Cute or Critter? This guide will walk you through the basics of exotic pets, including which animals are considered exotic and how to care for them.
We all know that dogs were domesticated when humans were first crawling out of the caves.
Cats, too, have a long and illustrious history as pampered pets beginning with the ancient Egyptians. But what about the scaly, slithery, amphibious, and aqueous pets that we all love?
The trade and ownership of exotic animals stretches back to the ancient worlds. In those days, exotic animals were kept as a sign of status and wealth.
There is evidence of Egyptians keeping bright and colorful birds as pets from around 4000 BCE while the Chinese were the first to keep fish for ornament and decoration.In ancient times, exotic pets tended to be local wild animals rather than foreign species.
It wasn’t until the medieval and renaissance periods that the exotic animal trade kicked off. Medieval monarchs would swap and exchange native animals as a sign of friendship and prowess.
That is how the Tower of London became home to lions, polar bears, and elephants in the 13th century CE. It wasn’t until the 20th century when the international exotic pet trade became a multi-billion dollar industry.
After all, you can only make so much money selling to the rich and powerful. If you want to make serious money you need to include the masses.
By the 1940s exotic fish became an affordable pet for most American homes and the 1980s and 90s saw the great reptile boom.
Today, the trade of exotic animals is huge. We can keep a wide variety of animals as pets from tiny ants to llamas, American homes have seen it all.
It is important to remember that these exotic animals are living, breathing beings. It’s important to ensure that they are treated with respect and dignity throughout their lives.
The exotic pet trade is often unkind and cruel to animals. It is, in many cases, unregulated and destructive. If you are going to keep an exotic pet (Also check out Is It Legal To Keep Deep Sea Creatures As Pets?), it’s important to source it responsibly and be prepared to give it a loving and long term home.
What Are Exotic Pets?
The term ‘exotic’ has two meanings.
The first suggests something is unusual and out of the ordinary. In this sense, the term exotic pet tends to refer to any animal that isn’t a dog, cat, or working animal.
The second definition relates to the animal’s place of origin. Things that come from foreign countries are, by definition, exotic.
Using these two definitions, the term ‘exotic pet’ refers to everything from mice and rats, to snails, snakes, ferrets, and parrots.
Let’s take a closer look at the different categories of exotic pets.
This category refers to any creature that does not have a spine.
Sometimes these creatures have shells or exoskeletons, other times they get along fine without any substitute.
The majority of pets in this category are insects though there are a few water-based creatures too.
Some common invertebrate pets include:
- Stick insects
- Millipedes and centipedes
- Praying Mantis
If you are going to get one of these creatures, you’ll need a tank or vivarium to house them. These little critters are far too small to be kept in cages. They’ll slip out easily!
The ancient Sumerians kept fish in artificial ponds as long ago as 4500 BCE but it was the Chinese who began breeding fish for specific purposes and characteristics.
Nowadays, there is a huge range of fish available. You can keep tiny minnows or large lampreys in home aquariums.
If you decide to get fish, you’ll need to decide what kind of aquarium you are going to set up.
You can choose from:
- Saltwater - suitable for ocean-going breeds.
- Freshwater - suitable for lake, pond, and freshwater river fish.
- Brackish - a middle ground that is ideal for fish that come from mangroves, and estuaries.
Fairground goldfish seem to have created and perpetuated the myth that keeping fish as pets is an easy option. In most cases, this is far from true.
Being an aquarist, someone who keeps fish, requires commitment, dedication, and a fair bit of specialist knowledge.
You need to understand and maintain the conditions within the aquarium. You also need to understand the behaviors of your chosen species and how they will respond to other fish.
Some breeds, like minnows, like to be kept in a school. Others, like betta fish, prefer to be the only occupant in the tank.
Frogs, perhaps the most well known amphibian species, are hatched in the water as tadpoles but move to land as they develop legs.
Adult frogs have lungs just like us and they breathe air just like humans. However, they can also absorb oxygen through their skin which allows them to stay underwater for fairly long periods.
