When Cute Is Not Enough: What Behavior Consultants Should Know About Exotic Animal Pets
Summary: Behavior consultants are well-placed to offer advice to clients if they see signs of poor welfare in any of the pets in their home, not just the ones they have been called in to help. This article outlines the scale of exotic pet-keeping in the United States, and then offers some guidance on how to communicate effectively with clients and what some basic warning signs of poor welfare look like in different species.
Author’s Note: This article is not referring to those responsible people who have exotic pets. Many of you have cared for exotics and provided them a better quality of life. I thank you for that. This article brings to light the darker side of keeping exotic animals and what we can do to improve their welfare.
Several months ago, while conducting a canine behavioral assessment for a dog with aggressive tendencies, it came to my attention that the children of the home were holding a bearded dragon who “didn’t feel well.” They brought their pet to the veterinarian, only to find out that the animal was lacking calcium in its diet. The children had fed the dragon watermelon and mealworms. Unfortunately, the pet dragon did not live to see his 6-month birthday. On another recent behavior case, the couple’s cat flipped over and attacked their pet hedgehog, who was ambling around in the family room. The hedgehog passed away shortly after being taken to the vet. The same family had a discussion that they would like to obtain a sugar glider or a prairie dog as a pet “because they are so cute.” This is not uncommon. Other professionals in the industry have told me of customers who wanted to obtain a pet skunk – “having it deskunked, of course,” a pet raccoon because they liked their “clown antics,” and a rattlesnake for “security measures.”
People I have talked to are interested in exotic animals because they share distinct characteristics that a traditional pet dog or cat may not have. These characteristics include the exotic birds’ amazing talents for voice mimicry and testing selection of colors and shapes. The primates have excelled in intelligence and sign language. People like exotics because they believe the animals do not need to be walked, can be contained in a cage, are low maintenance, don’t need to be housetrained/litterbox trained, and can provide behavioral antics that are entertaining to watch. The reptiles can have a “wow” value when discussing them in conversation. Watching a bearded dragon pad into the kitchen and slurp up and munch down vegetables or witnessing a boa coiling around a tree branch can leave some people trembling in their tracks, while others are in awe. One person wanted to take a baby skunk from under their shed and keep it as a pet. They heard that the skunk can be litterbox trained like a cat. There was no understanding that it is illegal in Colorado to keep a pet skunk. Nor was there any understanding that if the animal bit someone, it would most likely be euthanized to check for rabies. We must move past the cute factor!
What is and is not a pet
What is a pet? A pet is defined as a domestic or tamed animal kept for companionship or pleasure, or a domesticated animal kept for pleasure rather than utility.1
An exotic animal is defined by 9 CFR 1.1 as “any animal not identified in the definition of ‘animal’ provided in this part that is native to a foreign country or of foreign origin or character, is not native to the United States, or was introduced from abroad” (US Legal, 2021).2
Online pets for sale
The topics of cuteness and uniqueness of character linked to adoption in exotic animals piqued my interest. Curiosity led me to research the types of exotic animals that are in high demand in the pet industry. Listed below are some of the marketing strategies that I found online.
- Sugar gliders: a marsupial possum native to Australia and Indonesia; marketing listed them as very sweet, trusting, friendly, and cuddly, but that it takes a lot of time to get to this point, and that they can bite. Also, it was noted that they cannot be litter trained and that they can eliminate on the individual when carried as a pocket pet. These animals are social beings and should be with other sugar gliders.
- Fennec foxes: native animal of Algeria; trained to play with cats and dogs; diet: lizards, small birds, and fruits – can add freshly killed rodent or chicks to supplement feed. Litter dates to release dates are about 4.5 weeks. Care packages are provided that include: a collar, warm blanket, premium canned food, dried insects, milk replacer, syringe, Miracle Nipple – if applicable – and a backpack to carry supplies. Note: They have hairy feet to protect them from extremely hot desert sand. Cost: up to $4,500 USD.
- Prairie dogs: small, cute pets; loyal pet; “a prairie dog will fling itself at a Pitbull in your defense.” Cost: up to $1,800 USD.
