List of 40 Rare and Unique Exotic Pets
What is that?
As pet-keeping continues to grow in popularity, exotic pet-keeping does as well. Many people are surprised to learn about the great diversity of species that we have on this planet, and this variety extends to the animals we keep in our homes.
'Traditional' pets are great, but some people prefer something a little more unusual. Keeping exotic pets, which are often incorrectly considered to be 'wild animals,' has become very controversial.
Being against exotic pet-keeping is misguided. Most people haven't even heard of many of the species that some people own, so why would they feel educated enough on the subject to make judgements about their suitability as pets? There is no clear line that separates so-called domesticated and non-domesticated animals.
Promoting these species as pets?
No animal of any species should be 'promoted' as a pet in general. There is no one species that is suitable for everyone. Even dogs and cats, the country's most popular and commonly kept pets, can have more complicated care than most people consider.
For instance, as most cats are essentially self-domesticated, they have a lot in common with so-called wild animals. They can suffer from behavioral, psychological, and physical problems when they don't receive adequate enrichment in the home. They need what pretty much all animals need, whether they live in a zoo or an apartment.
All pets require essentially the same care. Domesticated pets are not free from instincts nor do they not require the same attention and enrichment as many so-called wild animals in captivity.
Some of the animals on this list are difficult to care for by even the highest standards, but especially in these days of the internet, any dedicated individual can learn how to manage an exotic pet.
Most people have not heard of every animal on this list before, so if you have, you must know your animals. They are not all normally kept as pets, many are very rare in private ownership. I have listed species I've seen for sale or owned by private owners in the United States and the UK.
1. Prehensile-tailed Porcupine
While everyone knows what a porcupine is, many have not seen or heard of the funny-looking, tree-dwelling, prehensile-tailed porcupine from Central and South America. They are large rodents with an odor reminiscent of human BO (not everyone's cup of tea), and that might be why they'll never surge in popularity. In addition to that, they need a large and tall enclosure, being arboreal creatures.
Agoutis are rodents from South America that swim very well. Agoutis live in monogamous pairs just like maras and are sometimes kept as pets.
3. Spotted genet
These magnificent animals resemble cats crossed with ferrets but are neither, however they are relatives to both, being feliforms. These animals can be skittish and they will not hesitate to scale their owner's body as though its a tree to escape from 'danger'. They deceptively look like cats, so unfortunately, they are often given up when they fail to behave like one.
4. Dik dik
These tiny antelope species have been kept as pets in the past, but today they seem to have left the pet trade. When they were sold a few years ago, they have fetched a hefty $6000 price tag, though I'd say it's worth it.
This bear-looking creature is also called a 'bearcat', but it is a viverrid, like the spotted genet. They are famous for smelling like popcorn and despite their size, they can be surprisingly gentle.
6. Raccoon dog
Pictured above is a white, or leucistic raccoon dog (also called tanuki). The normal-colored animal has an uncanny resemblance to a typical racoon, but it is a canid from East Asia. They are one of the few federally banned species in the United States, but they are often kept in Europe.
7. Prevost squirrel
The prevost squirrel is stunningly beautiful; many people find their coloration hard to believe, but it is all natural. They also make decent pets...for a squirrel. Being a member of these active rodents, they require large housing and a lot of enrichment, but captive-bred babies can be very human-friendly. These days, these Asiatic squirrels are getting hard to find.
While this animal resembles a marmot or some other common rodent, the fascinating thing about hyraxes is that they are the closest living relative to elephants. They are also related to manatees. These quick little mammals actually have small 'tusks' tucked away in their mouth, and they have a gestation period of about 7 to 8 months! These animals are not commonly held as pets, but opportunities to get them exist.
Tayras are in the weasel family and they are kept as pets in very limited numbers. They are not readily available because they breed poorly in captivity and are also challenging animals to work with if they are going to have human interaction. They are found in Central and South America in the wild.
9. Four-eyed opossum
Many people are familiar with native Virginia opossums and short-tailed opossums which are relatively common exotic pets, but four-eyed opossums are less common. They are larger than short-tails and are more difficult to breed in captivity. Other than that they can make reasonable pets.
Also called a striped plolecat, these skunk-looking animals are a member of the weasel family. Despite not being skunks, these animals still use foul-smelling spray as a defense mechanism. Skunks are far more popular as pets than zorrilas, which are rarely kept.
Before buying an alternative pet...
