Which Exotic Pets Are Legal in the United States?
Which exotic pets are legal in the United States? The better question is which exotic pets are legal in your specified state. Bans vary from state to state. Even within your state, animal bans also exist in certain cities, counties, and neighborhood associations. This article will give you an idea of which pets are generally allowed, but you should always look into the specific regulations that apply to you.
People’s definitions of an exotic animal vary. The media generally uses the word "exotic" to describe pets that people fear, such as big cats, large snakes, and wolves (even though these canines are native to America).
Exotics are generally any animal other than dogs, cats, farm animals, and common "pocket" pets such as guinea pigs, rabbits, and small rodents like hamsters. Small reptiles are exotic pets, but they are rarely banned. Parrots are another exotic species that rarely face bans. There are exceptions to these rules, of course.
The Fine Print
The legality of certain animal species may depend specific regulations. Some animals are only legal if you can meet certain requirements, are eligible for a USDA license, or are using the animal for specific, non-pet purposes (e.g. commercial, exhibition, sanctuary, or educational). This article will address animals that are legal for private ownership either without criteria or with criteria that an average citizen can meet.
Exotic Pet Bans
Exotic pets are often misjudged and misunderstood, and misinformation is abundant.
Most exotic pets are illegal in California, and Hawaii has the strictest pet regulations because island ecosystems are the most prone to invasive species (ironically, one of their most prominent invasive species, the domesticated cat, is one of the few pets you can own there).
New York City is famous among exotic pet enthusiasts for its absurd pet restrictions. Common animals in the pet trade such as ball pythons, ferrets, and tarantulas are banned but still kept illegally by its citizens.
This list is provided as a general guide and for public interest. It should not be taken as a definitive document that verifies the legality of animals one is seeking to keep.
- What Is an Exotic Pet?
When people say "wild animals are not pets", which animals are they referring to? What is an exotic or wild pet? It is a much broader category than most people realize.
Animals in this category that are sometimes kept as pets include, but are not limited to:
- Big cats (tigers, mountain lions, lions, *cheetahs, leopards)
- Bears (black bears, sun bears, brown bears)
- Canines (fennec fox, red fox, silver fox, wolves, wolf hybrids)
- Medium and small cats (servals, caracals, bobcats, Asian leopard cats, hybrids)
- Mustelids (polecats, ferrets, weasels)
- Procyonids (raccoons, kinkajous, ring-tailed cats)
- Viverrids (genets, binturongs, Asian palm civets)
If your state has a ban or requires a permit for animals in the order Carnivora, then all of these animals (excluding whatever listed exceptions) are not legal.
*Cheetahs are rare in the United States and are not kept as pets. They are also not really big cats and are nowhere near as dangerous.
Most of these animals are illegal in many states.
Some Notable States
- Hawaii has the most restrictive pet laws. Almost all animals other than cats and dogs are illegal and any pet entering the state must be quarantined
- Nevada has the loosest exotic pet laws, where some animals such as tigers, non-human primates, elephants, and wolves are legal to own without a permit. However, alligators, crocodiles, coyotes, foxes, raccoons are not legal to own in the state.
- California also has strict exotic pet laws, which include ferrets, sugar gliders, and hedgehogs.
- Ohio (where the Zanesville massacre occurred) enacted its exotic pet ban in 2014.
Big Cats (Tigers, Servals, Caracals)
Big cats can be divided into two categories. There are the "true" big cat species (tigers, leopards, lions, cheetahs, mountain lions, jaguars) and then there are the small to medium-sized cats, consisting of servals, caracals, Asian leopard cats, jungle cats, bobcats, fishing cats, and lynxes, which can be found in the diminishing exotic pet trade.
There are also hybrids of servals (Savannah cats), jungle cats, and Asian leopard cats (Bengals). Unfortunately, these animals are often lumped together, with the exception of Bengal cats which tend to be sold with lower wild parentage. These animals are in most U.S. states, despite the claims of organizations like Born Free. Only about five states do not regulate them. One example is North Carolina, but many counties in this state not only ban these animals, but also heavily restrict more common exotics. Also in North Carolina, special regulations exist for native felines.
