It is true that some exotic pets are more difficult to own than others. You should do your research before getting an exotic pet. If properly cared for, many exotic pets can live just as long as dogs and cats, if not much longer. This blog is a quick introduction to owning some of the more common exotic pets we see at Dublin. For a much more in-depth look at caring for these animals, look at the FAQ pages on our website www.dublinanimalhospital.com.
All of the animals listed here have a high risk of dying in the first few years because of improper husbandry, diet, enclosures, and lack of veterinary care.
Easy: Guinea Pigs and Rabbits
Diet: Guinea pigs and rabbits have relatively easy diets compared to most exotic pets. Guinea pigs should be kept on a pellet based diet, like “OxBow” Guinea Pig Pellets. To help keep them healthy, add in fresh fruits and vegetables. Guinea pigs also need Vitamin C in their diet since they cannot manufacture it from the glucose in their food. It is best to feed an adult rabbit a timothy based pellet diet, along with a minimum of 1 cup fresh vegetables per 4 pounds body weight per day.
Enclosure: We recommend that both guinea pigs and rabbits live indoors to avoid predators, parasites, extreme cold or heat, and neglect. A large metal wire cage is recommended since they are durable and easy to clean. Always buy the largest enclosure you can afford. Line the cage with timothy hay or pelleted bedding make from recycled paper. They also need some soft bedding, hiding areas, toys, food bowls, water bottles, and a branch from a non-toxic tree for chewing. Rabbits can be trained to use a litterbox as well. Guinea pigs require a large cage with a minimum of two square feet per pig. A typical enclosure for a rabbit of a small to medium breed should be at least four feet wide, two feet deep, and two feet tall.
Attention and Care: These aren’t the kind of pets you can feed, water and passively watch through the bars of a cage. Both need attention and love daily, or else they can become destructive and unhappy. Guinea pigs are social animals that need playtime and attention every day, so we recommend getting more than one. Guinea pigs make excellent first pets for children since they are easier to handle than other companion rodents, and they rarely scratch, bite, or claw. Rabbits love to chew and dig, so they must be given safe opportunities to indulge these behaviors. In most cases, rabbits and young children are a very bad match since they will scratch and kick when picked up. Rabbits also shed 4 times a year, and after grooming themselves can get hairballs lodged in their stomachs since they cannot vomit.
Vet Care: Guinea pigs have an average lifespan of 5 to 7 years, and rabbits 7 to 10 years. Unfortunately, these little guys are more susceptible to illness than other companion critters. Guinea pigs are susceptible to skin conditions, heatstroke and heat exhaustion, respiratory infections, and pneumonia. Diarrhea, not eating or drinking, dehydration, nasal discharge, wheezing, lethargy, and a low-grade temperature are all cues to see a veterinarian promptly.
Spaying your female rabbit will virtually eliminate the risk of ovarian, uterine and mammarian cancers. Unneutered male rabbits are prone to negative behaviors such as destructive chewing and digging, and will spray urine to mark their territory. Rabbit teeth are prone to malocclusion, which is a condition where the teeth don’t line up properly and therefore don’t grind down while chewing. Since rabbits teeth grow continuously throughout life, this can cause serious problems- including starvation. It is also important to provide good, rabbit-safe chew toys to prevent overgrown teeth.
Diet: A born carnivore with a high metabolism and energy level, your ferret will need the right food to fuel his active lifestyle. Ferrets do best on a ferret or kitten diet that contains no less than 34% animal protein and no less than 20% fat- be prepared to read the label. Make sure that food is always available to your pet–ferrets can easily chow down 10 or more small meals a day. Ferrets do better with a water bottle attached to the side of the cage instead of a water dish. ASPCA experts recommend small amounts of nonacidic fruits, cooked veggies, low-fat and low-sugar cereal, cooked egg yolk, and bits of cooked meat.
Enclosure: A well-made, multi-level cage can be expensive, but it’s one of the most important investments you’ll make for your pet. A typical cage for a single ferret should be at least 3 feet wide, 2 feet high, and 2 feet from front to back; if you’ve got a multi-ferret household, get a larger one. Do make sure the enclosure you opt for has a door you can fasten securely–or your master escape artist will definitely escape! Most experts recommend a cage of sturdy vinyl-coated wire; avoid cages made of wood, which will readily soak up urine and other liquids, and glass aquariums, which do not provide adequate ventilation. To be a good ferret housekeeper, you’ll need to wash your pet’s bedding once a week, and scoop out waste from the litter box as often as you need.
Attention and Care: Your furry friend will need a minimum of at least two hours of daily exercise out of the cage in a safe area that has been “ferret-proofed” since they can get into nearly everything. All ferrets, including altered individuals, have scent glands located just near the base of their tails. When scared, excited or otherwise overstimulated, they may release a musky smell that, luckily, quickly dissipates. While this is not a frequent occurrence, the species also naturally produces a musky oil throughout the skin.
In most cases, ferrets and small children are a poor match. These animals can be nippy and squirmy during play–even more so with children who don’t understand how to properly behave around them.