The amount of time amphibians spend in water as opposed to on land will vary from species to species and breed to breed.
As well as frogs, you can keep the following amphibious pets:
Caecilians and Sirens are technically types of salamander but they are very different from your typical salamander. They mostly resemble worms or snakes, though sirens do have two small forelegs.
Axolotls are also a type of salamander but are far more popular than other species.
Amphibians aren’t the best pet if you like holding or cuddling your pet. Their skin can be very delicate and reactive to the oils and acids on human hands. They are, however, incredibly fascinating to watch!
This category covers crocodiles, alligators, and caimans.
Though they are technically reptiles, their size and potential ferocity means that they are often sold by crocodilian specialists who know what they are doing.
There are only 5 states that allow the free sale and purchase of crocodilians, these are Nevada, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Wisconsin.
In most states, you need a license and permit to own a pet crocodile, gator, or caiman. However, many states outright ban these animals.
You need to check the laws for your state if you’re considering getting a crocodilian pet.
You should also know that these reptiles might start out all cute and small, but they can grow up to a foot a year. A fully grown alligator can reach up to 14 feet.
This means that if it stood on its tail, it would easily brush your ceilings. Most crocodilian species sold in the pet trade tend to be dwarf species such as Cuvier’s Dwarf Caiman or the Smooth Fronted Caiman.
That being said, you can also buy full-sized American Alligators that reach 14ft or Morelet’s Crocodiles which top out at about 9ft.
These are definitely not pets for everyone!
Snakes might inspire fear in many people, but to others, they are adorable little noodles.
There are rules regarding what kind of snakes you can keep as pets.
These do vary from state to state so you need to check the rules.
In general, poisonous snakes are a no-no when it comes to pets. There are a few states that allow you to have a venomous snake like a cobra. These states generally require you to have a license for keeping dangerous snakes.
The issue with keeping venomous snakes is that you can easily be bitten. It also endangers vets and emergency responders who may have to come to your rescue.
Breeds that are typically sold as pets include:
- Rat snakes
- Corn snakes
Snakes require heat lamps in their terrariums because they are cold-blooded animals. This can seem like an added expense and difficulty however, on balance, snakes aren’t too difficult to look after.
You might need to keep the light on, but you’ll be glad to know that they don’t eat daily. In fact, as adults, snakes only really eat once a week.
Snakes are incredibly interesting pets. They can, with patience, enjoy being handled and petted by their owners.
Lizards are incredibly diverse. There are over 6000 different species of lizards across every continent except Antarctica.
Lizards range in size from 16mm long Jaragua Lizards to enormous 9ft komodo dragons.
Of course, you don’t get to choose from those 6000 lizards for your pets.
Not every lizard suits the home environment. Komodo dragons, for example, do not make good pets!
Most lizards are harmless to humans, even if they have venom. They either tend not to bite or their venom is just not strong enough to harm humans.
Lizards tend to be starter pets for people who are looking to get into reptiles. They aren’t quite as frightening as snakes for the majority of people. Lizards also tend to be more handlable than other reptiles.
Like snakes, lizards are cold-blooded and thus need heat lamps to keep them healthy and happy. How much heat and how often depends on the species. In general, though, lizards should have a permanently warm basking area.
Some common lizard pets include:
- Bearded dragons
- Monitor lizards
- Basilisk lizards
- Frilled dragons
- Water dragons
Some lizards are ideal for beginners. The bearded dragon in particular is for beginner reptile owners.
Chameleons are more suited to intermediary keepers because they have more delicate needs.
You might not recognize these creatures by their scientific name but you’d recognize a picture of them.
Chelonians, you see, are characterized by a hard shell that develops from the ribcage to act as a shield.
Have you worked it out?
Interestingly, even though we might refer to land-based chelonians as tortoises and water-based members as turtles, there is no biological distinction.
The word turtle can be used to refer to all creatures in the chelonian order.
Tortoises had a bit of a vogue as pets in the 60s and 70s. Those pets are probably still kicking today as tortoises tend to have a life span of 50-100 years!
