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What Is an Exotic Pet?

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

What Makes an Animal Exotic?

It’s time that people start discussing the topic of "exotic pets" without the typical misconceptions gleaned from various films, rescue "sanctuaries," and the general attitude that gains momentum through misinformation and baseless fear. With more attention being brought to the subject by TV shows such as Animal Planet’s Fatal Attractions and the new Discovery Channel show Wild Animal Repo (all of which contain the expected sensationalistic tactics), the public continues to remain confused about why anyone would ever want to indulge in such a 'dangerous' lifestyle.

But What Is an Exotic Pet?

I can’t begin to discuss this topic without defining exactly what people consider to be "exotic." Veterinarians will often say they see "exotic" animals, and by that, they typically mean small mammals commonly referred to as "pocket pets," such as hamsters, ferrets, hedgehogs, sugar gliders, gerbils, and rabbits.

ex·ot·ic –adjective

1. of foreign origin or character; not native; introduced from abroad, but not fully naturalized or acclimatized: exotic foods; exotic plants.

2. strikingly unusual or strange in effect or appearance: an exotic hairstyle.

3. of a uniquely new or experimental nature: exotic weapons.

In the context of this article, an exotic pet pertains to animals that are both uncommonly kept and exist somewhat in their natural state in the wild. Pet parrots are undomesticated and are 100% wild animals just as is a pet wallaby or raccoon. The major difference with parrots is that they are extremely common as pets, which is a large contribution to their capture and resulting endangerment in the wild. Most pet parrots are also demanding and high maintenance to keep as pets. A common sight is that of a large parrot with significant feather loss as the birds are unfortunately prone to self-destruction if they are not properly mentally stimulated and socialized. Parrots, however, are common as pets, and their owners are less often seen as narcissistic, selfish and cruel except by the most intensively focused special interest groups. Parrots are by most definitions, exotic pets.

"Domesticated" Hedgehog

"Domesticated" Hedgehog

How Exotic Pets Are Usually Identified

  • The animal exists in or is close to its current state in the wild
  • Prone to "wild" or unpredictable behaviors
  • Is uncommon or "alternative"
  • Is considered potentially dangerous

What Is a Domesticated Pet?

Some common pets are considered "semi-domesticated," such as ferrets, Mustela putorius furo, domesticated hedgehogs (a hybrid of 2 species), and hamsters, Mesocricetus auratus. The term "domestication" fluctuates from referring to genetically "tame" animals, that have more amicable characteristics from the start to animals with behavioral characteristics or an appearance that is modified significantly by humans. This creates a lot of disarray in defining and understanding the term.

An African wild cat, not much different in appearance from its hugely popular domesticated derivatives.

An African wild cat, not much different in appearance from its hugely popular domesticated derivatives.

Domestication and Behavior

One definition: Domestication refers to the process whereby a population of animals or plants becomes accustomed to human provision and control. Humans have brought these populations under their care for a wide range of reasons: to produce food or valuable commodities (such as wool, cotton, or silk), for help with various types of work (such as transportation or protection), for protection of themselves and livestock, and to enjoy as pets or ornamental plants.

Another Definition:

According to evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond, animal species must meet six criteria in order to be considered for domestication:

  1. Flexible diet — Creatures that are willing to consume a wide variety of food sources and can live off less cumulative food from the food pyramid (such as corn or wheat), particularly food that is not utilized by humans (such as grass and forage) are less expensive to keep in captivity. Carnivores by definition feed primarily or only on animal tissue, which requires the expenditure of many animals, though they may exploit sources of meat not utilized by humans, such as scraps and vermin.
  2. Reasonably fast growth rate — Fast maturity rate compared to the human life span allows breeding intervention and makes the animal useful within an acceptable duration of caretaking. Large animals such as elephants require many years before they reach a useful size.
  3. Ability to be bred in captivity — Creatures that are reluctant to breed when kept in captivity do not produce useful offspring, and instead, are limited to capture in their wild state. Creatures such as the panda, antelope, and giant forest hog are territorial when breeding and cannot be maintained in crowded enclosures in captivity.
  4. Pleasant disposition — Large creatures that are aggressive toward humans are dangerous to keep in captivity. The African buffalo has an unpredictable nature and is highly dangerous to humans; similarly, although the American bison is raised in enclosed ranges in the Western United States, it is much too dangerous to be regarded as truly domesticated. Although similar to the domesticated pig in many ways, the American peccary and Africa's warthog and bushpig are also dangerous in captivity. However, one must keep in mind that most (if not all) modern large domestic animals were descendants of extremely aggressive ancestors. The wild boar, ancestor of the domestic pig, is certainly renowned for its ferocity; other examples include the aurochs (ancestor of modern cattle), horse, Bactrian camels and yaks, all of which are no less dangerous than their undomesticated wild relatives such as zebras and buffalos. On the other hand, for thousands of years, humans have managed to tame dangerous species like the elephants, bears, and cheetahs whose failed domestications had little to do with their aggressiveness.
  5. Temperament, which makes it unlikely to panic — A creature with a nervous disposition is difficult to keep in captivity as it may attempt to flee whenever startled. The gazelle is very flighty, and it has a powerful leap that allows it to escape an enclosed pen. Some animals, such as the domestic sheep, still have a strong tendency to panic when their flight zone is encroached upon. However, most sheep also show a flocking instinct, whereby they stay close together when pressed. Livestock with such an instinct may be herded by people and dogs.
  6. Modifiable social hierarchy — Social creatures that recognize a hierarchy of dominance can be raised to recognize a human as the pack leader.

