Beyond Cats And Dogs

By Ginny Frizzi

February 29, 2012 5 min read

Though most people would never consider having an exotic animal such as a lion, tiger or elephant for a pet, they might be interested in what Dr. Amber Anderson describes as a "domesticated exotic" animal.

"Domesticated exotic animals can include guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, reptiles, birds and amphibians," says Anderson, a veterinarian whose practice includes such exotic animals as lions and beluga, as well as small companion animals.

Domesticated exotic animals take a lot more time, energy, care and knowledge than such "regular" pets as dogs and cats, she says.

Anderson, a certified veterinary journalist with the American Society of Veterinary Journalism, advises people to ask themselves two questions when they consider owning a domesticated exotic animal.

"The first question is why they want it, and the second is, 'Why look at something exotic?'" she says. "If you're not sure, you might want to start with something simple, like a goldfish."

Anderson recommends basing the choice of a domesticated exotic pet upon the family and its lifestyle.

"The choice should reflect what is best for you. I advise people to check with a vet and pet stores to learn about the requirements for caring for a domesticated exotic animal," she says, adding that books and the Internet are other good sources of information.

Anderson also suggests people be mindful of where they purchase their pets.

"I recommend national pet store chains. Avoid the black market or places like Craigslist or newspaper ads. You're not sure of the source of the animal or its health."

She adds that it's parents' duty to make a wise choice if they're buying an exotic animal for their kids.

"In most cases, the responsibility for the pet's care and well-being falls to the parents," Anderson says. "You have to know what you are getting into. For example, birds often require more care, and with a reptile, you have to be concerned with the available heating and light."

Owning an exotic pet can take a person into unfamiliar territory, according to Paul Todd, manager of the International Welfare Fund for Animal Welfare. While elephants and tigers aren't on most people's pet lists, exotic pets can include various kinds of birds, snakes, amphibians and primates.

"They are usually not aware of environmental issues, such as the type of home and food the pet needs," Todd says. "Pets also need social interaction. Owners have to be cognizant of the issues that come with an exotic pet, such as food and environment. Having an exotic pet is not like having a dog or cat or a horse that most people already know how to care for or can easily learn.

"It can be dangerous if you don't know what you're doing. You have to remember that zookeepers give their entire careers to making the proper living conditions for exotic species, so it can be a difficult territory for the layman.

"There are differences in caring for a small turtle -- the type that might be a common pet, and an exotic one will have some overlap, but there will differences," he says, adding that a lot of it comes down to the overall rarity of an exotic pet.

Many of the major problems veterinarian Dr. Miranda Bailey-Jones sees when people bring in exotic pets are related to a lack of nutrition and where they are kept.

"Not only is it important to care for the pet properly, but it also prevents the family from picking up diseases. For example, turtles can carry salmonella. Kids will often put turtles and small pets in their mouths. You don't want that to happen," she says.

"Birds need to stretch and even a gerbil needs its exercise on a wheel in a cage," Bailey-Jones adds. "You need to learn how large a pet will get and how long it will live. The parents could still have the pet long after the kids are grown and gone."

People wondering about laws governing the importation and owning of exotic animals are in for a surprise, according to Todd.

"There are no standard laws in this area. Regulation is patchwork. There are state and some federal laws governing owning exotic animals, but it generally varies," he says, adding that the United States imports more wildlife than any other country in the world.

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