There are very few pets out there that can outlive you but turtles will almost always be around to see your funeral!
Some might see it as morbid, but others find the idea of a lifelong companion rather comforting!
There are some things you should be aware of when you’re considering buying a turtle as a pet. First and foremost, aquatic turtles can carry salmonella bacteria. This isn’t uncommon in the reptile world. Lizards, snakes, and amphibians can also carry salmonella.
Turtles, in general, are not ideal pets for very young children. They need a level of maturity in their owners both in terms of handling and also with regards to the level of hygiene needed with these pets.
Common chelonian breeds include:
- Diamondback terrapin
- Eastern box turtle
- Snapping turtle
- Musk turtle
- Bog turtle
- Red-bellied cooter turtle
- Red-eared slider turtle
- Spotted turtle
- Painted turtle
- Mud turtle
- Red-footed tortoise
- Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoise
- Leopard tortoise
- Indian star tortoise
- African spur-thighed tortoise
Also Read: Do Turtles Bite?
Birds have been kept for millennia. Initially, they were kept to be used as food, but later they were kept as messengers, racers, and early warning systems in mines.
The Egyptians are thought to be the first people to keep birds for their beauty.
Evidence of the earliest pet birds dates back as far as 4000 BCE.
Birds are intelligent, hygienic, and often very affectionate pets. They tend to bond fiercely with their keeper, enjoying spending time together.
Their intelligence makes most bird species fairly easy to train. You can get them to respond to commands or interact with you in specific ways.
Of course, the major draw for a lot of people is the natural talent at mimicry. Many species of pet birds can repeat words and phrases with enough practice.
The majority of birds that are kept as pets tend to be bright, beautiful birds. They are fascinating to watch and have surprisingly big personalities for such small animals.
Birds that are typically bred as pets include:
- African gray parrots
- Amazon parrots
- Caique parrots
- Pionus parrots
- Other parrots
Marsupials are an order of animals that are only native to Australia and the Americas.
Like mammals, marsupials give birth to live and needy young.
However, marsupials nurture their young in a pouch or fold to protect them from predators while they suckle.
The marsupials we are all familiar with such as kangaroos, koala bears, and wombats, are not pets.
You can’t own these legally and you should not take part in the trade of these wild animals.
There are few marsupial pets that you can legally own. These are:
- Sugar gliders
- Short-tailed opossum
The rules vary from state to state on these animals. Many states have banned the ownership of sugar gliders after they enjoyed a bit of a vogue a few years back.
The issue with sugar gliders is that they look cute and cuddly but they require quite a lot of care and attention to keep them happy. They do not make good beginner pets and should only be kept by experienced owners.
Short-tailed opossums tend to be cleaner and easier to look after. They are not the same as the opossums that populate North America.
You cannot keep a North American opossum as a pet. Like most small prey animals, sugar gliders and opossums are nocturnal. As such they don’t make great pets for children.
Mice and Rats
Two of the best known and most divisive rodents, mice and rats can make wonderful, loving pets.
They are inquisitive and curious by nature which pairs well with their natural intelligence.
Mice and rats are often vilified as dirty, disease-ridden animals, however, this is far from the truth.
Pet mice and rats are incredibly clean animals.
They even dislike the feeling of soiled bedding and can be easily trained to use a litter box.
The mice and rats that can be kept as pets are not the same as the mice and rats you find in the wild. Pet animals will have been bred in captivity and for the purpose of being a pet.
In fact, the kind of mice and rats you find in pet stores are called fancy mice or fancy rats! It’s an adorable name that suggests top hats and tailcoats rather than wheels disease!
Within the fancy families, you have a number of variants. These variations usually denote a difference in fur texture or color.
Here are some of the fancy rat variants:
- Dumbo - have large rounded ears.
- Dumbo sphynx - hairless with rounded ears.
- Rex - tightly curled fur.
- Fuzz - a hairless variety.
- Satin - soft, satin fur.
- Blue - color variant.
- Black - color variant.
- Albino - lacking color.