Vet Care: A well-cared-for ferret can live 6-8 years, and individuals reaching their 12th birthdays are not unheard of. You should bring your ferret to the veterinarian for annual checkups for rabies and distemper vaccinations. The leading cause of ferret deaths is blockage of the intestine or stomach because they will eat anything within reach. Ferrets are also susceptible to gum disease, heat stroke, parasitic infections, adrenal disease, insulinoma, and lymphoma.
Diet: Most snakes eat rodents, frogs, insects, lizards, or other snakes. Make sure that you will be comfortable with feeding your snake live mice (which is not recommended since live prey can attack your snake), or keeping dead mice in your freezer. Snakes also need access to enough clean water to swim and soak. Feeding schedules for captive snakes vary with the age, species, size, condition and specific requirements. Generally, pet snakes are usually fed once every 1-2 weeks. Many snakes will not eat in the late fall and winter months, and while this is normal, it is important to make sure there is no medical reason for the change in appetite.
Enclosure: As a general rule, snakes require relatively little space because of their limited and non-exertional activity. Glass aquariums or plexiglass lined enclosures are usually most suitable because they offer a safe and temperature/ humidity controlled environment while allowing you to see your pet. Any enclosure used should have a secure top, be escape-proof, and have secure hinges. Snake enclosures should have a safe substrate, hide boxes, silk artificial plants, and branches. Tropical snakes kept in captivity (boa constrictors, pythons, etc.) require relatively warm temperatures and high humidity. Daytime temperatures should range between 80° F and 85° F and nighttime temperatures can fall between 70-75° F, and can be accomplished with either heat lamps or heating pads under the tank.
Attention and Care: Snakes are naturally reclusive animals that do not need to be handled every day. It is a good idea to handle your snake once a week so it is not afraid of people. Young snakes are more likely to hide and avoid contact, but will be more comfortable and secure with people as they grow older. Most snakes shed their skin 4-8 times per year, during which time they can become more aggressive and unpredictable since their vision is impaired.
Vet Care: Snakes are susceptible to burns from improper heating, rat and mouse bites, organ prolapses, bacterial mouth rot, anorexia, regurgitation, constipation, retained sheds, and parasites. It is a good idea to have your snake examined once a year by a veterinarian and to have their stool checked for parasites twice a year.
Moderate: Box Turtles
Diet: Box turtles are omnivorous, meaning that they eat part of their diet as vegetable matter, and part of their diet as animal matter. 40% of their diet should be vegetables, 50% animal protein, and 10% fruit. In addition to a varied diet, box turtles should receive calcium and vitamin supplementation once a week for adults and three times a week for juveniles.
Enclosure: To do well in captivity, box turtles need heat, room to roam, full spectrum lighting, high humidity, and a proper diet. Box turtles need a good size enclosure in order to provide for the proper range of heating and humidity. The smallest size indoor enclosure one box turtle should be kept in is a standard 30-gallon breeder aquarium and 10 more gallons for two turtles. Bigger is always better.
Many box turtle problems can be avoided by simply offering one area of the cage that is heated to 85-88°F. The best sources of heat for box turtles are either overhead incandescent heat lights or quality under tank heating pads. They also need full spectrum lighting, which refers to a special type of fluorescent bulb manufactured for reptiles that simulate natural sunlight. Box turtles must have clean water available at all times for drinking and soaking, as well as a relative humidity of 60-80%.
Attention and Care: While they are not affectionate pets, box turtles will still require a lot of time per week preparing meals, cleaning their tank, and ensuring optimal light and heating conditions. Box turtles do make excellent pets for responsible reptile lovers, but they do not make good pets for children because their captive care requirements are rather elaborate.
Vet Care: While experts estimate Box turtles can live 50-100 years in nature, 90% of box turtles purchased by the general public die within the first 6 months to 2 years of captivity because they are not cared for properly. Box turtles are prone to calcium deficiency (which causes “soft shell disease”), upper respiratory infections, Vitamin A deficiency, mouth rot, parasites, and overgrown beaks and nails. That is why we recommend annual health exams and fecal checks for turtles.
More Difficult: Iguanas
Diet: Iguanas are strict herbivores, which means they should only be fed plants. An iguana diet should be 40-50% greens, 40-50% other vegetables, 10% or less of fruit, and less than 5% of grain-based foods and supplemental protein. There are many malnourished iguanas only fed cat food and lettuce, which is both fatty and very low in key nutritional value. An iguana cannot be overfed vegetables, so it is recommended to leave a pile of fresh food out until she is done eating, then remove the leftovers. The most important part of feeding an iguana is to provide a wide variety of the “good foods,” while maintaining an overall calcium to phosphorus ratio of 2 to 1. This is critical in order for the bones to properly grow and remain strong.