- Hedgehog: native to Africa and Asia; outgoing; could be grumpy depending on the day; lost his right eye in a breeding episode, but it doesn’t bother him; females are priced higher than males because of breeder demand; adoption comes with a snuggle sack.
- Servals: native carnivorous cat from Africa; eats small mammals, lizards, birds, and snakes; can jump 9 feet into air to catch a bird; sold declawed.
- Wallaby: native to Australia; can grow 6 feet tall and have powerful hind legs and tails; they make good pets because there is no odor, they are docile, and can tolerate multiple climates.
- Python: native to Asia; you can buy at incredibly low prices; reaches amazing lengths – up to 23 feet!
How can any of these exotic animals, legally purchased online as pets, fit into a typical family home and be successful with a high quality of life?
The “cuteness” factor
In 1950, Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian ethologist, believed that certain traits of an infant’s face trigger a nurturing instinct in adults. This concept had an evolutionary advantage. Parents became more involved in caring and providing for their children, making it more likely that they would reach adulthood. This instinctual behavior became genetically encoded.3 Things that have a small body size, large eyes, and round cuddly features are considered “cute”.4
Borgi & Cirulli (2016) claim that infantile faces (typically viewed as cute) are biologically relevant stimuli that unconsciously capture our attention and elicit positive/affectionate behaviors, such as caring for another. Infantile features in companion animals are the basis of our attraction to animal species. Facial cues, especially eye contact, are emotional and communicative signals that regulate the human-animal bond. Neuroendocrine regulation (oxytocin) is secreted from the social bond between humans and animals (facial cuteness) and releases caring/parental behavior and motivates social engagement.5 When we see an animal that we interpret as cute, it stimulates the mesocorticolimbic system in our brains, the part associated with motivation and reward. We can get that warm and fuzzy feeling.6 A study conducted in Japan in 2012 (Nittono et.al., 2012) found that, after viewing cute images of baby animals, research participants were more careful in performing tasks that required focused attention, and it triggered positive emotion that is associated with approach motivation.7
From habitat to cage
Wildlife trafficking is a greed-based phenomenon that is typically a lucrative business. The legal exotic animal trade industry that allows for the purchase of exotic animals is also a lucrative business. Purchase of exotic animals is conducted largely online. It is difficult to trace where the pet animal came from.8 Animals are often marketed that they are bred in house, but where did the initial stock come from? The ASPCA outlines some horrific ordeals that wild composed of four elements: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management-caught animals endure. I am not talking about the $23 billion dollar industry of large wildlife; I am talking about exotic pets kept in the home. Colorful exotic parrots stolen from the rainforests of Brazil, Australia, or Africa, for example, are flown with their beaks and talons taped and stuffed in plastic tubes for hours on end during travel to the U.S. Turtles are taped inside their shells and shoved into tube socks, and python young are shipped in CD cases.9 The laws are not strong enough to prevent traffickers from taking the risk of poaching and transporting animals from the wild into the hands of an animal seller. The mortality rate of these animals is greater than 70% from leaving their environment, changing hands multiple times, and ending at their destination.10
Social media has also been a piece of how the exotic animal pet industry has escalated. Sellers and buyers of exotic animals often connect on social media. Wildlife selfies and online pictures of celebrities who keep exotic animals as pets has fueled an increase in demand. Some media giants have acknowledged that wildlife trafficking is wrong and have banned platforms to sell exotic animals, but these sites are not well policed, and advertisements still exist.11
Exotic animals can be purchased in pet stores, from captive breeding programs, and from reptile ranches. Reptile farms have been known to keep as many animals as possible in simple surroundings so that fewer staff can easily care for large numbers of animals prior to their sale. Exotic animals lose numerous opportunities for health including foraging in a natural setting, learning survival/social skills from their parents and littermates, and exerting free will to climb or fly or roam wherever they would like. They often end up being housed in a cage or an aquarium away from everything they had ever known. Stress, malnutrition, and loneliness often accompany their lives. Certain pets cannot be kept domestically in an ethical manner.12
Many animals sold online are young, often much younger than they should ever be pulled from their mother. Animals who were from the wild or captive breeding programs are then sold into a life of oppression. Once they become sexually and socially mature, they can be difficult to handle. This is the time when most of these animals are relinquished. It is difficult to find a “loving home” for a serval that has eaten the family parakeet, or a 2-foot-long malnourished bearded dragon that needs veterinary care, or a sweet-but-biting sugar glider, or a python of amazing length, who is a risk to small children. Ethical relinquishment options are often limited for these reasons:
- Many animals are not returnable to animal ranches, nor are fees refundable.