Fancy mice can be separated into 5 different varieties. Within each variety, there is a myriad of color variants.
The 5 varieties are:
- Selfs - mice of all one color.
- Tans - mice with a tan belly.
- Marked - mice with markings.
- Satins - mice with super soft and silky fur.
- AOV - any other variety of mouse.
Ferrets are a domesticated breed of the European polecat.
They were first domesticated about 2500 years ago and were used to flush rabbits and rodents out of nests and burrows.
Ferrets have long, lithe bodies that make them incredibly flexible.
These bodies help them squeeze in and out of small spaces.
The name ‘ferret’ comes from the Latin word furittus which means little thief. This evokes the cheeky, curious, and often incorrigible personality of these adorable fur snakes!
Ferrets are intelligent animals that love to get up to mischief. This makes them interesting animals to keep as pets. You’ll need a good sense of humor and a fair amount of patience with these animals.
Ferrets are very adepts escape artists so you’ll need to make sure their cage is firmly secured.
All in all, they are not ideal starter pets. However, for more experienced keepers, they make loving and entertaining pets.
Like rats and mice, ferrets are categorized based on their fur colors and patterns. Some of these varieties include:
- Sable masked
- Black-eyed white
- Sable mitts
Though rabbits are common pets, they are categorized as exotic by most pet shops and sellers.
Rabbits are often portrayed as childhood pets in film and television. This is a bit misleading as they actually require a fair amount of care and attention.
One of the major misconceptions about these adorable hoppers is that they can be kept in a hutch.
The reality is that a hutch is not enough. Rabbits need to have room to run, hop, and stand.
The general guideline is that your rabbit should have enough space to do three hops and stand up straight in his hutch.
They will also need an exercise area that should be about 24 square feet to play in. If you can’t spare that much room, you should not get a rabbit. It’s as simple as that.
Rabbits can live indoors or outdoors. House rabbits need to be trained to use a litter box and shouldn’t be left unsupervised in a room unless you have fully bunny proofed it.
There are lots of different breeds of rabbits that are sold as pets. They include:
- Mini Lop-eared
- Flemish Giant
- American Fuzzy Lop
- Belgian Hare
- Netherland Dwarf
Just like dogs or cats, each breed has its own characteristics that affect its appearance and temperament.
You should look into potential breeds to see if it’s the right choice for you.
Hamsters and Gerbils
Hamsters and gerbils are both small rodents but they are actually very different in terms of their care needs.
Both are seen and kid-friendly pets, often being used as class pets.
However, you should do your research before buying a hamster or gerbil for your child. They might not be the best choice after all.
Hamsters are the main issue. They are nocturnal creatures which means that you don’t have an awful lot of bonding time with them in the day. They tend to wake and become active in the late evening which might be too late for small children.
The other thing to note about hamsters is that they are generally solitary creatures. If you have pairs of hamsters they tend to fight over territory.
You should only have one hamster in a cage. To stave off loneliness, you’ll need to interact and bond with the hamster.
Gerbils, on the other hand, love company. You need to have at least 2 gerbils to prevent them from getting lonely.
Gerbils have short bursts of activity throughout the day and night. This gives you more time to play and bond with them.The best way to tell the difference between a hamster and a gerbil is to check their tails. A gerbil has a longer rat-like tail, whereas hamsters have short stubby tails.
These prickly little pets are not native to the US but that hasn’t stopped them from becoming increasingly popular pets.
Hedgehogs are so named because they snuffle and rut through hedges in search of small insects and worms.
Because hedgehogs have poor eyesight, they have to sniff out their prey. This often creates a pig-like grunting sound. And so the name was born.
There are many different hedgehog breeds around the world. Not all of them are domesticated and so must not be kept as pets.
The breeds that are most commonly kept as pets are:
- African pygmy
- Egyptian long-eared
- Indian long-eared
European hedgehogs are protected and cannot be kept as pets.
In some states including New York and California, it is illegal to own a hedgehog as a pet. This is mostly because they have a small chance of carrying foot and mouth disease.