Some Animals That Are Considered to be Domesticated

Length of domestication doesn't have an effect on tame-ability, genetic predisposition does. I often hear that dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years, however wolves can be changed to a dog's current behavioral state is a much shorter amo

Common NameSpeciesYears DomesticatedBehavior Significantly Different in Captivity Vs. Wild?

Domesticated Dog

Canis lupus familiaris

15,000 years


Domesticated Cat

Felis catus or Felis silvestris catus

8,000 years



Carassius auratus auratus

At least 1,000 years


Syrian Hamster

Mesocricetus auratus

Aprx. 80 years



Equus ferus caballus

9,000 years (4000-3500 BCE)



Gallus gallus domesticus

At least 3,000


Honey Bee

Apis mellifera/various

At least 3,000


*Ball Python

Python regius



Domestic Pigeon

Columba livia domestica

5,000 years



Mustela putorius furo

At least 2,500 years


Dingos (Canis lupus dingo) are descendants of early sub-domesticated dogs (closer to Canis lupus) brought to Australia by settlers.

Dingos (Canis lupus dingo) are descendants of early sub-domesticated dogs (closer to Canis lupus) brought to Australia by settlers.

Semi-Domesticated Animals

So can bees, rodents, and fish be selectively-bred to love humans and not run away if they are 'set free'? Of course not. Animals that can be considered 'domesticated' obviously vary in their personalities, the extent to which they can live with humans, and the environments they must be maintained in. Domestication relies on a genetic propensity or predisposition of a particular species to meet the different criteria of human use.

Animals considered semi-domesticated may retain many wild characteristics that have to do with the genetic blueprint of such animals, no matter the level or length of selective breeding. However, these animals tend to be lower maintenance when it comes to their proper care, and many exotic animals have easier care than others as well.

Can Reptiles and Other Non-Mammals Be Domesticated?

My response would be: partially, given that these species have inherent differences. I consider ball pythons to be domesticated in a sense; they are very tame snakes and breed readily in captivity. Many color varieties of ball pythons exist. Wild-caught ball pythons adapt to captivity with more difficulty than captive-bred ball pythons.

Reptiles, arthropods, and fish have simpler mental functioning, and most aren’t considered domesticated on any level; however, there are ‘breeds’ of fish, selectively bred honey bees, and color ‘morphs’ of some reptiles that have resulting behavior modifications. There are obvious differences between captive-bred ball pythons and wild ones; this may be due to the conditions they were exposed to during their 'critical period,' and have less to do with genetics.

Dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) and cats (Felis catus) are obvious examples of domestication; many of these animals willingly live with humans and adapt to the human lifestyle with ease. However, in the case of dogs, some adapt less than others. Some dog breeds need excessive exercise or forms of mental stimulation and are typically unsuitable for the conventional indoor dog lifestyle, based on what activities they were bred for. Examples of such breeds include border collies, the Karelian Bear Dog, and the Alaskan malamute. Any dog is capable of falling into the hands of the wrong owner. I tend to think the same for all animals.

Domesticated Foxes: Still an Exotic Pet?

For those that state it is wrong to keep animals that aren't domesticated, I wonder what their thoughts would be if their neighbor decided to adopt a domesticated silver fox.

In 1959, scientists in Soviet Russia wanted to explore if foxes could be domesticated in the same sense that dogs are. Characteristics that dogs have as a result of their domestication are also morphological and physiological, and include floppy ears, coming into heat twice a year instead of annually, whining and barking, and retention of many other neonatal traits. Dmitri Belyaev conducted the experiment, selecting silver foxes for their low flight distance from humans. He also selected for tameness and lower aggression.

