Dogs and cats are by far the most common pets in America, but less common pets like birds, lizards and snakes, ferrets, and rabbits are gaining popularity every year. Unlike dogs and cats, many of these species are not “domesticated,” meaning that they have not evolved to cohabitate with humans, and many have unique dietary and social needs that are difficult for even the most experienced pet owner to meet. I’ve organized a few popular species into “introductory” and “advanced” levels to help guide you in your journey to exploring sharing your home with a new species.
Both bearded dragons and leopard geckos are the best lizards for new reptile owners. Social, friendly animals, they seem to enjoy interacting with humans and will tolerate moderate amounts of handling. They require some initial work setting up their enclosures, getting the right temperatures, and handling the insects they require for food, but they are relatively easy to maintain.
Ball pythons and corn snakes make excellent pets. They don’t require the advanced lighting that most lizard species require, and they only eat every seven to 14 days depending on the age and size of your pet. Both of these breeds are mild-mannered, rarely striking and tolerate handling. They do require being fed whole prey, which means your freezer will share some space with some freeze-dried mice and/or rats. Ball pythons can live up to 30 years, making them great long-term companions.
Rodents like hamsters and gerbils are popular beginner pets, although many never become tame enough to enjoy handling. They are typically easy to care for, requiring a high-quality pelleted food, fresh water and a clean enclosure. Rats have similar needs, but are vastly more social and highly intelligent, making them great companions, albeit with a short (two- to three-year) lifespan.
Rabbits, chinchillas and guinea pigs are slightly more difficult to care for but are more social and live longer than other rodents. Some, like guinea pigs, also have extra vitamin needs, requiring daily Vitamin C supplements (the food is not enough alone) and large amounts of hay to prevent gastrointestinal and dental disease, two common and often deadly issues for these species.
Love birds and parakeets are small companion birds that have been kept as pets for centuries. They usually prefer the company of others of their species to humans, so they make good pets for those who want to share their home with birds but who don’t have the time to meet the social requirements of larger parrots. I always recommending adopting at least two of these guys together to help prevent some of the more common behavioral issues that can develop.
Iguanas, aquatic turtles, and giant boas and pythons all require advanced care. Adult iguanas are large (often larger than 6 feet from nose to tail) and are likely to become territorial and aggressive when they hit puberty. Large snakes require very large and strong enclosures to meet humane standards of captivity, and require permits to legally own. Many require two to four people to handle at their adult length and weight.
Aquatic turtles of any variety are a lot of work. The recommended tank size for even a single red eared slider is 100 gallons, and they require heavy duty (read: expensive) filtration to keep the water quality at acceptable levels. Constant water quality checks, rotating an adequate diet, and long life spans make these pets more difficult to care for than most other reptiles.
Sugar gliders and hedgehogs are both nocturnal pets, making them difficult for most of us humans to give the adequate social interaction. Sugar gliders have complicated and intense nutritional needs, ones that even zoos are still struggling to find a perfect balance for, and do better in groups rather than as solitary pets, so they often aren’t as bonded to humans as we would like in a pet.
Hedgehogs are used to traveling miles every night, hunting and foraging for food, and eat a wide variety of insects and other foods. Mimicking this in captivity is difficult, meaning your hedgie may keep you up at night with their constant scurrying or wheel antics, and are prone to obesity, dental disease, and cancer, which can cut short the bond you have with your spikey companion.
Large parrots like macaws, cockatoos, and even medium-sized parrots like African Greys and Amazons can make for fascinating companions, amazing humans with their intelligence and beauty. However, that intelligence often gets them into trouble, as most parrots prefer a large social group (think of the flocks they live in in the wild), and rely heavily on their humans to provide that social structure. If enough attention isn’t given, then a host of medical and behavior issues can develop, including screaming, destruction of housing and object, feather plucking, and biting/aggression. This requires extensive (and sometimes expensive) medical care, intensive home therapy, and appropriate diet and nutrition. They can also live to be greater than 60 years old, meaning that most will outlive their first owners.
With all species, you should do your own research on the care of these species in captivity. Reaching out to your local exotic animal veterinarian is a good first step, as they often have resources and care sheets on how to best care and prepare for your new pet.
VCA Calvert Veterinary Center offers routine wellness and preventative care for a wide range of exotic animal species, as well as advanced diagnostics for any newly adopted or ill pets. Call 410-360-PAWS (7297) for an appointment with a knowledgeable veterinarian.