Some states allow you to have a hedgehog if you have a permit. These states include Wyoming and New Jersey.
These vocal rodents are neither native to Guinea nor are they related to pigs. They are sometimes called cavies after their scientific name Caviidae.
Guinea pigs look a little bit like furry potatoes. They have low, rounded bodies and stubby little legs.
Guinea pigs can have a number of different fur types. Some have long flowing locks, others are furless.
Guinea pigs originated in South America and were first domesticated about 3000 years ago. They came to Europe in the 1600s and have been popular pets pretty much since that time.
Guinea pigs are social animals and need to be kept in pairs at the very least. You’ll need to get males neutered if you plan on having a mixed-sex group.
Guinea pigs can be indoor or outdoor pets. They are a bit sensitive to noise so outdoors is probably best. Guinea pigs also have a fairly loud squeak that they like to deploy when hungry, bored, or excited.
Guinea pigs make great pets for younger owners. They are active in the day, funny to watch, and very rarely bite.
There are 13 breeds recognized by the American Cavy Breeder Association. These are:
- Abyssinian satin
- American satin
- Peruvian satin
- Silke satin
- Teddy satin
There are other breeds, but these are not recognized by the ACBA.
Another member of the rodent family, chinchillas are known for their incredibly soft, dense fur.
Chinchillas have one of the longest lifespans of all rodents, living for between 10 and 20 years!
If you’re thinking of getting a chinchilla make sure you’re ready for commitment.
Chinchillas are fairly shy creatures. They aren’t ideal for very young children as they can bite when startled or stressed.
Chinchillas are mostly active at night which, again, makes them unsuitable for younger pet owners. Like guinea pigs, chinchillas are social animals who need a cage mate. It’s best to get two from the same litter where possible.
Chinchillas are very active animals. They love to climb and jump so they need a vertical cage with plenty of platforms and levels. You should let your chinchilla out for exercise at least once a day. They will need to be supervised during this exercise.
Is an Exotic Pet Right for You?
When it comes to choosing a pet, exotic or not, you should ask yourself the following questions:
- Am I prepared to commit for the full lifespan of this animal?
- Am I prepared to meet this animal’s needs?
- Am I prepared to meet any vet bills?
If the answer to any of the above is ‘no’ or ‘maybe’ you should not get a pet.
Exotic pets tend to require more care than dogs or cats. You generally need to pay for a cage or tank plus the things that populate that habitat.
You need to be prepared to clean and change the housing at least once a week in most cases. Bedding and cleaning supplies will need to be bought frequently as well as food.
While exotic animals usually don’t require daily walks, they still need exercise and handling daily. If you aren’t prepared to get your pet out and bind with them, then you aren’t ready to meet their needs and shouldn’t get one.
Another thing to be aware of is the feeding requirements. Some pets, like snakes and lizards, will require live insects as part of their feeding. If you don’t want to handle live crickets, don’t get these animals.
Equally, if you are going to be squeamish about dead mice used to feed snakes, rethink your choice of pet.
Bearing all that in mind, exotic pets are wonderfully interesting and rewarding companions. If you have the time and effort to dedicate to them, go for it!
Exotic Pets For…
Apartments - One of the great things about exotic pets is that they tend to be fairly small. This makes them perfect apartment pets.
Also, as they tend to be kept in cages or tanks, you might be allowed to keep them in pet restricted apartments. You’ll need to check your terms and conditions for that.
If you do live in a smaller apartment, consider getting an invertebrate, fish, an amphibious pet, a lizard, or a snake.
These animals don’t require masses of room for exercise. In fact, most are happy to stay in their tanks or cages.
Houses - With a house, you tend to have a bit more space. This means you can choose a pet that requires more exercise room.
You could choose any of the pets we’ve mentioned if you have a house. Some animals, like hedgehogs, hamsters, and mice, will fit into any room in the house.
Other animals, like ferrets, rats, birds, and marsupials, will need a larger enclosure and will thus dominate a room.
If you have a decent garden space with your house, you could consider getting rabbits, guinea pigs, or tortoises who are more than happy living on the lawn.