Believed to be due to adrenaline changes as a result of his artificial selective pressure, Belyaev's resulting "domesticated" foxes are inherently different from "wild" foxes, such as spotted fur and a milder temperament. The foxes were essentially "dog-like," making "better pets." I have little doubt, however, that such animals would ever be considered "domesticated" and would be an exception to the prominent fox bans around the United States.

Why Are People Against Keeping Exotic Pets?

It comes as no surprise that human beings have difficulty seeing through another person’s eyes if they are engaging in an activity that is socially ‘weird.’ The desire to keep non-domesticated animals is no exception.

While a domesticated species may suit most people who want pets, many others invite the challenge of keeping an animal species with a less severe predisposition to a modern human household. For some exotic pet keepers, this might be keeping a non-domesticated cat, which involves dealing with spraying and the need to maintain outdoor enclosures for them.

Perhaps the biggest concern over exotic pets and the exotic pet trade is the subject of animal welfare and public safety. One thing people tend to do is lump animals into the same category. Exotic pets range from garter snakes to Amur tigers. Some exotics that we associate as ‘wildlife’ are virtually harmless, such as fennec foxes, and while they are different from dogs and are not 'domesticated,' they do fine in captivity with relatively simple accommodations. If anything, the commitment that people have to believing that all domesticated animals are 'easy' pets and are the only animals that should be kept as pets is indirectly contributing to the mistreatment and understated issues that exist with the keeping of them.

I stand by my belief, which is validated by personal observations and behavioral studies, that most wild’ animals do typically require more advanced care, like parrots or even some domesticated dogs. But they can be, and many are, content in captivity when their needs are met. Responsible ownership is key. This should be the inherent goal of any legislation, not just simply banning the animals. I think it is a wild misconception that the existence of domesticated animals means that the well-being of non-domesticated animals can't be provided for. In addition, exotic animals raised in captivity are often very different from their wild-born counterparts. Most so-called exotic pets however, should not be purchased with the expectation of domesticated behavior or 'companionship' beyond friendly interactive encounters.

In comparison, the ‘easy’ pets, the dogs, hamsters, and even goldfish, aren’t given much thought and are more prone to fall into the hands of bad owners. There are fish kept in tanks too small (check out the common beta bowl practice), dogs left in backyards that are not provided with adequate mental stimulation (canine behavioral problems are certainly not new), and parrots (technically exotic pets) that can easily live to be 100 that are purchased on a whim and are kept on typical seed diets that will ultimately shorten that lifespan to about 50 years of bad health and inadequate socialization. Factory farms are probably one of the more prominent animal cruelty operations in this country that many people don't put at the forefront of their minds, believing that these animals are 'supposed' to be farmed for food. The result is that people ignore how the trade is conducted, and this is a result of the domestication delusion. The populations of these domesticated animals in captivity are also prolific, further contributing to their excessive abuse.

I can go on about the many problems existing with commonly kept pets. It is an ongoing issue while only the so-called 'wild' pets are in the spotlight. Of course, there are also many problems facing captive non-domesticated/exotic/wild animals. If people would view things on a species by species basis, they could perhaps take the opportunity to learn about these animals and understand what kind of care should be promoted for them. Keeping captive wildlife in zoos and private ownership should be a reciprocal relationship and have vast educational value.

Of all the bizarre hobbies, practices, and behaviors of human beings, I don’t understand why the desire to interact with and raise a unique animal is such a confusing concept for people to understand or identify with. Exotic pet owners often become a target of ridicule in the current mainstream media.

There is nothing like a good freak show, and television shows spare no resource when exploiting people who are unique pet keepers. When exotic pet ownership is discussed, even their mental health is often questioned.

If there's one thing I hope that both sides of the spectrum can agree on, it's that ethical pet keeping should involve keeping animals in situations in which they can be properly provided for, no matter what species. I wish people could consider that exotic animals differ from one and other as much as pet owners do.

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.

© 2011 Melissa A Smith


K be on June 01, 2017:

What about southern flying squirrels? I really want to get one when i move to washington.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on January 20, 2014:

Thanks Brandon.