- Zoological gardens will not take adoptions – there is too great a risk for new illness to come into their current population.
- It is unethical to turn the animal loose in the woods or swamp.
- Animals who have been in a family environment as a house pet may not have the skills they need to be returned to the wild.
- Animals released into a foreign environment, one where they didn’t originate, can cause great upset with native animals (Example: non-native pythons who were turned into a natural area once they got big, thrived in the Florida Everglades by feeding on egrets, gallinules, and other animals who had no defenses against this predator 13
- Taxpayers bear the responsibility of capture of turned-out animals or seizure of animals due to neglect.
- Pet owners can be exposed to multiple zoonotic illnesses from exotic animals.14
How an animal behavior consultant can be a voice for exotic animals
As consultants, we know how important it is to use good communication skills to build a trusting relationship with clients and their pets. Once a healthy relationship is established, the consultant can ease into a conversation about promoting quality of life for all resident animals. When I conduct an in-home behavior assessment for a dog, I take a full history, including observation of all resident animals. I explain that it provides good information on pet relationships. Some families have an exotic pet, and the animal may be caged, or kept in a different room in an aquarium. It gives me the opportunity to see if the pet of interest is friendly toward another pet or stressed by another animal. I often evaluate dogs for aggression, and I want to know if another resident pet may be in danger. Meeting other household pets not only allows for a safety check, but it opens a platform to educate. Most families really appreciate the input.
When I get a call or email to complete a behavior evaluation, I tell the client up front that I’d like to see all the animals in the home, because part of the evaluation is assessing the interactions between pets and people. They are then prepared for this when I go to their home. Behavior consultants don’t have to be experts on every exotic animal, but listen to your gut feeling. When you observe the pet, notice if their environment is clean and at a reasonable overall temperature, if they appear to be at a healthy weight, and if they appear to want to socialize or hide in a corner. I always ask about how often the dog is seen by a veterinarian and how the dog responds at a veterinary clinic. You can easily transition the conversation to how often the exotic animal is seen by a veterinarian. If the client states they don’t have one, this would be a good time to provide a couple recommendations of a local veterinarian who specializes in exotic animals. Many times, a pet is purchased for a child, e.g., “We got a hedgehog for my daughter’s birthday.” Ask how the dog reacts to the hedgehog. Observe how the dog reacts. I also ask the parent if it is okay to have the child show me the pet. Children love to show off their pets. This is the time when I can assess the child’s handling skills, parental supervision, safety issues, and again, reactivity or stress in the dog.
As a psychiatric nurse, I have always been fond of communicating with clients using the sandwich method. Start out by making a positive statement, follow this with a statement of concern, and end up with a positive statement. Over time, it gets easier and easier. An example could be:
“You seem to really want to provide the best possible home for your pet hedgehog.”
“I noticed that when your daughter picked the pet up, she was concerned about getting poked from the pet’s quills and was worried about dropping the pet.”
“I know of a couple of local veterinarians/behavior consultants who specialize with exotic pets, and I can provide you their contact information. They can work with family members on handling and specialized care and provide education on the high quality of care that you value.” (If you have worked with exotics, you could also demonstrate to the child how to hold the pet with its quills down, close to the child’s body, and preferably be in a sitting position. Parental supervision is important depending on age of the child and experience.)
What to Do
Conducting an in-home behavior assessment is value-added when you monitor all animals available in the home. Offer the family options such as sharing knowledge about a specific exotic pet, training, or referrals to local resources. Listed below are options to prepare yourself for the other animal in the home – that you originally didn’t plan to assess.
- Develop a list of resources of local veterinarians/behavior consultants who care for exotic animals.
- Understand state and local legislation and the rules regarding keeping an exotic animal.