Native animals such as bobcats and mountain lions often have special regulations.
The smaller cats and hybrids mentioned here pose little or no risk to the public. Currently, no fatalities are listed for all of them. However, they are often banned even though they statistically pose less of a public safety risk than animals that are considered domesticated.
Some states, such as Florida, may administer permits for the smaller cats to pet owners who have met certain criteria, such as 1,000 hours volunteering with the sought-after species. The big cats are considered class 1 wildlife and are not legal to own for private use (but can be obtained for commercial use).
Hybrids may be legal in more states, but this depends on the generation. In New York State, Savannah cats are legal if they are the F5 generation.
Current States Where Big Cats Are Legal (Whether All Big Cats or Only a Few)
In some of these states, all big cats are legal. In others, only certain ones are. The bolded states in the list below indicates places where most exotics are not regulated. Note that many of these states have insurance and minimum caging requirements.
- North Carolina
- Mississippi (small cats)
- Missouri (with a permit)
- Montana (bobcats and lynxes)
- North Dakota
- South Dakota
- Texas (although most counties have banned it)
- West Virginia
Most Exotic Birds Are Legal
Parrots and pet softbills fit nearly every definition of "exotic" animals: they are not domesticated (despite extensive captive breeding), so they retain most of their wild behaviors and are high-maintenance, even somewhat difficult, pets.
In warmer climates, it is possible for pet releases and escapees to result in feral populations that threaten the environment. Birds even bite, which other exotic pets, regardless of size, are never allowed to do without resulting in people pushing for bans against them.
Quaker parrots, also known as monk parakeets, are unusually invasive in temperate climates and are illegal in California, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Hawaii, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Wyoming for this reason.
The only canines that are kept privately in the U.S. are wolves, wolf hybrids, and fox species. Hyenas are sometimes present, although these are more closely related to cats than dogs.
Wolfs and Wolf Hybrids
Like big cats, wolves are illegal in most states. Wolf dogs are rarely excluded from the definition, and sometimes purebred dogs are euthanized merely due to the resemblance to their wild ancestors. One exception is in Arizona, where they are legal.
Here is a list of legality status for both the wolf and wolf-dog hybrid. The website may not contain the most up-to-date information, but it is a good place to start.
Foxes are legal in more states, and some states may allow the hard-to-find Russian domesticated fox. Fennec foxes are common exotic mammal pets that are legal in New York (the definition of wild animal specifically excludes them). Fennec foxes pose zero threat to public safety and should be legal in nearly all states without question.
Fennec foxes are legal in many more states than foxes (red, silver, arctic) and wolves. New York specifically excludes them from the definition of a "wild" animal. They are also legal in: Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Arkansas, and Michigan, and there are likely to be others.
Mustelidae (Ferrets, Weasels, Polecats, Asian Clawed Otters)
Animals in this category are not commonly kept as pets with the obvious exception of ferrets, which are domesticated. Despite domestication and the fact that they pose no threat to public safety at all, ferrets are illegal in California and Washington D.C. No other states except Hawaii have banned these animals, though they are illegal in New York City and a permit is needed for them in Rhode Island. Ferrets are widely kept as pets in California (to the point where many pet stores find it economical to stock supplies for the animal) despite the law and do not run the risk of becoming feral and invasive in that state.
Other mustelids are not legal in many states.
Skunks, Bats, and Raccoons
These animals are grouped together because they are popular rabies vectors, which is the reason they are regulated (and often prohibited) in many states, despite there being no cases of captive-bred animals harboring the virus.
Based on this list, which should be verified for updated information, skunks are legal in Alabama, Florida (where a class 3 permit is required), Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio (permit needed), Oklahoma (import permit and vet needed), Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Skunks should be considered illegal until verified otherwise.
Captive-bred (not from the wild) raccoons may be legal in the following states, but be sure to confirm that is the case before getting one.
For bats, laws must be examined carefully. They are probably not legal in most states.
