June 15

Do exotic animals make good pets?

If you’ve been wanting a prairie dog as a pet, no doubt you’ve decided against it after a Midwest outbreak of monkeypox in the critters. Initially exposed to an exotic Gambian rat that carried the disease, then sold in pet stores, the prairie dogs spread the monkeypox to humans, leading to the only known outbreak of the disease in North America.

Before you condemn the prairie dogs, please note that this would not have happened if an exotic pet dealer had not imported the Gambian rat from Africa. The Center for Disease Control has now banned the following African species from being imported: tree squirrels, rope squirrels, dormice, Gambian giant pouched rats, brush-tailed porcupines and striped mice.

The real question to those concerned about animal welfare is: Why were those animals being imported in the first place?

Exotic animals rarely make good pets, particularly exotic animals imported from another country. It is difficult to replicate their life in the wild or the type of environment they need to thrive. Vet care is almost impossible to find – just try calling your local vet to make an appointment for a brush-tailed porcupine, for instance, let alone more “common” exotics like prairie dogs, skunks or wallabies. Even finding a knowledgeable vet to treat large lizards or sugar gliders can be a challenge.

Let’s take the case of prairie dogs, one of the more common exotic pets in the U.S. First, prairie dogs are not legal pets in the state of Oregon. I am aware that some people own them, but it’s not easy to find an owner willing to speak about them or a vet willing to provide care for them.

Prairie dogs are, for the most part, wild animals. Many are captured as babies or bred from captured parents and sold as pets. Contrast that with our more typical small pets like hamsters, guinea pigs or rabbits that have been bred in captivity for decades to be better pets and to interact with humans.

Prairie dogs also have a long list of dos and don’ts. Prairie dogs in captivity can live to be 10 years old, so the commitment to own one is long term. They must be spayed or neutered within a specific time frame, generally the fall of the year they are born. Without neutering, their behavior during certain times of the year will make them territorial and unfriendly. The creatures also need a very specific diet, as obesity is common in pet prairie dogs and can lead to a premature death. They’ll also need specific housing that they cannot escape from.

This doesn’t mean that prairie dogs can’t be suitable pets, for the right person. As with any pet, it’s important to know what the standards of housing, diet and health care are before bringing one home. Remember these tips if you absolutely must have an exotic pet.

  • Always meet the kind of animal that you are considering. You cannot tell what owning an animal is like from seeing photos or reading stories on the Internet. You must be able to handle one and see what the owners have to do to provide the correct care. Find someone you can visit who owns the animal you desire – and even if you need to plan your next vacation around meeting them, do it.
  • Understand that exotic pets have not been bred to be domestic, as our more common pets have. Even if you’ve met the kind of animal you want, you may not understand that it can produce a lot of odor, make loud noises, bite or scratch, or prefer not to be handled. Just because an animal looks cute or different does not mean it will happily interact with you.
  • Once you make a commitment to a pet, you need to keep that commitment. There are few rescues for fennec foxes, possums or hyenas. Letting them go in the wild is cruel to that animal, which is unlikely to live long, and could introduce disease into the local environment. It’s also illegal.
  • Never buy an exotic pet if you cannot meet the parents. Pet shop sales, as we’ve learned from the monkeypox outbreak, are poor places to get such an animal because you just don’t know what its background is. Perhaps it has been exposed to other animals carrying diseases, like the poor prairie dogs. Or, it may have been captured in the wild and made captive – a cruel thing to do to a wild animal. Find a reputable breeder.
  • Make a plan for medical care. If you pet gets sick, you need to be able to get treatment. Can you find a local vet willing to learn about your animal and help if there is an emergency?
  • Be willing to pay extra. Some exotic pets need special kinds of food that must be mail ordered or prepared specially.

It’s not just health issues that can make an exotic pet a poor choice for most households. Compromising care can lead to a short and miserable life for the animal. Think carefully before bringing an unusual creature into your home.

See also: Notes: Myxomatosis and why vaccinations are important