It often starts out sounding like fun: “Let’s get a turtle!” Or, “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a snake as a pet?”
For whatever reason, whether it’s driven by novelty or a lifelong interest, many people decide to adopt pets other than the traditional dog, cat, hamster, or goldfish. Whether it’s a ferret or sugar glider, hedgehog, ball python, or lizard, you can successfully introduce an exotic pet into your house—given the proper research and attention to detail.
One of the first steps is ensuring your potential pet is legal to own.
Connecticut state law dictates what types of exotic pets you can and cannot own, and imposes a civil penalty of up to $2,000 for violating it. The state bans the possession of potentially dangerous animals, many of which appear obvious: lions, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, bears, coyotes, and wolves, for example (among others).
The state also bans the import of certain animals that aren’t native to Connecticut. So step 1: check the latest state law.
Next, consider the animal’s care.
“More than 90% of the problems I see with exotics relate to poor husbandry,” Dr. Christopher Otka, co-owner of Noank-Mystic Veterinary Hospital, said in an email. “My advice to anyone considering a ‘non-traditional’ pet, or any pet for that matter (is) to do your research beforehand.”
Dr. Otka said some pet stores offer basic husbandry information, while there are also a host of online resources like reptilesmagazine.com.
Dr. Scott Hammer, an associate vet at VCA New London Animal Hospital, said he breaks things into categories. With birds, for example, it’s exceptionally important to make sure you have a lot of time to devote to them.
“Birds can make incredible pets if they’re properly taken care of, but they’re unbelievably intelligent and need a lot of interaction and socialization,” Dr. Hammer said. “And if they don’t get a lot of that, that can become a behavioral and then a medical problem pretty quickly.”
With small mammals like rabbits, chinchillas, and guinea pigs, Dr. Hammer said people assume that because the animal was relatively inexpensive to purchase, maintenance and veterinary care will be as well. But they can make messes, have special bedding and food that can add up quickly. (Hay can get pricey, he added.)
As for reptiles, Dr. Hammer said the “vast majority” of medical problems are the result of an enclosure that’s not suitable for them. Potential owners need to research what’s needed for temperature, humidity, and diet.
He also pointed out that most exotics don’t need regular vaccinations, which is a built-in incentive for dog and cat owners to bring their pets in. Therefore, owners of exotics should consider regular wellness exams.
Dr. Otka said household demographics are a consideration as well.
“Many, but not all, exotic animals are not appropriate for younger children,” he said. “Some animals such as reptiles carry risk of diseases such as salmonella or are more likely to nip/bite if frightened or handled roughly.”
Dr. Otka also pointed out that some parrot species and turtles or tortoises can outlive their owners and live 80-plus years.
Some of Dr. Otka’s suggestions include:
• For availability, ease of care, and overall demeanor: Guinea pigs, including designer “skinny pigs,” bearded dragons, ball pythons, or green tree python
• For older children (10+): ferrets or neutered/spayed rabbits, cockatiels and budgies.
Some exotics that are larger and/or more difficult to care for or handle should be reserved for adults and responsible teenagers. These include larger birds like Macaws or Amazons; larger lizards like Blue-Tongue Skinks; larger snakes like Burmese pythons; and chameleons, hedgehogs, sugar gliders.
Finally, you need a veterinarian who can treat exotics. Again, research is the key.
“Ideally, they should have extensive experience, which may include a boarded specialty, in the type of exotic animals seen regularly by the practice (avian, exotic small mammal, reptile),” Dr. Otka said.
The hospital should be equipped with the necessary personnel, equipment, and medications, said Dr. Otka, who added that he’s often seen owners who have been given a prescription to fill at a human pharmacy. The prescription is either written incorrectly or the pharmacy doesn’t have the needed dispensing tools – bottles or syringe size, for example – or the human formulation is far too concentrated.
Dr. Hammer said potential owners shouldn’t be shy about calling their veterinary clinic to ask whether they’re comfortable seeing your pet. He said it’s “very rare” for a clinic to say yes if they aren’t, and that most will have resources and referrals available.
Bottom line: take your time. From the up-front investment to the long-term care, exotics can be a unique (and sometimes pricey) experience, but also a fully rewarding one.
Going the traditional route? Things to keep in mind
Dogs are a staple pet in many households, and are very often given as gifts. But if you have kids, which ones are the best to get? Catie Moore, the shelter manager at Valley Shore Animal Welfare League in Westbrook, believes the best dog for a family all depends on the energy levels of both the children and the dog. If a child is too high energy, she explains, it can be stressful for the dog and can potentially end up being dangerous to the child. Breeds can play a big role in the energy level of the dog. Moore says golden retrievers are a typical family dog, and that pit bulls are also a good option for kids. If getting a rescue, it’s also important to know if the dog has been around children before because if not they could be scared by kids.
If considering getting a cat, it may be worth waiting until a child is old enough to care for them.
“Cats can be sweet, but at times unpredictable, especially when they encounter a child that is rambunctious,” says the adoption team at Forgotten Felines in Westbrook. “Although the child may not intentionally upset the cat, it does happen, and sadly, much too often.”
Because of this, and based on guidelines by the American Humane Society, Forgotten Felines will not allow families with children younger than 5 to adopt kittens and recommend that they adopt cats who are at least 2 or 3 years old.
“Adopting a shelter cat is a rewarding and gratifying experience,” says Forgotten Felines. “Cats give unconditional love and provide years of enjoyment while teaching children how to care and love a pet.”
Hamsters are another beloved childhood pet, and they’re so small that they would seem to be harmless. However, as nocturnal creatures they may not be a pet best suited for children. According to the Humane Society of the United States, hamsters sleep during the day and are awake at night, a schedule that is opposite of a typical child. They will also bite if woken up suddenly, which can be traumatic for the child and can potentially make them sick. Hamsters carry diseases such as salmonella and Lymphocytic choriomeningitis, which can be a serious risk for young children with undeveloped immune systems.
The Humane Society recommends that children younger than 8 should have adult supervision when playing with their hamster. As tiny animals, hamsters need to be handled gently which can be difficult for children, especially if they have a lot of energy.
– Erin Shanley