Exotic Pets Actually Aren’t Hard to Care For
So you go to the zoo and see an impossibly cute little ‘wild’ animal performing some awe-inducing behavior. It’s smaller than your dog and looks like it would make the perfect pet. You turn to the keeper next to you and excitedly ask, “would it make a good pet?”
“Absolutely not” the keeper replies. “They demand a lot of care. They will destroy your furniture, pee on the walls and bite you. They are not domesticated!”
Oh, well, that dream was dashed, but you rapidly get over it and move on.
Most people have had such thoughts when visiting the zoo or viewing an animal exhibitor’s presentation. They are often informed that the animal being shown makes a bad pet. They are often oblivious to the fact that the exhibitor owns that animal as a pet, even if they insist it is not a pet.
Let me let you in on a little secret.
Exotic pets aren’t hard—perhaps they are even easy—to care for. Yes, so-called wild animals such as foxes, kinkajous, wallabies, and muntjac deer. With the exception of very fragile animals, such as a sloth, or animals so large and/or potentially dangerous that housing them is a hassle alone, most exotic pets that you see in the pet trade have pretty simple and common sense care.
I saw the above humorous graphic on my Facebook feed and despite its non-serious intentions, I found the concept of it wildly accurate. ‘Fun vs. Effort’ roughly translates to rewards vs. the amount of care one puts into their pet.
In the chart, fun positively correlates with effort (except your friend’s dog). The dragon, arguably the most exotic pet of all, tops out as requiring the most effort but is also the most fun. Who wouldn’t want a dragon? Exotic pets are similar (even though, ironically, the real exotic pets are listed below the domesticated pets in effort). The more exciting they are, the more ‘work’ is generally involved. This is because the more ‘interesting’ pets are so because they are less common, and less common pets are usually so because they are ‘harder’ to care for.
But what does this really mean? What makes an animal hard to care for?
As previously mentioned, an animal like a sloth is delicate and very sensitive to stress. Keeping this animal alive and well, especially if it is not captive-bred, can be a challenge. But most exotic pets are not so fragile as to have their health jeopardized from non-expertise. So ‘hard to care for’ shouldn't technically apply.
Exotic pets might seem hard to deal with for most people, and that is something entirely different. An exotic pet not behaving the way you want it to or not being ‘cuddly’ doesn’t really make it hard to care for.
Not all exotic pets can be housed indoors, just like farm animals. Those that can might not have the greatest house manners compared to other species. A combination of proper caging and supervision is required. But is this really so hard?
Are you committed?
The fact is, whether or not exotic pets are hard to care for is almost entirely dependent on the effort you are willing and expecting to commit towards it. Looking back at the ‘Fun vs. Effort’ chart, the human baby is hilariously placed as one of the hardest ‘pets’ to care for. There is a lot of truth to this. The majority of humans will become parents and care for babies successfully. The care of human children is far more involved than that of most exotic pets. Most people do not prioritize their animals like they do their children and consider animals to be a a supplementary form of enrichment.
If you can care for a baby, you can care for almost any pet.
Caring for babies is a lot like caring for young chimps, arguably the most demanding exotic ‘pet’ someone can care for, just without the extreme strength. Why do so many people, most whom are or will become parents, believe an exotic pet is too much for them to handle?
What is an easy care pet?
Most exotic pets are not really ‘hard’ to care for, most people just have set expectations of how much time and effort one should put into animals.
Most people bring pets into their home and have the expectation that a pet will, and should, easily adapt to their home life, as a few 'domesticated' pets have been bred for.
Because many ‘domesticated’ pets might be this way, when other pets aren’t, they are ‘difficult’. These expectations are purely cultural. The existence of abnormally forgiving species does not instantly make other pets overly demanding. In fact, dogs can require a lot of care, and that is well-established. But when it comes to smaller animals, the same effort is not often applied due to, again, culturally-driven expectations about how much effort should be applied.
What makes exotic pets east to care for?
There is a very reasonable, common-sense approach to keeping most ‘exotic’ pets that is easily accomplishable by any competent-minded person.
There was a time when information about unique species was hard to find, but now we have the internet. Information about most animals is now ridiculously easy to find to anyone with access to a computer. The best places to seek essential information about less well-known animals are forums with breeders and long-term successful owners. You may also be able to locate care sheets from zoological facilities. There may be a few ‘care sheets’ floating around the internet written by average people like myself but they should never be fully relied on. Get information from multiple sources.
Treat them like they are what they are
Exotic pets are not dogs, so don’t treat them like dogs or expect them to act like dogs. Not every animal can be a dog. Most farm animals aren’t dogs and are thus not treated like dogs, they are treated like chickens, cows, and horses. Therefore, treat a fox like a fox. An exotic pet owner should be prepared to embrace the unique challenges of another species. Some exotic pets are skittish, smelly, and ‘independent’. Give them space when they need it.
Exotic pets that ARE hard to care for?
Ironically, while the keeping of fish and most reptiles receives less criticism than mammals, these animals are harder to maintain successfully as pets, if success is determined by the likelihood of the pet reaching an older age.
Fish in particular are very hard to care for. Many tropical fish can live for 10-20+ years but rarely do in captivity. Maintaining the proper water quality they need for many years is difficult. Reptiles are easier but require the proper temperatures to thermoregulate and keep their body systems running smoothly. Any prolonged lapses in maintaining adequate temperatures and humidity can lead to irreversible organ diseases.
Some animals, like certain primates, may require special care to promote psychological welfare. Once again, anyone who can handle a baby can technically handle most primates, but due to our culture’s placement of pets as something you should not invest an absurd amount of time into, most will see such care requirements as extraordinary.
Exotic pets are rewarding
People who are confused about why someone would want to keep an exotic pet inexplicably seem to not understand that exotic pets are rewarding. The more unusual a pet is, the more exciting it often is to raise. Just as the chart with the dragon suggests, sometimes more effort is involved with an animal that is more fun.
The next time a zookeeper or animal exhibitor tells you an animal is ‘not a pet’, this is really just code for their recognition that most people just aren’t ‘animal people’ and will probably be overwhelmed when an animal doesn’t behave like a poodle, or, relative to its species or size, might demand similar care to a dog. They are probably correct, but unfortunately, people who actually enjoy exotic pet keeping are all painted with the same brush, and when Joe Schmo thinks an animal is a bad pet, he thinks everyone who has one is not caring for it properly.
This is also where the idea that you need some kind of special training or credentials to own small numbers of exotic pets originates. Some zookeepers might not like the idea tha their work is accomplishable by non-professionals. It should be understood that these claims exist for reasons other than having a basis in reality.
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.