Backyard chickens—old news. Goldfish—boring. How about pot-bellied pigs? Sugar gliders? Hedgehogs? Exotic-pet owners will attest that despite the obvious contradiction, there’s nothing like communing with wildlife within the confines of your own home.
What’s up with domesticating these unusual pets? Well, people find them “fun, cute, cool, unusual or trendy,” says Laurie Hess, owner and director of the Veterinary Center for Birds & Exotics in Bedford Hills, NY.
Laws can be wildly different
Depending on where you live, the definition of “exotic” varies widely and wildly. Laws governing exotic pets are anything but consistent.
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Good luck figuring it all out. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention each has its own list of exotic animals that it says are safe to keep as pets. Eighteen states ban exotic animals as pets. Born Free USA lists the regulations for each state.
We’ve hunted down six out-of-the-ordinary pets for you to adopt. Before you head over to Etsy for a custom-engraved, blinged-out animal collar to outfit your exotic new best friend, make note of these crucial details:
If you happen to know a hedgehog personally, you know it’s a new thing to keep them as pets. Previously, these little fellows lived wild in the African continent. Like porcupines, they are covered in quills to protect themselves from predators. Hedgehogs are generally shy and skittish. When threatened, they will curl into a tight, prickly ball. You’ll have to channel your inner hedgehog whisperer if you ever want them to be comfortable enough to relax and uncurl. Also, as nocturnal animals, they are great for insomniacs.
Turns out animals that look like flying squirrels can be domesticated too. Known as sugar gliders, these are marsupials hailing from Australia and New Guinea who sail and glide as their mode of transport. Sugar gliders are needy ones who bond closely with their owners. But they won’t be down for nighttime cuddles, since they’re nocturnal.
Ferrets are small, furry mammals that are a lot like cats and dogs. Ferret care requires a lot of time and commitment—they need four hours of activity out of their cage every day.
Although the charming chinchilla is a nocturnal rodent, its perky personality is relatively easy to train with treats. Chinchillas, however, are not for children. “[Chinchillas] are small and fragile,” says veterinarian Ron Hines in Texas. “If they are squeezed too tight, they will bite.” Chinchillas are prone to arthritis, so keep yours active and with a solid-bottom cage.
Dragons—that is, bearded dragons
Iguanas, chameleons, and geckos are popular lizards to domesticate. PetSmart says bearded dragons are great for beginner pet owners, because they are “gentle in nature, so they will learn to enjoy interacting with their pet parents.” Several websites also list them as being “classroom-friendly.”
The big care detail for lizards is sufficient UVB lighting so their little bodies maintain the right temperature. Oh, and lizards eat live crickets, so these guys aren’t for the squeamish.
There’s a plethora of puny pigs that can be purchased as pets—pot-bellied are the largest. Since you’ll probably keep your pig outdoors, you’ll need a large pen with insulated housing to avoid temperature extremes. Indoor pigs can be trained to use a litter pan. Designate a room where the animal can be left unsupervised. In the wild, pigs spend their days foraging and rooting for food, so scheduled exercise time is paramount.
Don’t take just anyone’s advice—ask an expert
Exotic animals have more intricate care and feeding requirements than cats and dogs.
“Don’t ask a pet store about medical care,” Hess says. “Exotic pets have very specific care requirements and will stay healthy and be less expensive to care for if you see a trained veterinarian for their care.”
Your town may not have a qualified vet, so check the websites of the Association of Avian Veterinarians, Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians, American Board of Veterinary Practitioners, and the American College of Zoological Medicine for a specialist to help you care for your furry, feathered, scaly, or prickly friend.