- Deciding whether you’re really suited for an exotic pet
- Choosing the right exotic pet
- Finding exotic pets in need of new homes
When you visit an animal shelter, you’re likely to see dogs and cats, some small animals, and maybe a few birds. Dedicated rescue groups also tend to specialize in the furred and feathered, but what about animals with scales or shells, wet slimy skin, or eight hairy legs?
Determining Whether Exotic Herps and “Bugs” Are Right for You
– Why do I want a herp or bug? Enjoying the exotic pet’s shock value is fine as long as you’re also genuinely interested in finding out about and caring properly for your pet.
– Am I prepared to make a long-term commitment? Many exotics such as most large snakes, medium-to-large lizards, tortoises, and female tarantulas can easily outlive a dog or a cat. For more on life spans of individual exotics, see Chapter Exploring the Pet Adoption Option.
– Is anyone in my home going to be severely bothered by the presence of a creepy crawler? Some people truly are frightened by spiders, snakes, or other exotic pets, even if you don’t think such fears are rational. If people in your home are bothered so much by these pets that keeping one long term isn’t actually realistic, please don’t adopt an exotic pet.
– Do I have other pets that may try to prey on my small exotics? Lizards, frogs, and other small pets that move fascinate cats and some dogs. On the flip side, a giant python can swallow a kitten or a puppy. Can you keep all your pets safe?
– Do I really have time for an exotic pet? Exotics may be low-maintenance, but they certainly are not no-maintenance. Some take less time, but others actually take more time than other pets, and they all take some time for feeding, basic observation for health and other problems, and cage cleaning and maintenance. Most exotics need their enclosures cleaned about once a week.
– Am I squeamish about feeding bugs and small rodents to reptiles? Most exotics require a diet of live food of some sort, whether crickets and mealworms or mice and rats. If you’re squeamish about touching those critters or don’t want to see them periodically devoured, consider a vegetarian exotic like a green iguana.
– Do I have a good and affordable source for the food my exotic needs to eat? You need time, patience, space, noise tolerance, and the stomach to breed your own crickets or pinkie mice as a source of food for your exotic.
– Do large reptiles intimidate me? Some reptiles, such as large iguanas or giant snakes, grow so big that you won’t easily be able to handle them. If a reptile that large intimidates you, consider an exotic that stays relatively small, such as a water dragon or a corn snake.
– Deep down, do I want a fluffy pet? Few exotics provide the same hands-on fluffy-lovey feeling of a dog or cat. Are you sure scales, shells, or exoskeletons will fulfill your pet owning needs?
– Are exotic pets legal in my area? Many cities and regions don’t allow certain exotic pets, so make sure your pet is legal before adopting and recognize that poor care and irresponsible management of exotics often contributes to legislation against them.
– Am I willing to pay for veterinary care if my exotic gets sick or injured? Are you willing to pay and work to resolve health and nutrition issues your adopted pet may already have? Do you have access to a vet who is comfortable and experienced with exotic pets?
Picking Your Exotic Pet
If you think you want an exotic pet, but aren’t sure which one exotic is right for you, consider the time commitment required of different exotics. According to Reptiles & Amphibians For Dummies by Patricia Bartlett (Wiley), some of the lowest-effort exotics are corn snakes, king snakes, horned frogs, White’s tree frogs, and Tiger salamanders. Painted turtles, Greek tortoises, and Eastern newts fall in the middle of the spectrum, and green iguanas are among the most time-consuming.
Constrictors: Pythons, boas, and other huggable snakes
– Time commitment: Most snakes, including the popular ball python, are relatively low maintenance. Larger snakes such as pythons like Burmese pythons, reticulated pythons, red-tailed boa constrictors, or anacondas can grow to more than 15 feet in length and may require more than one person if you need to handle them. Giant snakes don’t require frequent care but when they need their large cages cleaned, it’s more of an effort. Some constrictors can live 20 to 30 years, or even longer.
– Housing: Constrictors require spacious enclosures (see Chapter Preparing for Your Exotic Pet for recommended dimensions relative to the snake’s size). Your snake’s tank needs to include a source of heat, such as an under-tank heating pad, so the snake can regulate its own body temperature.
– Special considerations: Constrictors eat whole rodents, from baby pinky mice to large rats, and some larger snakes need larger animals than rodents, such as rabbits or chickens. All these are best fed to the snake prekilled. For a large snake, feeding can be costly, depending on your source of food, and some people don’t like feeding these animals to reptiles. Pay attention to your constrictor’s health and watch for signs of mites, tiny flea-like parasitic creatures that feed on blood and can cause snakes severe skin irritation. Finally, keep in mind that frequent handling helps keep snakes tame, but they don’t require handling for their own well-being the way domesticated mammals do. For more on handling snakes, see Chapter Snake Charming and Herp Handling: How to Train Your Exotic Pet.
