Exotic Animals for Sale: The Dos and Don’ts of Purchasing Pets Online

Updated on September 6, 2019
Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa cares for a variety of exotic animals and has completed a certificate in veterinary assisting and a bachelor's degree in biology.

Many exotic animals are purchased by inexperienced keepers only to be relinquished for re-homing a year or two later when the animal's behavior changes upon maturity.
Many exotic animals are purchased by inexperienced keepers only to be relinquished for re-homing a year or two later when the animal's behavior changes upon maturity. | Source

Unusual animals like hedgehogs, pigeons, and even tiger cubs are becoming increasingly popular in the modern pet trade. Exotic animals can be purchased online from breeders, specialty websites, and classified ad sites like craigslist. Before shopping online for an exotic pet, however, it's important to educate yourself about the risks and legal considerations that come with the process. This article applies to any venue, including craigslist and specialty sites, where exotic mammals and birds are offered for sale to the private sector.

What Are Exotic Pets?

'Exotic animals' are typically defined as those not usually kept as pets. Many exotic animals in the pet market are the sorts you'd normally only expect to find in zoos. Exotic animals listed online for sale may range from ferrets to tiger cubs, although the latter are uncommon and 99% of the time are only offered to USDA facilities with proper permits (as they should be). Sale listings for exotic animals may come from breeders, people seeking to re-home their pets, brokers, closing zoos, and educational exhibitors who sell their animals.

Should You Buy an Exotic Pet Online?

Buying a wild or exotic animal always entails potential consequences both for you and your new pet. It pays to remain vigilant when buying anything online, especially when it comes to high-maintenance animal species. Over the course of my experience in the exotic pet world, I've learned a few things about how to best go about navigating the online markets. Here are a few guidelines to encourage a healthy and ethical exchange when seeking an uncommon pet.

You'd be surprised at the variety of species available for sale online—even tigers like this one can be purchased with the proper permits.
You'd be surprised at the variety of species available for sale online—even tigers like this one can be purchased with the proper permits. | Source

The Dos and Don't of Online Pet Shopping

Do . . .
Don't . . .
Be prepared for behavioral changes when the animal reaches sexual maturity
Buy an animal spontaneously
Beware of dubious claims about animal characteristics
Buy without researching the seller
Learn the animal's life expectancy and be prepared to care for it until it dies
Send payment via Western Union
Visit forums and message boards about the species you are interested in

The "Don'ts" of Exotic Animal Shopping

First, let's go over what to avoid when looking for an unusual pet online. There are many common pitfalls that those new to the exotic pet trade may not be aware of. Unexpected challenges are common, so think before you buy.

1. Don't Buy an Exotic Pet Spontaneously

No pet should be adopted on a whim or given to an unexpecting recipient as a gift. For reasons that should be obvious, this is exceptionally true for exotic pets. Many of these animals are uncommon pets for a reason. They generally require either high-maintenance care or housing, do not behave in a ‘docile’ manner (despite their cuteness), or have very poor "house manners" (e.g. strong smell, poor restroom habits, hyper disposition, destructive tendencies, etc.).

It is important to research any animal you are thinking about acquiring thoroughly before beginning to shop around online. Most exotic species have extremely specialized care considerations. For instance, exotic cats tend to spray and need to be provided with suitable outdoor housing. Marmoset monkeys have a deceptive 'pocket pet' appearance because they are so small, but they actually require extremely large housing relative to their size. Marmoset keepers often report that they have a heavy smell that cannot be vanquished. Genets, one of the exotic mammals I own, have a friendly disposition and may trick some people into thinking they are cat-like when it comes to accepting petting, but they do not allow people to hold them with the possible exception of their main caretaker.

Do your research and learn everything you can about a species before even considering making a pet purchase. Far too many exotic animals are abandoned or put up for sale by underprepared owners who purchased spontaneously and did not take the time to adequately research their pet's needs.

Pets, especially exotic ones, should never be purchased for others as gifts.
Pets, especially exotic ones, should never be purchased for others as gifts. | Source

2. Don't Buy an Animal Without Thoroughly Investigating the Seller

When done properly, animal rearing takes time, expertise, and compassion. This is why many exotics typically range from $800 to the upper thousands. For comparison, many people pay similar prices for purebred dogs from both puppy mills and responsible breeders. These prices are quite reasonable for such a treasure—generally, you get what you pay for in the exotic pet market. If the price of an animal sounds intimidating but you are still interested, I must caution you that specialized veterinary care and husbandry will probably cost even more.

Some people may use classifieds to sell an unwanted animal. It is essential to be aware that in order to sell warm-blooded animals (not reptiles, fish, insects etc.), one must be licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture. It is legal to give away a pet, but if money is exchanged, doing so is in violation of federal law if the seller does not have a license. Exceptions are made for small-time hobby breeders with less than four "breeding females." Ask if the seller is USDA licensed if such information is not readily available on their website or Facebook page.

USDA Lisencure

When looking for a warm-blooded exotic animal online, it is important to remember that all sellers must have the proper USDA license in order for the transaction to be legal.

Fennec foxes are often purchased by inexperienced keepers who fall for their adorable appearances.
Fennec foxes are often purchased by inexperienced keepers who fall for their adorable appearances. | Source

3. Don't Send Payment via Western Union

If a seller wants you to send money via Western Union, their ad is probably a scam. This is a favored method of scammers because once the money is sent, it can't be traced.

