Melissa cares for a variety of exotic animals and has completed a certificate in veterinary assisting and a bachelor's degree in biology.
When we (Westerners) think of the term "exotic", particularly when it comes to animals, the word conjures images of colorful, strange, or unfamiliar creatures that are native to far away places like the steamy jungles of Asia and Africa.
If the term "exotic pet" only referred to animals that are not native to the areas in which we live, dogs and cats would actually be "exotic", while several unusual pets would not be.
Exotic Pets From the United States
Sometimes exotic pets are native to your own backyard. If you live in the United States, what would be common wildlife from the woods surrounding your home would be a highly unusual pet to care for inside your house. Most or all states have prohibitions or restrictions on possessing animals that come directly from the wild, but in a few areas, captive-bred native animals can be kept as pets.
Skunks are native to every state in the U.S. except Alaska and Hawaii. These iconic striped mammals may resemble weasels or even rodents, but they are in their own family, Mephitidae. They are among the few animals native to the Americas that are considered "domesticated" by mainstream standards when they descend from captive breeding programs (they have their scent glands removed).
They also come in an array of colorations, such as Champagne, Albino, and Apricot. Skunks, being rabies vectors, are legal in a small, limited number of states. While they may sometimes be considered to be one of the "easier" exotic pets to care for, they can be prone to aggression.
- Skunks are considered to be domesticated.
- They are in their own family with stink badgers.
- They can be harnessed and litter box trained.
Raccoons are already famous for rummaging through trash cans in human settings, which could possibly indicate that the nocturnal creatures have evolved a level of tolerance for being around people. This is how dogs are theorized to have self-domesticated, so it's not surprising that raccoons are kept as pets.
However, like other members of the family Procyonidae, they have a reputation for being prone to aggressive outbursts, and their sharp teeth can easily land a person in the hospital. Raccoons, like skunks, are rabies vectors, which is why the species is heavily regulated in most states.
- Raccoons are prone to aggressive outbursts.
- It is common for them to be raised as pets from the wild, although this is not legal in most cases.
- They are intelligent and demanding to keep as pets.
The Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana), not to be confused with the Australia-native possums, is North America's only marsupial and is very unusual-looking. They also surprisingly make good pets for more people than you'd think.
They are sometimes unfairly persecuted by people who believe they are dangerous or disease-spreaders, yet they rarely contract and spread rabies. They are also famous for the myth that they eat thousands of ticks a day. What isn't a myth, however, is that hand-raised opossums can become docile and loving pets.
Here's what might be a dealbreaker for many, however. Sadly, opossums have an incredibly short lifespan of about 3-4 years, comparable to smaller rodent species.
- They can make good pets by traditional standards.
- Opossums are extremely short-lived.
- They rarely contract rabies.
There are several fox species available in the exotic pet trade. The 2-pound fennec fox is extremely popular. However, native foxes include the iconic red, grey, and swift fox. Unlike the smaller non-native foxes, native foxes (possibly except greys), especially reds, are known for the foul odor of their urine and destructive habits, making them a poor choice for keeping indoors.
Despite this, foxes are popular as exotic pets, despite their lack of legality in most states. Most red foxes in the trade descend from fur farm populations, although the so-called Russian domesticated fox has piqued the interest of many. These intensively-selectively bred foxes are extremely rare in the United States and are not permitted to breed (all imported Russian foxes are spayed and neutered). Therefore, if you've seen a pet fox, it is likely sourced from typical breeding practices.
- Foxes are domesticated, but the vast majority are not "Russian farm foxes."
- They come in different colorations.
- The odor of their urine is comparable to that of a skunk.
5. Ring-Tailed Cat
Many people would think that this beautiful animal is native to a continent like Africa, after all, it does resemble a spotted genet, or perhaps a ring-tailed mongoose (Galidia elegans) that is native to the island nation of Madagascar. Surprisingly, ringtails are native to several states including Arizona, Kansas, California, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Utah, and they are actually in the same family as raccoons. They are also pretty uncommonly owned as pets, as there are very few breeders producing them, but every now and then they become available.
