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Exotic Pets: Are They Hard to Care For?

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

Is it really so hard to care for an exotic pet? Read on to learn whether exotic pet care is right for you.

Is it really so hard to care for an exotic pet? Read on to learn whether exotic pet care is right for you.

Caring for Exotic Pets

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 beside 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 similar thoughts when visiting the zoo or viewing an animal exhibitor’s presentation. They are often informed that the animal being shown makes for 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.

Contrary to the claims of many, numerous exotic pets have reasonable care requirements and can be effectively kept by well-informed and properly prepared people.

Contrary to the claims of many, numerous exotic pets have reasonable care requirements and can be effectively kept by well-informed and properly prepared people.

Exotic Pets

Certain exotic pets aren’t hard—perhaps they are even easy—to care for. Yes, numerous wild animals, such as foxes, kinkajous, wallabies, and muntjac deer, can be cared for as pets. However, there are several serious considerations to thoroughly contemplate before owning any of the aforementioned animals. For example:

  • Foxes don’t respond to behavior training in the same way as dogs and may be fairly difficult to train if you do not begin with them as cubs. They are also common carriers of rabies.
  • Kinkajous are nocturnal and strong-willed, and their bites can cause nerve damage. They also require daily cleaning and weekly deep cleaning. Finally, it's important to have a veterinarian willing to treat a kinkajou within an hour’s drive.
  • Some researchers have noted that agile and tammar wallabies make for some of the best exotic pets. Still, it’s important to know that these creatures are prone to infection and require extremely high-quality enclosures that are large and both mentally and physically stimulating.

It’s also a good idea to stray from keeping fragile animals, such as sloths, or animals so large and/or potentially dangerous that housing them is a hassle alone (think tigers, bears, great apes, etc.). With this in mind, many exotic pets you see in the pet trade do have pretty simple and common sense care.

I saw the humorous graphic below 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.

‘Fun vs. Effort’ roughly translates to rewards vs. the amount of care one puts into their pet.

‘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 for 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 generally less common, and less common pets are usually less commomn because they are ‘harder’ to care for.

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.

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.

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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 challenging. But most exotic pets are not so fragile as to have their health jeopardized from non-expertise. So ‘hard to care for’ doesn’t always technically apply.

Exotic pets might seem complicated to deal with for most people, but 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, adequate space and stimulation, and supervision is required. But is this really so hard?

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.

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.

Are You Committed?

The fact is, whether or not certain 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.

Many responsible and prepared humans will become parents and care for babies successfully. However, a significant amount of people who are ill-equipped for parenting will fail their children. The care of human children is highly involved, even more so than most exotic pets. The truth is, most people do not prioritize their animals like they do their children and consider animals to be a supplementary form of enrichment.

Success with an exotic animal is similar to success with a human baby. You need to be responsible, willing, and prepared and go into the situation with your eyes wide open. Otherwise, you might end up being another person who contributes to the euthanization of unwanted exotics that zoos and specialty centers don’t have room for.

If You Can Care for a Baby, Can Care for Almost Any Pet?

if you are truly prepared to care for a human baby, you are probably going to be able to care for a demanding exotic ‘pet.’ That said, it is important to know that some exotics are far better off being raised by and living with their own kind. One notable example of this is primates, which we will discuss in further detail later.

exoticpets-hard-care

What Is an ‘Easy Care’ Pet?

Many 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 expect 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, other pets that aren’t may be perceived as ‘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 culturally-driven expectations about how much effort should be applied.

What makes exotic pets easy to care for?

A very reasonable, common-sense approach to keeping numerous ‘exotic’ pets is easily accomplishable by any competent-minded person.

Thorough Research Is Accessible

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 for anyone with access to a computer.

The best places to seek essential information about less well-known animals are forums with breeders and successful long-term 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 ordinary people like myself, but they should never be entirely relied on. When considering purchasing an exotic pet, consult information from multiple, high-quality sources.

How to Evaluate Online 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 keeping 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 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 primates, require special care to promote psychological welfare. Once again, anyone who is properly prepared and willing to raise a baby can technically handle most primates. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you should.

Reasons to Not Keep a Pet Primate

Many other reasons besides the involved nature of primate care should be considered before one entertains the idea at all:

  • You could be supporting an unethical pet trade. Monkeys are often removed from the care of their mothers only days after birth to be sold as pets. This is traumatic for both mother and child. The mother is often bred repeatedly, the process happening again and again.
  • A secondary effect of early trauma to would-be pet primates is the development of aberrant psychological behaviors that may affect their behavior negatively (and potentially dangerously) down the road.
  • A considerable number of captive primates develop diabetes and related conditions, even under the care of specialists in zoo settings. This is due to a mixture of diet and the sedentary nature of a captive primate's life. Such conditions can be very costly to treat, if you can find a veterinarian willing to treat an adult primate at all.
  • Primates can carry serious viruses and zoonotic diseases. An example is the macaque, which can carry Herpes B, which is potentially fatal to humans. Additionally, human viruses/diseases can be serious issues for pet primates. For example, a simple cold sore can be lethal to marmosets and tamarins.

To some extent, these cautionary reasons against owning a pet primate can apply to other exotic species that might be trafficked illegally or in legal and ethical gray areas.

Finally, it's important to note that owning primates is illegal in many US states and requires special licensing in others. Here is a breakdown of the current laws on the legality of owning a pet primate in the United States.

Primate Law by US State

Completely IllegalSemi-legalNo laws

California

Connecticut – Under 35 lbs. at maturity and owned before 10/1/20.