Exotic pet scams are usually somewhat easy to detect.They generally involve rare or difficult-to-find animals being offered for absurdly low prices (e.g. king cheetah cubs $3000). If you're worried an ad may be fraudulent, run a reverse-image search to ensure the seller's photos are original. Images used by scammers are usually good-looking, professional-quality photos and are simple to trace back to their real source.

Sloths are extremely difficult to care for and should not be purchased by beginners on a whim.
Sloths are extremely difficult to care for and should not be purchased by beginners on a whim. | Source

The "Dos" of Exotic Animal Shopping

Now that we've covered some of the things to avoid when looking for an unusual pet online, let's take a look at some tips and best practices that you can follow to ensure your adoption is ethical, legal, and successful.

1. Do Anticipate a Different Disposition Upon Sexual Maturity

Never buy an exotic because of how it appears as a baby! As previously stated, many exotic animals may appear to potential owners to be amazing and conventional pets, but most become far more aggressive and destructive as adults.

An unfortunate reality is that many higher-maintenance pets are re-homed after being purchased on a whim by people who think that if an animal is for sale, it must be a "reasonable" pet. They expect their new companion to share the characteristics of domesticated cats and dogs, but in reality, this is rarely the case.

Exotic animals like this Serval kitten may become far more difficult to manage once they reach maturity.
Exotic animals like this Serval kitten may become far more difficult to manage once they reach maturity. | Source

2. Do Check to See if a Seller's Claims About a Species Are Accurate

Many exotic animal sellers online post ads that say things like "[Insert name of animal here] make amazing pets—they smell like clean babies! Extremely docile!”

I would instantly be suspicious of a seller that markets their animal as a miracle pet. Once again, these species are unpopular as pets for a reason. Simply put, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Exotic pets vary tremendously, not just by species, but also as individuals.

One person’s pet may not spray, while another person’s pet of the same species may deposit smelly urine everywhere. One thing all potential exotic pet owners must do is anticipate these problems and be prepared to face them. Even if a person selling an exotic claims the animal has a certain level of docility, it’s possible that this disposition may disappear when the animal is forced into a new situation. This is why exotic pet re-homing should be discouraged. It is extremely important that buyers know what they are getting into. In my opinion, this problem is exacerbated by exotic pet bans.

3. Do Acknowledge Life Span

Some animals live for 15 years, while others may live long past 40! Think carefully and determine if you will still be interested in demanding pet 10 or 20 years down the line once the novelty has worn off. As mentioned previously, re-homing exotic animals is never ideal, so only purchase one if you plan to be its first and last owner.

4. Do Visit Forums and Message Boards About the Animal You Are Interested In

The internet is an amazing resource that wasn't available to exotic animal owners in the past. They used to have to rely on the library and be lucky enough to know people who worked with the species they were interested in.

These days, exotic pet forums give prospective pet owners the opportunity to learn from people who have years of experience. While care sheets are useful, they are no substitute for real-life experience. Consult with those who have owned these animals for years. Because pets vary within their species, those who have kept multiple pets of the same species will likely be able to provide the most valuable insights.

A Statement About Older Exotic Animals

Many sellers will list animals with words like "not a pet", "breeder animal", and "not tame." This is very significant. An exotic mammal that has been hand-raised and has enjoyed continued human interaction will be a fundamentally different pet from a "parent-raised’" animal or an animal that has received little exposure to humans throughout its life.

Many exotic mammals revert back to a "wild" state, and this is often permanent. Such animals may never be comfortable with handling and should be kept only as "display animals." Such individuals should be provided with large housing where they can remain comfortable and undisturbed. For your safety and theirs, all interactive time with humans should be hands-free.

It should also be noted that such animals cannot be expected to live in smaller housing since they will not be offered time outside of their enclosure to play. Unfortunately, many less-experienced keepers choose to re-home these special pets after they grow out of their cuteness and begin to exhibit the behavior of a wild mature adult.

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.

Questions & Answers


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        4 years ago

        This all seems like common sense, and yet I imagine there are people who need advice on all of these things. Sadly, I imagine most of them won't see this.

        The unlicensed breeder thing really ticks me off. I see so many of them selling sugar gliders and small parrots on Craigslist, asking a "rehoming fee" to get around the prohibition on selling live animals. I could report them, but it seems that CL doesn't investigate reports, they just take ads down if they get a lot of them. Even if they did investigate, it's so easy to repost. Generally, breeders will advertise that they are selling babies, while people rehoming their animals will talk about how hard it is to give the animal up and note that the animals come with cages, toys, and often food.

        I think another problem is that your generic neighborhood pet stores often sell animals with difficult care requirements. if they can sell them for cheap. This is particularly true for reptiles and small parrots, but I've also seen sugar gliders, chinchillas, flying squirrels, and hedgehogs. Selling them at the same place you buy dog food and that goldfish you're going to kill to teach Junior about responsibility makes it seem like these animals are easy--which they generally are for exotics, except large parrots, but not compared to cats and dogs.

        The plus side is that I've noticed that the selection of small "exotics" at pet stores tends to be smaller than in the past. I no longer know of any non-specialist pet stores near me that carry parrots other than budgies, cockatiels, and lovebirds for example, not any that carry mammals other than small rodents. Most stores seem not to carry iguanas anymore, though I swear I'm seeing more stores selling Sulcatas, which is almost as bad.

      • profile image


        4 years ago

        Thanks for this guide Ms. Smith. I am sure it will assist me in my future.


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