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Home > General > How Do You Define an Exotic Pet? (Vet Answer)

How Do You Define an Exotic Pet? (Vet Answer)

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Dr. Karyn Kanowski

Veterinarian, BVSc MRCVS

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Following graduation, vets are qualified to examine, diagnose, and treat any species of animal that enters their consultation room, whether it be a cat, dog, hamster, cow, or horse. In most cases, vets will choose to “specialize” in small animals (pets), large animals (farm species), or equine (horses). There is a unique class of vets who follow the path of the “Mixed Animal Vet,” who really do treat all creatures great and small, but most will eventually gravitate towards one or the other because it is simply too difficult to maintain and build the knowledge and skills required to treat such a vast array of animals with such varying habits, anatomy, and digestive systems!

Within the small animal vet’s repertoire, there is a subsection called exotic pets. Depending on who you talk to, this might refer to anything that is not a cat or dog, or it might be slightly more specific. In the following article, we’ll explore the weird, the wonderful, and the wild animals that vets call “exotic.”


What Is an Exotic Pet?

The word “exotic” conjures up images of animals in lush tropical forests, arid moonscapes, or tiny micro-environments. In reality, exotic pets are species that are not among those commonly encountered in veterinary practice. Dogs, cats, and rabbits are the most commonly treated pets in small animal practice, with guinea pigs, ferrets, hamsters, and rats seen less often. These are all domesticated animals that have been selectively bred over centuries to become the breeds we know today.

Green Anoles side view_Pixabay
Image Credit: PCExotics, Pixabay

There may be some variation on what different people will classify as exotic, but as a general rule, an exotic pet is a species that:

  • Has not been domesticated or shows little to no deviation from its wild relatives.
  • Usually has very specific housing or habitat requirements to stay happy and healthy.
  • Usually requires a more specialized knowledge to accurately diagnose and treat.
  • Does not cope well with the stress of veterinary visits or hospital stays.
  • Has unique physiological features that mean the use and dosage of medications.
  • Cannot simply be extrapolated from companion animals, and there are very few/no medications licensed for use in that species.

There are some veterinarians or veterinary practices that will specialize only in the treatment of exotic species, but most small animal vets will still treat these unusual pets when needed.

exotic pet python examined by veterinarian in his hands
Image Credit: Andrii Zastrozhnov, Shutterstock

When we talk about exotic pets, it is important to make the distinction between the words domesticated and tame or captive.

  • Domesticated animals (e.g., cats, horses, dogs, sheep) have been kept and bred by humans over hundreds (even thousands) of years, which has gradually altered their physical appearance, physiology, and behavior. They are used to, and often happy with, human interaction, and would likely not do well if released into the wild.
  • Tame or captive animals (e.g., chinchillas, birds, snakes) are essentially the same as those found in the wild. They have been bred in captivity, caught in the wild, or rescued. They have become accustomed to human interaction but are still considered to be a wild species, and their behavior can be unpredictable for this reason.

What Are Some Examples of Exotic Pets?

an african pygmy hedgehog on owner hand
Image By: RJ22, Shutterstock
  • Hamsters, Gerbils, and Ferrets: These are a controversial entry, as they have undergone a certain amount of domestication, but they have not departed significantly from their wild ancestors, which also places them in many peoples’ exotic list.
  • Pygmy Hedgehogs: The African Pygmy Hedgehog is the only species of hedgehog that can legally be kept as pets.
  • Reptiles (snakes, lizards, tortoises, and terrapins) and Amphibians (frogs, salamanders)
  • Chinchillas
  • Savannah Cats: Another controversial entry, the Savannah cat is actually a hybrid between the wild Serval and domestic cat. F1 Savannahs, from the initial cross between Serval and cat, are illegal to own in most places without a Dangerous Wild Animal License, which should tell you a little bit about their needs!
  • Insects, Arthropods, and Arachnids (e.g., praying mantis, hermit crabs, tarantula)
  • Birds (apart from domestic poultry)

Some may consider species such as big cats, primates, the fennec fox, and flying squirrels within the category of exotic pets, but these are essentially captive wild animals that are illegal to own in many countries and states. In many cases, these animals have been obtained illegally, taken from their families in the wild, or even orphaned in order to sell them as pets.

The 4 Things You Need to Know About Owning an Exotic Pet

1. The “Why”

The first things to think about if you are considering entering the world of exotic pet ownership are: What are my reasons for selecting this species? What is the reason for choosing a non-domesticated pet over one that has evolved over time with human companionship? Many of the creatures that fall under the banner of exotic pets are unique and adorable, but they may not necessarily be suited to life with people.

Rare species reptiles lizard frog in tanks
Image By: Kitmaumau, Shutterstock

2. Who Will Look After It?

Part of responsible pet ownership is planning for illness, injury, or absence. With most domesticated pets, veterinary care is readily available, as are boarding kennels or pet sitters if you need to go away. If you have a species that requires more specialist care, you might need to travel to find a veterinarian confident in treating your pet, and you might not always have someone willing to look after your pet tarantula while you go on vacation.

3. Am I Prepared?

The majority of exotic pets require specific habitat requirements, and failure to meet those needs will invariably result in severe stress and illness. Before bringing home your exotic pet, ensure you have done plenty of research on what sort of enclosure you will need, what food you will need to provide, and whether they have any specific temperature or humidity requirements.

Grammostola anthracina spider walking across the ground
Image By: Russell Marshall, Shutterstock

4. Do I Have Other Pets?

This is particularly important if you might be mixing predator and prey-type animals. Although they will (presumably!) be kept separate from one another, do bear in mind that your pet chihuahua might feel uneasy under the watchful eye of a large python, and your new chinchilla may not appreciate being barked at by an excited Shepherd.

divider-multipetTake Home Thoughts

Having pets in our lives is one of the most enjoyable, rewarding, and satisfying experiences we can have. When it comes to sharing our home with a cat, dog, or rabbit, there is an abundance of information, supplies, food, care, and advice to help you choose the right companion for your household, but no pet ownership is completely straightforward. There may be behavioral problems or health issues that will require veterinary attention, but for the most part, these domesticated animals will cope well in a vet practice, and you will have no difficulty in finding a vet who is very knowledgeable about your pet.

Exotic species also have some amazing characteristics, unique personalities, and adorable features that make them extremely appealing to have as pets. Some exotic pets, such as ferrets, hamsters, and chinchillas, are more commonly owned and encountered and are also more comfortable in the company of humans and being handled. Others will always feel at odds with life in captivity.

Choosing a pet should always be a carefully considered plan, never an impulsive decision, and this is particularly true when considering an exotic pet. These are often species that require very specific habitats and care, so do your homework before deciding which pet, large or small, is right for you.

Featured Image Credit: Ryan M. Bolton Shutterstock.jpg

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