- They are rarely offered for sale or bred in captivity.
- They are arboreal.
- They are also called "miner's cat" or "ringtails."
6. Flying Squirrel
There are two types of flying squirrels (not to be confused with the more popular sugar gliders, which are marsupials) that are kept as exotic pets; the Southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans) which is native to the Eastern half of the U.S., and the much less common Northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus), with sprinkled distribution in some Northern states, but they are more common in Canada and Alaska.
These small rodents are known for being affectionate, and they are legal in more states compared to other native animals. The bonds these tiny squirrels form with humans can be profound, and many owners will carry them around in their pockets where they may sleep for hours. They are an excellent choice for someone who is new to non-traditional pet ownership.
- Northern flying squirrels are anecdotally said to have a better disposition.
- Flying squirrels are extremely affectionate.
- They do not "fly", they glide with a special membrane called a patagium.
7. American Pine Marten
This cute little creature is actually a vicious predator. It may resemble a fox or mink and it is in the same family as the latter (Mustelidae). They are very uncommon as pets, although there is at least one breeder offering these unique animals to those who can legally keep native species. There is little information available on what it's like to keep a pine marten as a pet, so this species is only for the most adventurous and resourceful pet owners, in the few states where they are legal to own. They are native to Alaska, Canada, and a few northern areas of the United States.
- Part of the Mustelidae family along with ferrets.
- Very rarely owned as pets.
- Only native species, as opposed to Europeans, appear to be offered in the U.S.
A vicious wild cat? Bobcats are actually quite loving and interactive when they are hand-raised by humans from a young age. This species has a reputation for having a bold personality, and they can be more reminiscent of dogs than skittish felines. Exotic cats are considered to be high-maintenance pets, with requirements for their own large space (ideally an outdoor cage they can retreat to) and they need an outlet for their energy.
One bobcat was raised with a muntjac deer, and the two got along swimmingly (bobcats also enjoy aquatic recreation!). Bobcats can grow to bond strongly with humans and pets that they are familiar with.
- Bobcats form a tight bond with humans and animals that are raised with them.
- Bobcats are capable of killing animals several times their size, including deer
- There has never been a human fatality from bobcats in recent history.
9. North American Porcupine
No, they don't shoot their quills, and they are perfectly safe to keep as a pet. Although you would need a sizeable enclosure to properly care for one of the world's largest rodents. They are arboreal, so they need plenty of height to climb.
Another big negative of owning New World porcupines; they are said to have a strong body odor that resembles human BO. This large rodent is uncommonly owned as a pet for a reason, but they are enjoyed by some USDA-licensed exhibitors.
- They are less commonly owned than other porcupine species. The most popular is the African crested porcupine.
- This species has barbed quills that will work into the skin if not properly removed.
- In the wild, they eat vegetation, bark, and pinecones. In captivity, they can be fed rodent blocks and vegetables.
10. Prairie Dog
Prairie dogs are the most readily available species on this list and they are legal in most states to keep as pets. Prairie dogs are actually in the squirrel family Sciuridae and the most popular species kept as pets is the black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus), which is native to Great Plains states including Wyoming, Kansas, Montana, and Southern states including Texas and Arizona.
Despite their relative popularity, they are actually quite challenging to keep as pets, as they require substantial enrichment to keep them busy, and they are prone to bouts of aggression.
They are unfortunately capable of contracting various diseases such as the bubonic plague and more famously, monkeypox, which one group contracted in 2003 from Gambian pouched rats in captivity. This led to a ban on prairie dogs that was later lifted, however, some states still ban these rodents as a result of this disease scare.
- Prairie dogs are studied for the use of "words" such as predator warnings.
- They are extremely active and destructive and require constant items to chew on and destroy.
- They are illegal in some areas because of the 2003 monkey pox scare.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2022 Melissa A Smith