Exotic pets come in all shapes, sizes and colors— so whether you’re an experienced reptile keeper or a parent looking for a good first pet for your child, there’s probably one for you. The key, local experts say, is to be prepared. Being armed with knowledge about the pet’s needs—both in terms of care and financial investment—helps ensure both health and happiness for the newest member of your household.
The first thing to know when you’re thinking about a reptilian pet is that their needs vary widely based on the breed, says Dr. Allen Weltig, who specializes in avian and exotic veterinarian medicine at Webster Groves Animal Hospital. “A bearded dragon is not the same as a leopard gecko or a water dragon,” he says. He recommends talking to an experienced keeper or your veterinarian before making a purchase, as accurate care information is vital to raising a healthy pet. For example, bearded dragons are classified as omnivores, but they eat mainly insects as juveniles and transition to plants later on, Weltig says. An expert can help you determine when that switch should come.
Reptiles generally need to be set up with a proper habitat, including UV lights, as well as temperature and humidity controls, Weltig notes. Improper diet or lighting can lead to vitamin deficiencies and eventually illness. “A lot of them are not cheap to set up properly—it’s not exorbitant, but it’s more than a few bucks,” he says. Most of the problems Weltig sees are related to the habitat—either diet or environmental setup—and pets might not show visible signs of distress until the illness has progressed. “All of the species that I deal with on a daily basis are good at hiding illness for one reason or another,” he says.
When an animal lives in a cage or other confined habitat, there can be a misconception that it won’t need a lot of interaction. That’s not always the case, though, says Dr. Daniel Fraser of Animal Clinic of Clayton. Sugar gliders are an example of an animal that needs a lot of interaction. Hedgehogs are another: “They are, like most small animals, a prey animal. If they’re stressed, they will curl up into a ball with the spikes sticking out. They’re cute and make good pets for children, but owners need to realize that this is not one of those pets you can just buy and hope it will be interactive and socialized,” he explains. “You need to put in the effort to get them used to home life, and they require more interaction.”
Exercise is another key element for many of these breeds, Fraser says. In the wild, hedgehogs, guinea pigs and gerbils naturally forage for food underneath leaves. “They need a simple sort of cage, but you want to incorporate a walking wheel for proper exercise,” he says, adding that a big part of the pet-owning experience for families is getting the children involved in the animal’s care. “I have kids at that age, and we have a little zoo going on. But every one becomes a little project for them, and they learn all about the care. I think it’s a great learning experience for little ones.”
A bird’s basic needs seem pretty simple: an appropriately sized cage, perches, and food and water, says Mandy Vaughn of Varietees Bird Shop. But to have a happy pet, a little more care is required, including about two hours of interaction per day. “It could be for half an hour in the morning before going to work, then again when you get home,” she says. “You want the bird to be well-socialized just like a dog, so people can play with it and pet it.” A play stand that’s separate from the bird’s cage also can help keep birds from being territorial, and gives them more opportunity for play and exercise. “You remove them from where they sleep, and it allows them to be in the room with you,” she says.
Regular bathing also is important for birds, since it gets rid of dander and makes molting less painful. Other grooming includes clipping the toe nails every three to four months. Clipping the wings is a personal decision, but one that Vaughn recommends. “I get too many phone calls from people whose birds have flown away,” she says. “We’re in Missouri where there are a lot of hawks, and they can become dinner really quick.” Birds also stay tamer if their wings are clipped, because they are dependent on their owner to get around, she adds.
These tips provide a starting point, but talking to your veterinarian or another well-regarded expert is an important step before taking home a pet. Proper care will keep them happy and healthy—and your pet just might help keep you happy and healthy, too!