Kids - While pets can be a good way to teach your child responsibility and independence, children can be quite fickle.
If you are getting a pet for your child, be prepared to take up the slack when they lose interest. If you can’t commit to the pet’s entire lifetime, don’t get it.
The best animals for children are animals that are active during the day, enjoy or tolerate handling, and have simpler needs.
Don’t be fooled by cartoons and films, rabbits and hamsters do not make great children’s pets. If you want a rodent, go for a guinea pig or a gerbil. They are friendlier and easier to take care of.
Cold-blooded animals like lizards, snakes, and amphibians require specific habitat conditions. This might be too much to ask of very young children.
Also, you need to wash your hands after handling these animals due to the bacteria that live on their skins. Children are notoriously bad at keeping themselves clean. Think carefully about whether your child will remember this crucial rule.
Some bird species are great companions for kids. Cockatiels in particular respond well to the attention of children.
Pros and Cons of Exotic Pets
This is a general list of pros and cons relating to exotic animals in general. Each animal will have its own pros and cons that you’ll need to consider before you think about adopting or purchasing.
Unique - exotic animals are great talking points. They fascinate us because we don’t see them very often.
Ethics - The major concern with exotic animals is how they came to end up in your home.
The exotic pet trade is often cruel and exploitative.
If you are going to get an exotic pet, make sure the animal was bred in captivity.
This means that it wasn’t snatched from its home or mother.
Learning experience - Having an exotic pet is an excellent way to learn about the way that creature functions.
Cold-blooded animals are particularly great for learning because they are so different from ourselves.
Having exotic animals also helps us learn about the dangers and difficulties faced by these animals.
They can be wonderful tools for teaching conservation.
Not very cuddly - Many exotic pets are not fond of cuddling.
Birds, lizards, and snakes tend to prefer affection on their terms.
Some rodents, like rabbits and guinea pigs, need to be taught to enjoy handling.
Other animals like fish or aquatic species are just not suited to human handling.
Less space - most of these animals require a tank or cage a few feet in volume.
Compared to cats and dogs who need whole houses to roam, exotic animals have a very small footprint!
It’s not true of every exotic animal but for the vast majority, small spaces are no problem.
Carnivorous - Some exotic pets eat other animals.
You will need to supply live insects or dead animals for them to eat.
If you don’t like the idea of feeding your pet other animals, look elsewhere.
No more walkies - One of the best things about exotic animals is that you can exercise them without leaving your apartment.
Disease - Some exotic animals carry diseases.
Notably, turtles and lizards can carry salmonella while hedgehogs can carry foot and mouth.
You need to be careful about handling and hygiene.
Hypoallergenic - a lot of exotic animals have scales, feathers, or exoskeletons. This means that people who suffer from fur allergies caused by dander can breathe easy.
If you do want a furry friend, consider getting ferrets. They don’t shed dander like other furballs.
Long lifespans - Many exotic animals have lifespans that reach into the double figures.
Some of these animals, like birds and turtles, can even outlive you.
If you’re not prepared for a lifetime commitment, don’t get exotic pets.
Exotic pets are hugely rewarding animals. They provide hours of entertainment and can reciprocate the love that you put into the relationship.
As far as pets go, many exotic animals are low maintenance when compared to boisterous and needy cats and dogs. They’re content to bask in their tanks watching the world go by.
If you are going to step into the weird and wonderful world of exotic animals, you need to be an ethical and informed pet owner.
The exotic pet trade is, unfortunately, rife with exploitation. You must always do your due diligence when buying an exotic animal.
Always make sure the animal was captive bred and that the breeder is registered and ethical.
Where possible, consider adopting an exotic animal. There are specialist rescues around the country that have dumped and unwanted animals available for adoption.
By adopting an animal, you not only reduce the strain on rescues, but you give the pet another chance at a loving home.
Whatever animal you decide to go for, remember that you need to meet the creature's basic needs. Those basic needs are water, food, shelter, stimulation, and a whole lot of love!