According to the American Veterinary Medical Association and the 2007 U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook, the most common household pets are cats, dogs, birds, fish, guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits, ferrets, turtles and snakes. Not everyone chooses the "common" household pet, though, and more and more scorpions, tarantulas, bearded dragons and other exotic animals have become household members.
"The trend of choosing an unusual pet has actually been going on for a couple of decades. Since many families need to have both adults working, many times an easy-to-care-for pet is important (e.g., fish, reptiles and small mammals that can stay in a cage or aquarium)," says Thomas F. Dock, a certified veterinary journalist with the American Society of Veterinary Journalists. "Animal shelters are now having to deal with 'exotic' animals instead of just dogs and cats. It's not unusual to see a local shelter advertising rabbits, guinea pigs or even iguanas."
The average cost of owning a large dog can run about $900 a year for food, veterinary bills and licensing; that doesn't include one-time costs, such as spaying or neutering and emergencies. Dogs need to be walked routinely. Just like dogs, cats need regular, routine maintenance. Even smaller, less expensive animals like ferrets need regular exercise.
Snakes and many reptiles are low maintenance, do not require frequent feeding and do not need to be "baby-sat" or boarded if you go away for a few days. They don't need much space for a cage. No matter what pet you choose, you should always familiarize yourself with the characteristics and care needed for each animal. Some small animals like ferrets have a tendency to nip at small fingers, so it might not be the pet you want with a small child in the house. Many Internet sites, while not the final answer, do offer information on various pets. And while some veterinarians are not versed in the care of more unusual pets, they can often put you in touch with a colleague who can guide you and treat your new friend.
Numerous online resources, as well as specialty pet stores (including PetSmart's Small Pet Center), provide tips on how to choose a small pet, whether it's a rat, gerbil or hamster, based on children's ages, pet-care experience, daily time requirements for care and lifespan. Similar brochures are often available for snakes, reptiles, arachnoids and birds. Habitats, food and other accessories may be right for one type of animal but not for another; getting expert advice now will make your new pet's homecoming much easier and less stressful.
The ASPCA cautions against owning exotic pets. "Honey bears, sugar gliders, corn snakes, green iguanas, black panthers, rosy boas, flying squirrels, bearded dragons, veiled chameleons, spotted pythons, leopard geckos, even poison dart frogs and potbellied pigs -- these are just some of the exotic animals people sell as pets. It may be easy to buy an exotic animal, but it is not a good idea. It is bad for the animals, bad for us and bad for the environment. And although it may be borderline legal to sell some of these animals, in many places it is illegal to buy them."
"A partial list of diseases with which exotic animals can infect humans: chlamydia, giardia, hepatitis A, rabies, ringworm, tuberculosis, measles, monkey pox, marburg virus, molloscum contagiosum, dermatophytosis, candidiasis, streptothricosis, yaba virus, campylobacteriosis, klebsiella and amebiasis, as well as infections from various nematodes, cestodes and arthropods." The ASPCA warns that learning the proper care and handling of such animals is important for both your pet's health and your family's.
Local laws may forbid the domestic ownership of certain types of pets, especially those classified as exotic, endangered or dangerous. There may be limitations on the amount of animals you can have, as well. Be sure to check with your local municipality before you bring home the new pet.
"Pet owners should contact their local governing body to see what restrictions are in place." Thomas Dock further advises all potential pet owners: "Research the pet thoroughly before deciding to get one. People must make allowances for what is going to happen to the pet if the pet outlives them."