Brandon on January 20, 2014:

I enjoyed reading this hub. I wish more people would take the time to understand why people care for exotic pets as well as realizing the real threat to companion animals. The fact is that people who will treat animals well and have the time, resources, and the commitment to care for any animal properly should be free to own an "exotic" pet if they so choose. Unfortunately there are people who neglect or abuse their animals, which as a society we need to stand up against. The solution is not to ban exotic pets, but rather to encourage responsible and humane pet ownership while punishing the cruel and abusive people. Sadly the majority seem content to rob people like us of the ability to care for animals that are not considered normal.

Something that I wish people would understand is that it is possible for an animal to have a better life in captivity than in the wild. For one thing animals do not as a rule receive medical care in the wild. In captivity however a responsible owner will recognize that something is amiss and take the animal into a vet that can potentially save the animal's life (not to mention alleviate suffering and treat otherwise crippling disorders). Dietary concerns are mentioned as a reason why "wild" animals cannot lead a content captive existence. While it's true that feeding a wild animal takes a special diet that isn't readily available like cat/dog food, humans are still able to come up with suitable food for the animal. In some cases we can actually supply an animal with a healthier diet than what it would choose in a wild. We also shield our pets from possible threats (predators, human caused habitat destruction, famine, etc). Adding this all up it's possible for a well care animal to live a decent life with adequate food and medical care that can keep the animal living for quite a long time.

As an example consider the sugar glider. It has an average life expectancy in the wild of at most 6 years. In captivity with good care, a proper and diverse diet, and plenty of social interaction/mental stimulation a glider can live between 8 and 15 years! So the glider (if cared for properly) will have a good healthy diet, a safe/warm place to live, social interaction, toys, routine vet check ups, and of course protection from predators. The creature will be protected, have all basic needs provided for, treatment of common ailments that would kill their wild counterparts (or at least make life harder), companionship, and a longer lifespan. Considering the above quality of life improvements and the apparent happiness of gliders in captivity i'd say the little guys are content in the proper home!

Thanks again for righting this thoughtful hub. Defending exotic pet ownership is a tough challenge, but I'm glad to know that there are people out there who help educate people on this issue.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on April 16, 2013:

Thanks for reading and commenting Henry.

Henry Chigbo from Enugu, Nigeria on April 16, 2013:

this hub is wonderful and with intelligent topics. the zoological students of University of Nigeria will draw inspiration from this hub.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on December 11, 2012:

Thank you Everyday Miracles. Thanks for bringing this hub to my attention, there was some annoying grammatical errors in it n_n as I'm sure all of mine contain. I'll have a look at yours when its done.

Becki Rizzuti from Indiana, USA on December 11, 2012:

This is just a brilliant hub. Thank you so much for sharing it! I'm going to be tweeting it and probably linking it in to my own exotic pets hub once I've had a moment to edit it for its content. Thank you!

Angela Brummer from Lincoln, Nebraska on June 21, 2012:

I love that little Hedgehog it is adorable. Great hub!

Howard on March 19, 2012:

i love this site plain and simple.It states true facts that prove exotic and wild animals are good pets and common animals are the ones in danger.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on February 24, 2012:

My writing didn't "read all that well" or do you just not agree with my stance on keeping exotic pets? First of all this was not the end of my conflicts with this subject, as you can see this was just a 'part' and was focusing on the definition of 'exotic' and dispensing some proper education on it.

If you truly do believe that people don't find it freakish to own tigers, anacondas, and alligators, we will have to agree to disagree, strongly. The first thing that seems to come to the minds of many is, "why don't they just get a DOG?". They are projecting their personal sentiments on to people and infringing on their pursuit of happiness. Keeping unique pets is something that is very special to me.

If you allow yourself to become a victim of the mass media and to believe that these animals are all kept in miserable conditions, that is the problem. Why is it completely OK for some people to abuse dogs and cats and no one bats an eyebrow at their ownership? Is it because they are 'easy' pets, easier to keep happy (and FAR less expensive) than a tiger? Well no one said that everyone should own any pet, period.

Leslie on February 24, 2012:

I appreciate the jist of what you're trying to express, but I don't feel like the article read all that well. I was not expecting it to end when it did.

I don't think that people generally find it "freakish" to own large dangerous animals, or small strange pets, I think they're usually shocked at the conditions they are often kept in. Let's not forget that even the animal given the biggest cage on a personal property, such as a tiger, will still be innately wild, and will always be at risk of attacking its owner. I think it's that knowledge that makes people scratch their heads when they see shows such as "when animals attack".

Shaddie from Washington state on January 22, 2012:

I don't understand why your Hubs aren't more popular, they are intelligent and poignant and strike true to the matters of exotic animal ownership. I think perhaps people are just stubborn and refuse to learn.