- Educate, educate, educate. Talk to your clients, family, and friends about the realities of the exotic animal trade. Be familiar enough with local legislation on keeping exotic animals. If you are unfamiliar with a certain species of animal that a client may be keeping, refer them to a local veterinarian/behavior consultant. Keep a list of veterinarians/behavior consultants who will work with a client by phone, especially if in a rural location.
- As with all exotic animal warehouses or puppy mills, when we stop purchasing, the problem lessens. Lead by example – choose not to keep an exotic animal as a pet.
- Ensure that the animal is not a danger to humans, themself, or other animals – increase awareness of zoonotic illness and how to maintain health.
- Do not purchase souvenirs that contain exotic animal hides, skins, bone, ivory, etc.
If a client questions you about obtaining an exotic animal as a pet, educate and discuss the realities of exotic animal ownership. (You can attempt a discussion on how many cats and dogs need a good home.) Discuss with them that they should be prepared and understand the animal’s individual needs – diet, housing, sociability, mental stimulation, opportunities for the animal to be an individual, and the financial responsibility of caring for the pet. Have them talk to a professional – veterinarian, applied animal behaviorist, local humane society, or reputable exotic animal rescue group. They should be aware of health problems for the individual animal and understand when the animal is stressed or ill, and understand ahead of time what is needed for a quality lifestyle for the animal. Discuss proper handling techniques with family members. Stay informed. Circle back to the initial subject on the reason why it is best not to obtain an exotic pet.
We must go beyond the physical attractiveness that young animals possess and make informed decisions about the welfare of the pets we choose to care for.15 Obtaining a pet because of phenotypical “cuteness” often promotes adoption of animals who end up eventually getting relinquished. Be informed, educate others, and do not get misled by the cuteness factor.
- Cook, M. (2020). PAWS Academy: What makes a pet a pet? Accessed 10/11/2021
- US. Legal (2021). Exotic animal law and legal definition. Accessed 10/11/2021
- Micu, A. (2021). What exactly is it that makes us go “d’awww” — and why? ZME Science Accessed 10/11/2021
- University of Melbourne (2013). The Science of Cuteness: How do we perceive cute? University of Melbourne Scientific Scribbles blog. Accessed 10/11/2021
- Borgi, M., & Cirulli, F. (2016). Pet face: Mechanisms underlying human-animal relationships. Frontiers in Psychology 7
- Tyley, J. (2015). Why do we find some animals cuter than others? The Independent. Accessed 10/11/2021
- Nittono, H., Fukushima, N., Yano, A, Moriya, H. (2012). The power of kawaii: Viewing cute images promotes a careful behavior and narrows attentional focus. PLOS One, 7(9): e46362.
- BCSPCA. (2021). How do animals end up in pet stores? Accessed 10/11/2021
- ASPCA (2021) Position Statement on Exotic Animals as Pets. Accessed 10/11/2021
- PETA (2021). Inside the exotic animal trade. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.Accessed 10/11/2021
- Bending, Z. (2020) Before you hit ‘share’ on that cute animal photo, consider the harm it can cause. The Conversation.Accessed 10/11/2021
- Blue-McClendon, A. (2021). Take a trip on the wild side: Ethical exotic pet ownership. CVMBS News, Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Accessed 10/11/2021
- United States Geological Survey (2021) How have invasive pythons impacted Florida ecosystems? Accessed 10/11/2021
- Chomel, B.B.,Belotto, A. & Melin, F-X. (2007). Wildlife, exotic pets, and emerging zoonoses. CDC: Emerging Infectious Diseases 13:1, p.6
- Grant, R.A., Montrose, V.T., & Wills, A.P. (2017). ExNotic: Should we be keeping exotic pets? Animals, 7:47, p. 1-11.
Camille King, EdD, RN, ACAAB, CDBC, is an applied animal behaviorist who owns Canine Education Center, LLC in Colorado. She specializes in assessment and treatment of dogs with severe aggression and anxiety disorders. Camille conducts professional research on canine stress and mental health issues. When she isn’t working with dogs, she works as an advanced practice psychiatric clinical nurse specialist.