When it comes to exotic pets — feathered, furry or scaly — the temperature of the world they live in can be critical. Many exotic pets have specific needs when it comes to the temperature in which they are housed, so before you rush out and get one of those pets (or even if you have one already), be sure that you can provide the proper climate to help keep him healthy. Different species have different requirements, but some broad generalizations can be made.
Reptiles Need the Heat
Perhaps more than any other type of pet, “cold-blooded” reptiles have specific temperature needs. Their body temperatures are determined completely by the warmth of their surroundings. Depending on what their native habitats are like (desert versus rainforest versus temperate), most captive snakes, lizards, turtles and tortoises require enclosures with a warm basking zone (often in the 90-100 degree range) where they can also have access to direct ultraviolet light (as if from the sun, unfiltered by glass). Reptiles also need a cooler zone, usually not lower than the low 70s, into which they can move to escape the heat.
Specific temperature needs depend on the species, but all reptiles need to be housed in their ideal temperature range or their immune systems won’t function properly. Digestion and metabolism will slow down, and they often go into a state of hibernation in which they won’t eat or move. Hibernation makes them more susceptible to developing an infection, so owners should strive to keep their pets’ environmental temperatures as constant as possible regardless of the season. That means adding supplemental heating elements (heat bulbs, under-the-tank heating pads, etc.) to enclosures when seasonal temperatures fall and removing them when they climb again. Reliable thermometers in the areas of the tank where pets tend to sit, or a digital temperature gun that can be aimed anywhere in the tank, can help monitor warmth. Owners can then make temperature adjustments as needed.
Birds: Tougher Than You Think
Bird owners often think their birds will get sick if they are exposed to drafts. This concern is overblown, as birds can actually tolerate changes in temperature well as long as their bodies have a chance to adjust and the temperature changes aren’t too rapid. Most pet parrots are comfortable at room temperatures in which their owners are comfortable, and birds, unless they are sick or young and not fully feathered, do not need supplemental heat. However, cages should not be placed directly in front of air conditioners or heating vents, as birds can’t adapt rapidly to temperature extremes. In general, however, if you are comfortable with the temperature of a room, your bird will be, too. What to look for? Birds who are cold or sick fluff up their feathers to try to trap warm air next to their bodies. If your bird is doing that, it’s time to turn up the thermostat and take him to the vet if his feathers don’t smooth out once it’s warmer.
Rabbits and Chinchillas Like to Chill
Many small mammals and so-called pocket pets are comfortable living at environmental temperatures at which we feel comfortable. Rabbits and chinchillas are a different story. Those animals are sensitive to warm temperatures and overheat easily, as their thick fur makes it difficult for them to release heat. Guinea pigs, too, prefer cooler temperatures but tend not to overheat like rabbits and chinchillas do.
Once the thermometer rises to over 80 degrees, those pets are at risk and should be moved to cooler areas quickly. Such animals should never be housed outside during warm, humid summer months and should always have access to shade and water when they are outside. Rabbits housed in outdoor hutches should be brought inside during hot days. If you are planning to own a rabbit, chinchilla or guinea pig, it’s best to house them in cool, dry indoor spaces.
Hedgehogs: Prickly About Temps
Although you’d think their dense quills would insulate them well, hedgehogs need to live within a very specific temperature range to stay healthy. Below about 72 degrees, they tend to go into a state of torpor or hibernation in which their bodies cannot adjust and they can die. Hedgehogs housed in environments in which the temperature drops lower generally need supplemental heat provided by a heat bulb placed over the cage or a heating pad placed beneath it. On the other hand, temperatures above about 85 degrees can lead hedgehogs to enter into a state of estivation, an alarming condition in which they pant, gasp and lie on their sides or seem delirious and frantically run around vocalizing, vomiting, emitting bubbles and foaming from their mouths and/or noses. Overheating can be prevented in hedgehogs by placing ice packs on top of and around their cages during periods of extreme heat.
Don’t Roast Your Potbellied Pig
Potbellied pigs need plenty of outdoor time to run around and dig in the dirt. Pigs, however, are sparsely haired and consequently are susceptible to getting sunburned. Pigs playing outside on a sunny day should have the hairless areas of their bodies covered with a sunscreen safe for children. Conversely, pigs playing outside during winter in cold climates can easily develop frostbite on their ears, tail and feet, so they should not be left outside for long periods when it’s freezing.
Prepare for Weather Emergencies
If you own an exotic pet who is sensitive to temperature extremes, be sure to include it in your family’s emergency plans. Be prepared for power outages by perhaps having temporary housing/boarding arrangements available (with a veterinarian or breeder) or by arranging for alternate power sources (such as generators) to keep your pet comfortable and safe.
Whatever type of pet you own or are considering adding to your family, be sure to learn about his environmental and housing needs in order to keep him healthy. The best pet owners with the healthiest pets are educated ones. Depending on what type of animal you choose, by educating yourself, you can be armed with either an ice pack or a heat lamp as the seasons change and as your pet’s species dictates. And, of course, basic common sense regarding temperature is the same for exotics as for more traditional pets. Never leave any pet locked in a hot or freezing car or even in an interior environment subject to temperature extremes.