Enclosure: Iguanas can grow to five or six feet long so they require a huge enclosure! In fact, they do best when they have a dedicated room or outdoor enclosure (only on warm summer days in Colorado). A young iguana will outgrow a 55-gallon aquarium in its first year. An adult iguana enclosure should be at least twice the length of the iguana and at least 6 feet tall. The habitat you set up for your iguana can include automated timers and environmental controls to make it relatively easy to maintain, but will require a lot of research (and money) to set up, as well as continued monitoring.
Iguanas require high humidity at 65-75%, as well as high temperatures in their environments (at least 85 degrees). It is also very important to have the right lighting since they use UVA lighting to regulate certain biological functions and UVB light rays to help with nutrient absorption. This means that if you don’t give your iguana enough daily exposure to UVB, it will have trouble absorbing calcium from its food and will eventually die. Along with all the proper habitat supplies (UV lights, heat sources, etc.), you’ll need food and water bowls, a hiding area, tall climbing branches, spray bottles (for misting), a first aid kit, and something to trim claws with. As with all reptiles, always wash your hands after touching your iguana or cleaning its enclosure to prevent getting sick from Salmonella.
Attention and Care: Many people get iguanas before they realize the commitment required. We recommend you do a lot of research before bringing one home. Iguanas require much more attention than typical reptiles- they need daily interaction and handling after the initial adjustment period in order to be tamed. They need routines, stability, regular feedings, regular potty times, regular play times, etc. With persistent training, iguanas can be trained to use a litter box or even a toilet.
Iguanas do not make good pets for children because of their complex care requirements, difficult to tame, and sudden mood changes. It can take a year (or longer) for an iguana to feel comfortable with you and its home- it all depends on their personality and previous experiences. In addition, they are not domesticated animals that have spent generations in captivity- they still have the instincts of a wild animal. The can inflict a nasty bite, scratch with their sharp claws, or smack with a powerful tail if they feel threatened. Sexually mature males are known for becoming extremely aggressive with no warning and causing serious injuries to adults, kids, and other pets.
Vet Care: Many people believe reptiles don’t need to see a veterinarian unless they are sick- that is not true! A quality herp vet can find early warning signs of serious problems as well as determine any problems with its diet and habitat. An iguana in ideal circumstances can live to be 20+ years old, but they rarely live that long in captivity because of poor husbandry. Green iguanas can develop Metabolic Bone Disease (the iguana version of Rickets) from inadequate lighting. Iguanas are also prone to burns from improper heating, dehydration, mouth rot, parasites, respiratory infections, Hypervitaminosis D, vitamin B1 deficiency, and bacterial and viral infections. Iguanas can also “drop” their tail when feeling threatened, so be careful to never pick your iguana up by the tail or pull on it. The tail will regrow with time, but it is a traumatic experience.
Most Difficult: Parrots, Macaws, Cockatoos, and African Greys
Diet: It is important that birds are offered not only a healthy pellet mixture but also fresh fruits and vegetables every day to ensure they get the vitamins and minerals they need.
Don’t forget that fresh, cold water should be available at all times. Change it at least once a day, preferably twice. Carefully consider the placement of perches in the cage so your bird cannot soil his drinking water.
Enclosure: Larger parrots require lots of time and space, and are very expensive. Always buy the largest, most well-constructed cage you can afford. No matter the species, your bird should have enough room to stretch and flap her wings and fly from perch to perch. Larger birds need roomier accommodations-go for a cage three or four feet high and three feet across. Place the cage in a warm, bright part of the house, close to where the action is but away from drafts and off the floor. Avoid the kitchen at all costs-birds are extremely sensitive to fumes, and those from self-cleaning ovens and Teflon-coated cookware, if overheated, can be fatal. Do not place the cage in direct sunlight. This could cause your bird to overheat. Newspaper at the bottom of the cage should be changed every day, and the entire cage scrubbed clean twice a month.
Attention and Care: Having a large bird as a pet is a major investment in time, money and love–but if you’re up for the challenge, the returns on your investment are priceless. These birds are famous for being taught to “talk,” but they love to make a lot of noise that could be annoying to your neighbors. With an intelligence level equal that of chimps and dolphins, they’ll need mental simulation and constant attention from you. These species are not recommended for those who travel frequently or work long hours, or for families with young children. Parrots have incredible beak strength, and some can become aggressive with children who do not understand how to behave around birds and accidentally provoke them.
A companion avian will need lots of space–a cage at least four feet high and several feet across–and at least an hour of exercise in a safe, secure room every day. It requires a lot of time to tame and train your bird and make sure he’s mentally stimulated. Toys are not a replacement for your attention. Parrots form strong bonds with their human family members, and without enough attention, a bird can become extremely bored and stressed, and may exhibit negative behaviors such as screeching, biting, and self-mutilation (like feather plucking).
Vet Care: Birds are experts at masking illness, so it’s important to ensure that your new friend is physically healthy. Your bird’s nails, beak, and wings will need regular trimming, and the diagnostic tests needed once they get sick can cost hundreds of dollars. These large birds can live to be 50, 60, 70, or even 80 years old, which could mean many years of veterinary bills.