Why should I choose an exotic pet?

By: Dr. Laurie Hess

As an exotic animal veterinarian, I am constantly asked why anyone would want an exotic pet (bird, rabbit, guinea pig, chinchilla, ferret, lizard, turtle, snake, hedgehog, sugar glider, or other unique creature) over a dog or cat. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with cats and dogs. I have several cats and dogs of my own, in addition to my exotic family members. It’s just that there are so many reasons to have an exotic pet that it’s hard to limit my answers to just a few. But here are a few simple reasons for choosing an exotic pet:

1. There are so many varied species that owning an exotic animal can be an incredible learning experience.

Exotic pets are fascinating. With their unique behaviors and incredible social interactions with each other and with us, they really can teach us all sorts of new information. But this is a Catch-22. Before you embark upon the journey into exotic pet ownership, be sure to learn enough about the social, nutritional, and environmental needs of the exotic pet species you are considering so that you don’t end up with a pet whose needs are more than you bargained for.

2. Many exotic species don’t take up much space.

For many city dwellers that live in cramped, tiny apartments, a pet such as a dog or cat that requires a lot of space just isn’t an option. A small mammal (such as a hamster, gerbil, guinea pig, chinchilla, or rat) or even a reptile or small bird that can live in a fairly small cage, might be a more feasible choice.  Ask anyone who owns one of these smaller exotic species, and they’ll tell you that these pets can provide the same love and companionship that a larger dog or cat can offer.

3. Some people are allergic to hairy pets.

Although many people would love to have a dog or cat as a pet, they often cannot because they or their family members have allergies to the dander that hairy pets carry on their fur.  These seemingly unfortunate people can still have a loving pet, however, if they choose a reptile (such as a lizard, turtle, tortoise, or snake) that has neither hair nor dander on its skin.  If they are not allergic to feathers, they might also choose a bird. So don’t despair if you’re allergic to hair!

4. Most exotic pets don’t need to be walked.

For many busy pet owners who work long hours, owning a dog that needs to be walked every few hours is not an option because they can’t get home to do it and don’t have the finances to pay a dog walker. The good news is that most exotic pets don’t need to be walked. While they do need time out of their cages to be socialized and to have a good quality of life, most birds, small mammals, and reptiles can adapt to our busy human schedules when it comes to “time out of cage.” In general, as long as we make some time to interact with them on a daily basis, the time we make available for most exotic pets can be flexible.

5. Some people only want pets that will live a long time.

People comment all the time that they could never own a pet because they’d get so attached to the pet that they couldn’t bear losing it. Of course, no pet – exotic or otherwise – lives forever. However, certain species, such as larger birds and some reptiles, can live for 20-40 years in captivity. Certainly, these animals must be taken care of properly: fed appropriate diets, housed according to species’ needs, and receive regular medical check-ups to live to their genetic potential. But for many people who have grieved over the loss of a relatively shorter lived pet such as a dog, cat, or small mammal or tiny bird, the prospect of having a potentially very long lived pet can be very appealing. Once again, this is a double-edged sword in that before you rush out to buy or adopt that reptile or large bird, you should seriously consider whether you have the lifestyle, finances, and future provisions available to support a pet that might outlive you!