- Ensure the species is legal in your state. Sometimes animals might seem legal with one law but be banned by another. Getting confirmation from other residents that own the animals is helpful.
- Take into account the activity level of the animal that might be drastically different from many dogs and cats that most people are used to.
- Consider the lifespan of the animal. Spotted genets can live 30+ years in captivity, that's a long time with a flighty carnivore.
- Research until you drop.
11. Patagonian Mara
The Patagonian mara is one of the largest rodents in the world, and they resemble and occupy a similar niche to deer in the wild. Maras are excellent jumpers and they should be housed outdoors. They should have a diet similar to guinea pigs of which they are closely related. This means they require supplemental vitamin C.
12. Ring-tailed cat
While they look more like spotted genets, they are actually related to raccoons. People who don't live in western states are usually unfamiliar with ring-tailed cats in general and certainly that they can be kept as pets. Today, their populations in the pet trade are dwindling, but a few years ago captive-bred babies were offered for sale and reportedly made reasonable pets. Being native animals, they are banned in many states, including those which have 'lenient' exotic pet laws like North Carolina and Nevada.
Kinkajous are somewhat popular in the exotic pet trade and they received some exposure after an unfortunate incident where celebrity Paris Hilton was injured by one she illegally possessed as a pet (in California, where few exotic pets aside from reptiles are legal). Many kinkajou owners report that aggression with this species is unpredictable, and 'attacks' can occur despite their otherwise affectionate demeanor.
They look like large worms, but they are actually strange amphibians. You are unlikely to see anyone owning these because they are very hard to breed and care for, but some adventurous and advanced keepers have managed wild-caught specimens. An even more limited number of people have bred certain species.
15. Red river hog
These pigs are typically kept in zoos, but a few breeders exist and offer them to the public. They hail from Africa and have striking coloration. A captive-bred baby can sell for thousands of dollars.
A paca is yet another large South American rodent that few have heard of. They have spots just like a baby deer and can weigh up to 26 pounds, so this is not a pet for a guinea pig enclosure. Like the agouti, they are also good swimmers.
17. Gambian-pouched rat
This name might strike fear in rat haters hearts but these animals actually make good pets, just like domesticated rats. Unfortunately, their importation was banned along with several other African rodents after an embargo on them resulted from a monkey pox scare in 2003, but they are still kept as pets in Europe. In Africa, they've even been trained to help detect land mines and tuberculosis.
18. Asian palm civet
Asian palm civets are viverrids that are about the size of a house cat. They are famous for the strange use of their droppings in expensive coffee called Kopi Luwak, where they are often incorrectly described as being a cat. In a Dutch study of various exotic pets, they were actually declared to be one of the best pets along with sitka deer, wallabies, and llamas.
These incredibly strange little rodents are some of the few bipedal mammals in the world. They are hard to breed in captivity and most pets in the U.S. were wild-caught imports, so when the 2003 embargo on African rodents took place, they disappeared from private captivity. They are still kept in Europe.
20. Greater galago
This African primate might be better known by its other name 'bush baby'. They are nocturnal animals that have the unpleasant habit of rubbing their hands with their own urine. Being primates, they are illegal in most states.
21. Bat-eared fox
Fennec foxes are pretty well known animals and are prevalent in the trade of exotic mammals, but the slightly larger bat-eared foxes, also from Africa, are much less common. Unlike fennec foxes, they are primarily insectivores. There are very few breeders of these animals.
Capybaras are the largest rodents in the world, and while they are enjoying immense popularity in Japan, many people in the United States are still not so familiar with them. These enormous guinea pig relatives are semi-aquatic and require a pool of water to swim in.
23. Palawan porcupine
Palawan porcupines have recently been introduced into the American pet trade and are less common than the others, such as the African crested. They have more of a musk rat appearance. Porcupines can be interactive and surprisingly affectionate, just be sure to pet them 'along the grain' so that you don't get poked.
Many people are not aware of tenrecs, a species that resembles a hedgehog but they are actually not even closely related. Tenrecs have some of the lowest body temperatures for a mammal, and they can hibernate in captivity. Tenrecs are substantially more expensive than hedgehogs...about $1000 compared to $50-$300.
24. Sea apple
What the heck is this thing? It's a beautiful sea cucumber, which is an echinoderm like sea stars. Few people keep these unusual animals because should they die, their toxins will kill everything in the aquarium. Therefore, they are kept in tanks alone, called species-specific tanks. Sea cucumbers are also challenging to feed because they filter the sea water. They require a specialized diet and a mature tank with live rock.