Small slitherers: Garter snakes, king snakes, corn snakes, and other Colubrids
– Time commitment: Small snakes are easier to care for than big snakes, but they still can live for 7 to 20 years or even longer. They need regular cage cleaning and feeding, and regular handling if you want them to be tame.
– Housing: Although some rat snakes can grow to more than 8 feet long, most types are smaller and stay less than 5 or 6 feet. Garter snakes and some ball pythons may only reach 3 feet. Despite their smaller size, coldblooded Colubrids need spacious cages with a source of heat and an unheated side for cooling off.
– Special considerations: A few Colubrids have venom, but not the more common ones. They also move faster and are good at escaping, so they need tightly fitting lids on their tanks and must be handled with care. These small snakes, when handled frequently, can behave in a tame and responsive manner. They make good pets for people who like hands-on interactions. For more on how to handle snakes, see Chapter Snake Charming and Herp Handling: How to Train Your Exotic Pet.
Life with an iguana isn’t the maintenance-free existence that you might imagine comes with owning a reptile. In fact, it’s far from it. Actually, the green iguana is high maintenance, even though it’s among the most popular of the reptiles. Yet, tame, healthy iguanas can be incredibly rewarding pets if they’re lucky enough to find caretakers who understand how much and exactly what they need in the way of environment, nutrition, and training. Here’s what’s involved in living with an iguana:
– Time commitment: Iguanas are vegetarians. They require freshly prepared raw vegetables every single day. Rotting food matter needs to be cleaned from their cages often. Iguanas also need daily handling if you expect them to be tame and daily interaction of some kind if you don’t want them to fear you or act aggressive. Iguanas also have a long life span, living up to 20 years or even longer when well cared-for.
– Housing: The super-popular green iguana looks unassuming in a small cage in a pet store when it’s less than a foot long, but green iguanas live for a long time and grow big — some up to 6 feet long! So when buying an iguana cage, you can’t get one that is too big. Some people devote entire screened-in porches or rooms to their iguanas, or even let their iguanas roam free in their homes so they get plenty of exercise.
– Special considerations: Iguanas have sharp claws and strong jaws, and if they aren’t tame — because of a lack of handling and training — they can be very skittish and even aggressive. Iguanas can claw and bite you, and these injuries can be severe if you aren’t careful.
– Time commitment: Turtles have incredibly long life spans. Some box turtles can live up to 100 years. Even the tiny aquatic red-eared sliders can live 40 years with proper care. They eat fruits and vegetables, which can be time consuming to prepare and must be offered fresh every day. Box turtles enjoy supervised time outside in temperate weather in a protected area where they’re safe from predators, including your own dogs and cats.
– Housing: Both the small aquatic red-eared slider and the box turtle need spacious tanks with room for swimming and for resting out of the water. Their tanks must be kept clean.
– Special considerations: Turtles need vitamin supplementation (available in the pet store) and aren’t usually very interested in interacting with humans. They do best with people who are interested in observing their turtles but who don’t crave constant interaction or feel the constant need to touch them.
Turtles can be a source of salmonella, so anyone handling a turtle needs to be particularly careful to wash his or her hands thoroughly afterward. Infants and people with low-functioning immune systems shouldn’t handle turtles at all.
Other reptiles of the tropics and the deserts
– Time commitment: Lizards can live for just a few years or as long as 20 years or more. If you want your lizard to be tame, you need to handle it regularly, but many lizards don’t particularly enjoy being handled.
– Housing: Different lizards have specific housing needs, but they all need plenty of space to move around, bask under a heat lamp, or cool off as necessary to regulate their own body temperature. Their tanks must be kept very clean.
– Special considerations: Each species of lizard has its own unique care needs so you need to take the time to learn as much as possible about the lizard you adopt. Many pet lizards die in captivity because they were missing some nutrient or environmental condition their owners could easily have provided had they been aware of it, so please do your research.
These reptiles, in general, can be interactive, sometimes are tame enough to handle — depending on their past history — and are relatively easy to feed and keep healthy, as long as you know what you’re doing. If you’re interested in more information about leopard geckos — one of the most popular pet lizards — check out Leopard Geckos For Dummies by Liz Palika (Wiley).
Other reptiles, such as monitor lizards, Gila monsters, caimans, and alligators, can be quite dangerous. Gila monsters are venomous, and monitors, caimans, and alligators become large and aggressive, with jaws and bodies strong enough to seriously injure a human. Owning them often is illegal, so think three times and check the local laws before attempting to adopt one of these formidable fellows.