Primates consist of monkeys, lesser and great apes (gibbons, chimpanzees), and prosimians (lemurs, bush babies, tarsiers, slow loris). Most states have bans on this entire group of animals, with smaller species not being excluded. Primate owners often suffer a nightmare existence with the laws regarding non-human primates. Check your laws extensively (as well as the highly specialized care of these animals) before considering a primate.
States Where Non-Human Primates Are Legal
This list may be shorter now or become shorter in time. Some states, including Ohio, have partial bans on specific species.
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- South Carolina
- West Virginia
Other Exotics: Kinkajous, Sloths, Muntjac Deer, Tamandua, Porcupine, Etc.
The legality of animals like these varies tremendously. For instance, while kinkajous are mainly frugivorous (fruit-eating), their species falls within the order of Carnivora, which some states ban. Others may ban Procyonidae, which is the order that contains raccoons. Animals like muntjac deer could be regulated with other deer, despite their small size. Be sure to check if there are laws regarding cervids, the family that includes deer. Special laws may also regulate exotic rodents, which can be as small as door mice and as large as capybaras. However, sometimes exotic pets can escape bans if they are not specifically classified in the writing. In New York, some uncommon exotics are still legal because they do not fall under the definition of felids, canines, and bears (such as spotted genets).
Sugar gliders are exotic pets that are more common and unfortunately offered to owners who may be unprepared to take on the care of an animal that is more demanding than other pets of a similar size, such as hamsters and gerbils. But there is certainly no reason to ban them, especially in states where it is impossible for them to survive outdoors (most states).
Sugar gliders are illegal in Alaska, California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Utah. Pennsylvania considers them "wild animals" and requires a permit.
States that ban some fish species do so for environmental reasons, such as protecting native species or the fear that a fish will become invasive if released. Some restricted species in many states include snakeheads (Channa sp.), walking catfish, and lampreys, which have caused massive ecological damage in some parts of the U.S. Banned species are numerous, and vary tremendously in different states.
Here is a list of restricted aquatic species by state. As always, double check the information you find here to make sure it is up to date. Even if a species is not listed under those banned by state law, it may still be illegal to sell, buy, possess, or transfer due to non-state regulations, such as federal law, CITES, the Lacy Act, or the Invasive Species Act. Many of these species are not commonly kept in the pet trade.
Making sure you are aware of regulations is important—not only for you, but for the well-being of your fish. Fish that are in violation of the law can be put to death, even if they were legal at the time you purchased it (for example, this man's well-cared for pet fish of 10 years was killed because of changing regulations).
Notable Pet Fish Species
Larger reptiles, such as large constrictor snakes, crocodilians, and monitor lizards, are the most commonly restricted reptiles. Venomous snakes (often erroneously described as "poisonous"), for obvious reasons, are as well.
Other reptiles may be restricted for health reasons. Red-eared sliders, for instance, are illegal to sell under four inches (but can be kept) in order to reduce the risk of their transmitting salmonella. Non-native reptiles are illegal to keep in Hawaii because of their potential to live in that climate.
- Crocodilians (alligators, caimans): Illegal in most states.
- Large constrictors (African rock python, Burmese python, Reticulated python, Anaconda): More and more states are banning these somewhat popular species. Florida is famous for its population of Burmese pythons that exist in the Everglades, but over 90% of the country's climate is inhospitable to the animals.
- Venomous reptiles (cobra, mamba, Gila monster, twig snakes, etc.): Illegal in Tennessee, Vermont, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, New Hampshire, Washington, Florida, Indiana, Iowa Missouri, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Washington, California, Connecticut, and likely others.
Before You Buy, Call Your State's Fish and Game Department
This article cannot guarantee which specific species are legal in every state because laws change frequently. In addition, it is imperative that you make sure that the animal you are seeking is legal also in your city, town, neighborhood's association, etc., as well as with your landlord, as violating the law with these entities can also result in your pet's confiscation.
Be sure to call your Fish and Wildlife Management Office. Do not attempt to keep pets illegally. Doing so will prevent you from being able to get your animals vet care and put them at risk of being seen by a neighbor and others. While it might be ineffective, make sure your voice is heard regarding the opposition of draconian exotic pet laws.
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.
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© 2013 Melissa A Smith