Springhaas is an Afrikaans name, they are also called springhares in the Western world. Like jerboa, these are strange bipedial rodents, and they are unfortunately rare in the pet trade in the United States due to the 2003 African rodent embargo. However, a teeny number, perhaps just one, breeder exists and they are slowly being reintroduced. They are challenging for even zoos to breed.
26. Chacoan mara
If Patagonian maras are uncommon for people to have heard of, Chacoan maras are even worse. They are a much smaller, less common mara species (there are only 2) in the pet trade. Unlike Patagonians, they are small enough to easily be house pets, but not unlike guinea pigs, their cages need to be constantly cleaned.
27. Whip scorpion
Tailless whip scorpions, or vinegaroons are arachnids that are kept as pets in the arthropod trade. They are not actually scorpions. When disturbed, they can shoot a very strong smelling acetic acid spray. Their enclosures require deep substrate and they can tolerate some handling, although they do have a painful but non-venomous bite.
28. Geoffroy's cat
These are South American non-domesticated cats that aren't larger than your house cat. They have beautiful spots and are very quick on their feet. Hybrids of Geoffroy's cats and domestic cats are called safari cats. They are one of the less common small exotic cats kept as pets (after servals, bobcats and caracals).
29. Snake-necked turtle
Common snake-necked turtles are strange-looking aquatic animals that are rare in the pet trade as they are difficult to breed. As one can guess, their long neck prevents them from being able to pull their head into their shell. They can emit a foul-smelling liquid that smells like skunk from their musk glands when threatened. Their care is complex.
30. Crab-eating raccoon
This racoon, native to Central and South America, has been recently imported and has become available to private owners in small numbers. As the name suggests, they eat crustaceans but also foods like fruit, amphibians and eggs. They are more arboreal (tree-dwelling) than North American raccoons.
While it looks like a rat, the bettong is a marsupial, like the wallaby that it also resembles (it is also called a rat-kangaroo). They are also native to Australia where they are critically endangered. Due to this, they cannot be sold over state lines in the United States due to the Endangered Species Act but they are still privately owned.
32. Pom pom anemone crab
This adorable crab is used as a member of community marine aquariums. It gets its name from the tiny anemones that it carries and waves at predators, causing it to resemble a cheerleader with pom poms. This endearing trait makes it a fine choice for tanks with peaceful fish and invertebrates.
Most people haven't heard of the name 'tamandua' but they have heard of giant anteaters. These are lesser anteaters and they have complex dietary requirements that are difficult for the average person to provide.
Many mongoose species are banned in the U.S. but the cusimanse are a dwarf species that are not. Like many other animals people haven't heard of, breeders of these animals are hard to come by.
35. Marbled polecat
The very rare but stunning-looking marbled polecat is a ferret-like animal that in the past was kept to control rodents in Kabul. They've been available on exotic pet selling websites in the past but are presumably extremely hard to track down today.
36. Garden eel
These strange eels are not commonly kept and very difficult to care for, but putting in the effort and setting up their complex environment (they require a very deep sand bed so they can form their holes from which they stick out of) is well worth it. Another challenge of keeping garden eels is getting them to eat. They capture food that the ocean current sweeps their way.
37. African Jungle Cat
These animals are slightly larger than domestic cats, but do very much resemble them. They are often hybridized with regular cats and the resulting animals are simply called 'jungle cats'. Like many other exotic cats and exotic cat hybrids, they are known to be 'dog-like' with their behavior.
Degus are not rare in the pet trade by any means, but the majority of people have never heard of them. They look like gerbils, but are more similar to chinchillas. They are inexpensive and can be cared for with more typical small pet requirements. Unlike many small pet rodents, they are dinural.
39. New Guinea Singing Dog
These dogs are genetically the same as dingoes and are also a subspecies of the wolf. They are still considered to be a 'wild' species of canine, however. They are thus named due to their melodious howl. A recent study indicated that there is no evidence that the captive population of singers descended from wild-living populations. These animals are kept as pets and they were even featured on Animal Planet's Dogs 101.
This raccoon relative form South America possess great dexterity. They are popular animals within the exotic pet trade despite their size and complicated enrichment needs.
What do you think?
Should exotic pet ownership be legal?
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.