Most people immediately jump to dogs and cats when they think of pets and veterinary care. But for some of us, our hearts belong to a smaller, more unusual subset of animal friends. We appreciate the smaller size, different needs, and fascinating characteristics of these exotic animals, including rabbits, hamsters, birds, and reptiles.
Like dogs and cats, these exotic pets need proper nutrition, an appropriate environment, and enrichment to thrive. Along with being seen when they are sick or injured, exotic pets also need regular veterinary care tailored specifically for them. The nuances of exotic pet care differ from their more common counterparts, and for that reason, BEVS is lucky to have Dr. Jordan Adair on board to provide comprehensive care, advanced diagnostics, medical diagnosis and management, and more for these tiny creatures. With owner education and commitment, we can help provide our exotic pets with an excellent quality of life.
Exotic Pet Basics
If you have a bird, reptile, rabbit, or small exotic mammal, one of the best things you can do is to understand their unique needs. Proper care for exotic pets is often more complicated than with dogs and cats, In fact, many of their health issues are directly or indirectly related to something wrong with their diet or environment. And of course, caring for a hamster is vastly different from caring for a bearded dragon. Before getting an exotic pet, you should educate yourself by knowing what you should feed your exotic pet, how they should be housed, what kind of environment to provide, and whether they should be solitary or would do better as a pair. And, we recommend scheduling a new pet exam with our Exotics service soon after getting a new pet to make sure they are healthy and to discuss diet and husbandry.
When exotic pets are unwell, it’s often difficult to tell until the situation is critical, so regular veterinary visits are necessary. Maintaining a relationship with a veterinarian who is trained to care for exotics helps establish a healthy baseline to reference when your animal is experiencing an issue.
Exotic Pet Care
Exotic animals have evolved to live in specific habitats with distinct environmental conditions, dietary requirements, and behavioral patterns. By understanding and meeting these specific needs, we can create dwellings that closely mimic the conditions in their natural habitat, thus promoting their physical and mental well-being. Providing appropriate temperature, humidity, lighting, and enclosures tailored to their species allows them to exhibit natural behaviors and prevents stress-related health issues. Additionally, offering a balanced and species-specific diet, mental stimulation, and opportunities for exercise encourages their natural instincts and prevents boredom.
Other factors to consider include:
Nutrition. Unfortunately, malnutrition is common in exotic pets because many well-meaning pet owners don’t know what to feed them. There are also many diets and treats marketed for exotic pets which are actually quite unhealthy. Birds, reptiles, and small exotic mammals have precise dietary requirements for a healthy and happy life. Even a slight variation in the recommended diet can have dire consequences for their health. When researching the best diet for your pet, your veterinarian is your best resource. It’s important to ask:
- How often should your pet eat?
- How much should your pet eat?
- Is your pet a carnivore, herbivore, insectivore, or omnivore?
- What are the primary foods your pet should eat?
- Does your pet need extra fiber?
- What treats should be limited?
- What supplementary foods should your pet eat?
- Are there any foods that are toxic or harmful to your pet in particular?
- Should your pet eat commercial food?
The answers to these questions will vary from species to species. Rabbits, for example, need free access to grass hay, such as timothy or orchard grass, since they need a high-fiber diet for normal gastrointestinal function. Many well-researched balanced pellet diets are commercially available for pet birds, but other widely available seed-based diets are deficient in minerals and vitamins. Many pet birds can also benefit from fresh fruits and vegetables, but which ones and how much depends on the species. Ferrets, as obligate carnivores, need species-specific high-protein diets and can develop serious health issues from eating improper diets, including bladder stones, diarrhea, and complications with insulinoma treatment.
Any diet change for your exotic pet should be a slow, gradual process closely monitored by your pet’s veterinarian. Always ensure pets have unlimited access to fresh, clean water.
Environment. A suitable habitat for your exotic pet is essential to maintain good health. Your exotic pet’s enclosure should be large enough to accommodate any exercise needs and secure enough to prevent escape. The environment should be clean, and bedding should be changed regularly. Enrichment items such as perches, climbing platforms, tubes, and wheels are essential for their daily well-being. Depending on your pet’s requirements, you may also need to provide heat, light, and humidity. Providing proper temperature ranges, UVB lighting, and humidity for that individual’s specific species is especially important for reptiles.
Closely supervise your pet any time they are outside of the enclosure. Ensure they are in a safe place where they do not have to worry about encountering other animals or getting into things they shouldn’t, such as electrical wires or foods that may be harmful to them.
Grooming. Birds, pocket pets, and even some reptiles may need regular nail trims, which can be challenging to manage alone. Overgrown nails can become problematic if left untreated. The teeth of rabbits and other herbivorous small mammals continuously grow and need to be regularly monitored for abnormal growth and malocclusion which may require dental procedures. Carnivorous exotic pets like ferrets and hedgehogs may need regular teeth cleaning and care to remove tartar and plaque, just like dogs and cats. Routine beak and/or wing trims may be necessary for health or safety reasons for certain pet birds. Your pet’s veterinarian should address these grooming needs to ensure proper handling and safety.
Vaccinations. Although some small mammals are legal to own as pets, they must be vaccinated to prevent diseases in animals and people. Intestinal parasites, which can be spread to humans, can be very problematic, and external parasites such as fleas, ticks, and lice must also be addressed.
The Social Needs of Exotic Pets
Yet another critical component of exotic pet care is understanding their unique social needs. Birds and small exotic mammals may have different behavioral or hormonal changes in response to outdoor temperatures and daylight changes. Even slight behavioral changes might trigger many questions for a pet parent–the BEVS Exotics Department is always here to help.
Birds and small exotic animals benefit from daily interaction with you. They are social animals whose quality of life depends on enrichment, exercise, and attention. Knowing their social needs can help you provide them with their best life. While most reptiles are not as social as most pet birds or exotic mammals, they still need enrichment and mental stimulation to live their best lives. Some reptiles, especially bearded dragons, and some monitor species tend to bond strongly with their own and seem to relish human interaction.
When receiving proper husbandry and veterinary care, exotic pets live longer and happier lives. If you have questions about exotic pet care, don’t hesitate to schedule an appointment with our Exotics Department or contact us for more information at (802) 863-2387. Whether they fly, slither, hop, or crawl, the BEVS Exotics Department loves them all.