The slime factor: Frogs, salamanders, and newts
– Time commitment: Because bacteria, algae, mold, and other nasty things grow quickly and easily in moist environments, amphibians need to have their homes cleaned — including their water changed and plants rinsed down — about once a week, and may need a complete overhaul of their tank environments with new substrate and complete water change every few months.
– Housing: Different amphibians need different types of environments. Some, such as certain tree frogs and salamanders, prefer drier environments and enjoy a terrarium with plants, moss, and a small shallow swimming area. Some, such as aquatic frogs and newts, do best in tanks that are half water and half rocks with areas to climb out of the water and bask. Some frogs, salamanders, and newts are aquatic and live in fish tanks, cohabitating with or without fish. Some arboreal species, like various tree frogs, prefer an environment with tall tree-like places to climb and hang out.
– Special considerations: All amphibians need constant access to sufficient moisture, whether in the form of a swimming area or a misting system, which can be as simple as you spraying a plant sprayer into the cage. Amphibians have porous skin and they breathe through their skin, so this moisture is important to keep them healthy.
Don’t expect cuddles from your amphibian, but they’re beautiful and interesting pets to watch.
Shell chic: All about hermit crabs
– Time commitment: Hermit crabs need fresh food and clean water every day, and they need a clean environment so you have to spend time cleaning their enclosures at least weekly. No, you don’t have to walk or train them, but they still require some time and attention, especially if you want them to be tame.
– Housing: Hermit crabs do well in large aquariums on sand with a salt-water pond, stocked with a selection of clean, sterilized shells to choose from as they grow and molt.
– Special considerations: Forget those shells decorated with potentially toxic paint. Hermit crabs need respect and attention to their health and safety, just like any other pet. Hermit crabs make good pets for kids as long as kids understand how to handle them carefully and responsibly.
Bugs: Tarantulas and beyond
The more common pet tarantulas are less likely to bite because their first line of defense is to flick or kick tiny barbed hairs at you, which can be very irritating to your skin and can even be dangerous to you if they come into contact with your throat or in your eyes or nose. They are preferable to getting chomped by a pair of arachnid fangs, but getting shot with those little hairs is no picnic, either.
– Time commitment: Arachnid or insect caretaking isn’t for everyone, but if you love the six-to-eight-legged set and are willing to get to know them, they’re easy keepers. Just keep their cages clean and provide them with food and water. They don’t need attention, but you may want to spend time staring at them in admiration.
– Housing: Arachnids and other bugs need clean cages and a place to hide. Their enclosures depend on their individual needs, so do your research, but most need higher temperatures than room temperature so they will need to have a heat source. They need close-fitting tops to prevent escape. Some have additional needs like branches for arboreal spiders to climb in and mulch for ground-dwelling spiders to burrow under.
– Special considerations: Most spiders, centipedes, and scorpions eat bugs or pinkies — a term for baby mice before they get their fur — and may or may not need vitamin supplementation in the form of dusting or gut-loading crickets and pinkies. (For more about feeding these creatures, see Chapter Exotic Care and Feeding.) To keep them healthy, you must be willing to give them these necessary dietary items. Pet cockroaches mostly eat dry grains, fruit, vegetables, and even dry dog food. Scorpions and giant centipedes are venomous, and beginning hobbyists shouldn’t ever handle them. They are for advanced hobbyists only.
Some people think tarantula bites are deadly, but most are more akin to a bad bee sting. Unless you’re allergic, don’t worry; a bite won’t kill you. But it certainly won’t be an enjoyable experience either, so be careful! Spiders favored by more advanced hobbyists have more potent venom.
Seeking Out Secondhand Snakes, Lizards, and Spiders
– Pet stores: Many people who decide they can no longer keep their exotic pets take them to pet stores, which often take them in and sell them, enclosure and all, on the cheap. These “recycled” exotics may have health problems caused by neglect and/or malnutrition, and they may be in inappropriate enclosures. Or, they may be healthy and well housed.
– Local enthusiast groups: Another place to find exotics that need homes is through local enthusiast groups such as reptile clubs or societies. They may know of in-need herps or bugs and can probably offer you helpful care advice.
– Veterinarians and breeders: Local vets may know of people who are looking for new homes for their exotic pets, and local herp and bug breeders may also be fostering pets they can’t keep long term as they look for good permanent homes.
– The Internet: The Net has some resources for national, regional, and local organizations that handle rescued herps and bugs, although don’t expect to find as many organizations for these exotics as you can for mammalian pets. Search these on the Internet by typing “Reptile rescue” or “Amphibian rescue” and the name of your state.
by Eve Adamson