pet Veterinarian

There are questions that become common-place for exotic vets to hear from clients. The following are problems that Vet’s Here! has specifically addressed when it comes to exotic pet care, and the best ways to address them.

“My ball python isn’t eating!”

This is actually a very common concern we hear from python owners, and not necessarily a reason for worry.

For some background, ball pythons are a relatively common pet store snake. They are generally bred in captivity usually in shoe boxes and sold to pet stores when they are a few months old. They’re then immediately placed in large glass aquariums where people gape at them close-up while tapping on the glass of the tank.

As you can imagine, this is incredibly stressful for a baby snake. They don’t feel much like eating during this time. And when they are then purchased and go to their new home, they become increasingly more stressed making their fear of eating even worse.

It is important here to minimize the stress that your snake is experiencing. If they are currently housed in a high traffic area, they should be moved to a quiet part of your house. And if they are not in an enclosure appropriate for their size, they may not be able to regulate their temperature making them very uncomfortable, and not having enough room to move around can also add even more stress to the animal.

So because of all this, it is not uncommon for baby ball pythons to necessitate live feedings for the first few weeks after getting to their new home. Once they have had some time to adjust to their new quiet surroundings, they can be placed in a shoe box with a live mouse appropriate for their size for several hours to overnight. This will usually stimulate them to start eating. There are several other tricks that can be used to stimulate their appetite that your veterinarian can help you with.

“The tail fell off of my lizard!”

Tail loss occurs for lizards in the wild when a predator grabs the tail of their lizard prey and the lizard in turn “autotomize” their tail— in other words, drop it off their body on purpose. The special muscles that attach the tail to the vertebrae detach allowing the reptile’s tail to fall off. These muscles of the tail then contract, making it move back and forth, distracting the predator while the lizard gets away.

This can also happen to lizards in captivity if they are being handled inappropriately, if they whip their tail against the glass of their aquarium, or if their enclosure is too small and they cannot turn around properly.

When this happens, blood loss is usually minimal. Firm pressure at the tail base will usually stop any bleeding that occurs. However it is important to have the reptile seen by your veterinarian as there is a concern for infection.

In most cases the tail will grow back as long as the end of the tail stays open. But if the tail keeps breaking off, there is an increased risk of infection and the end of the tail may need to be surgically closed at which point the tail will not grow back.

Overall though, with proper husbandry including nutrition, supplementation, lighting, and enclosure maintenance, it is very rare for a lizard to autotomize its tail in captivity.

“My new guinea pig is sneezing and has discharge coming from his nose.”

Exotic pets are very susceptible to sickness, especially around the time of transport from a breeding facility to the pet store and subsequently to their new home. Stress can cause their immune system to lower its defenses making them more prone to illness than usual.

Additionally, it can be difficult to keep diseases from spreading when a breeding facility has so many animals in close quarters. Respiratory diseases are especially easy to be spread as viruses and bacteria can become airborne. Some of the respiratory diseases guinea pigs can acquire include Guinea Pig Adenovirus and Bordetella bronchiseptica.

If you are seeing eye and/or nose discharge in your guinea pig, if they are sneezing or wheezing, having trouble breathing, or are at all lethargic, make sure you call your veterinarian. They can determine what the appropriate treatment for your pig is.

Unique Animals, Unique Needs

It can take some time for an exotic pet to develop an illness, which means once they are at the stage of being clinically ill it can be difficult to get them to recover.

For instance, turtles and tortoises generally take their time becoming ill. If their husbandry isn’t quite right they may slowly get sick over the course of months, and subsequently it can take months for them to recover. This can be frustrating for their humans who want to see results from treatment quickly. It is also important to consider that if the pet needs to be hospitalized for long periods of time this can become very expensive fast.

In many cases when an exotic pet is sick, it is likely due to their quality of care taking. Improper nutrition, temperatures, humidity, enclosure type, and environment are just some of the factors that contribute to poor health. They are often connected to each other too— it can be difficult to maintain a temperature gradient in an enclosure if there is not enough room or if the lighting is not adequate.

Your trusted mobile vet can help you design an enclosure that, once established, is straightforward to maintain thereby keeping your pet healthier for longer.

Your veterinarian is also a great resource for determining which exotic pet is right for you and your family. Whether you are looking for just the right companion, have had him for years with great success, or are struggling with the care taking of a current pet, get in touch with us— Vet’s Here! is ready to give you support and encouragement every step of the way!

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