Alabama

Colorado

Florida – Class 3 Primate License required to own marmosets and capuchin monkeys, among a few other small primates.

Alaska

Georgia

Illinois – Registration required for permitted capuchin monkey owned by a person with a severe and permanent motor disability. Primates are allowed that were owned prior to 01/01/2011 and grandfathered if owner registered the primate by 04/01/2011 and have followed with proper notifications.

Arizona

Hawaii

Missouri – You may possess a primate as long as you register it with local law enforcement.

Arkansas

Idaho

North Dakota – A license and import permit are required.

Delaware

Iowa

South Dakota – A Possession Permit is required.

Indiana

Maine

Tennessee – Must have papers providing the supplier of the primate and date of acquisition.

Kansas

Maryland

West Virginia – Nonhuman primates are banned, except for lemurs, tamarins, night monkeys, titi monkeys, muriquis, Goeldi’s monkeys, sakis, uakaris, spider monkeys, common wooly monkeys, howler monkeys, raccoons, and fox skunks.

Kentucky

Massachusetts

Wyoming – A permit is required to own a monkey.

Louisiana

Minnesota

Michigan

New Hampshire

Mississippi

New Jersey

Montana

New Mexico

Nebraska

New York

Nevada

Ohio

North Carolina

Oregon

Ohio

Rhode Island

Oklahoma

Utah

Pennsylvania

Vermont

South Carolina

Washington

Texas

Wisconsin

Believe it or not, tropical fish can be pretty challenging to care for.

Believe it or not, tropical fish can be pretty challenging to care for.

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 can be 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’, realize that they’re probably assuming most people are not properly equipped to care for an exotic. They believe most people will 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 can actually handle (and enjoy) exotic pet-keeping are all painted with the same brush.

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 that their work is accomplishable by non-professionals. It should be understood that some of this is simply bias.

A note on the non-profit organizations linked below: Each of these organizations was vetted by a financial and performance check using both Guidestar and ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer.

Sources and Further Reading

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.

© 2016 Melissa A Smith

Comments

june on June 15, 2020:

what exotic pets re legal in virginia

Noah Montgomery on March 04, 2020:

Are northern tamanduas legal in Arizona?

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on May 27, 2016:

Yeah, exotics seem way easier than children to me, and less gross.

SW on May 26, 2016:

Excellent article.

I have wondered about that last point in regards to some zookeepers. Even towards those interested in the field such as myself, if feels as if I've had to work through endless variations of "IT SUCKS AND YOU'LL HATE IT" answers before I've had them take me seriously. Do they really get that many people who think that it's all fun and games? I wonder.

And I'm still young but I already know I'd rather invest my money and effort into the care of animals rather than raising a child. Alas, to many, that is a sign of defectiveness.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on May 10, 2016:

Just another reason to miss the 90's!

The Logician from then to now on on May 10, 2016:

I had a red and a silver fox, an arctic/red fox cross, arctic foxes and 4 gray foxes (my favorite) in the 1990s. I've had several arctic foxes in my life, bought my first Arctic fox from a pet shop in Philadelphia, PA in 1981. When I lived in NY any species of fox was legal because NY classified them as farm animals, no permit required. I got mine from a breeder and 2 different game farms. Back then in NY, whether they came from a fur farm or not they were legal as long as you had proof of purchase as you could not take them from the wild. I never had a fennec fox but that would be my next choice if I wanted to get another fox.

My gray foxes grew up in my house, used litter box like a cat. I noticed early on how sly they are! Whenever chased they would run behind a chair or sofa but never come out the other side. They instinctively stopped behind the chair and turned around to emerge the way they went in and double back on their tracks. They played with my dog. When they got tired from my dog chasing them through the house they would come out into the middle of a room and make a stand. The dog would stop and look bewildered, then the fox would growl and attack him and chase him out of the room.

Grays are the best, they are climbers and spend lots of time in trees. Mine loved to climb right up my body and lay across my shoulders when I'd take them out for a walk. They'd sit stand and lay on my shoulders watching everyone walking by me just enjoying the ride. I took them in to elementary schools to show them to the classes and teach the children about them. The foxes loved it, they would sit on the table or my shoulder and study the whole class intently never wanting to get down or act up and they just loved to be touched and petted by the students before we left. The first time I did this I was totally impressed at how well behaved the foxes were and how mesmerized they seemed to be by all the children. It was like they knew to be especially nice to children.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on May 10, 2016:

Yeah, monkeys can be hard but they are doable for a dedicated individual.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on May 10, 2016:

Thanks tsadjatko. When did you keep foxes? Only fennecs are legal now unless they weren't really 'pets' but fur farm animals.

The Logician from then to now on on May 10, 2016:

lol Dr. Mark, Only on hub pages!

Dr Mark from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on May 10, 2016:

Good reading. I looked at a hub yesterday from some zookeeper who stated "Monkeys are NOT suitable pets." Totally incorrect. If he had said "...for most people." I would have agreed, since most people are not willing to go to the extra time and effort to care for an exotic like a monkey.

But, of course, that zookeeper has a picture of a monkey as his avatar. How messed up is that?

The Logician from then to now on on May 10, 2016:

Interesting points and your point of view! However the fun vrs. effort graph is incomplete, it left out Velociraptors (https://discover.hubpages.com/literature/Pet-Veloc... :-)

As a former owner of several fox species (classified as farm animals in NY state because of fur farms) I can agree with much of what you say. Here is another fox that loves his rescuer! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rwW76CgZ9PQ

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