Cats and dogs make great family members, but some people prefer a pet who is a bit different — an exotic pet.
Exotic pets offer us the opportunity to learn more about these animals whom we may not see very often in our day-to-day lives. Many exotics fit seamlessly into their households and provide a lot of unconventional joy to their families.
The downside of having exotic pets is that sometimes they draw unwanted attention from visitors or guests. Like more traditional pets, exotic pets can be overstimulated and stressed by too much interaction.
What Is an Exotic Pet?
Here’s what the textbook Behavior of Exotic Pets says: “Exotic pets are ‘exotic’ because we know little about them as members of households.” The term covers a wide range of species: snakes, spiders, some birds, lizards and hedgehogs, to name a few.
Exotic pets do share some similarities with their more common cousins — namely that they can and do get stressed out by certain human behaviors.
This is one of the biggest stressors of exotic pets. When people see a nontraditional pet, the first thing they want to do is interact with the animal. But this isn’t always a great idea.
For example, hedgehogs take a “better safe than sorry” approach to new scents and people, and they will curl up into a spiny ball when someone new engages with them. “If you pick up such a spiny ball, you are likely to get painful pricks that could result in you dropping the animal,” explain Matthew Vriends and Tanya Heming-Vriends in Hedgehogs: A Complete Owner’s Manual.
Snakes, spiders or lizards may bite or sting someone who is handling them incorrectly or out of fear. Your pet is depending on you to be his protector. When introducing someone new into your exotic pet’s world, you should:
- Introduce people one at a time. Having a crowd of people mob an animal is going to be scary.
- Watch your exotic pet closely for signs of stress or fear.
- Teach the person handling your pet how to properly handle the animal, and don’t be afraid to take your pet back if that person is doing it wrong.
- Perform introductions in a calm environment. For example, allowing people to pass your pet at the Thanksgiving dinner table is probably a bad idea. There’s just too much stimulation, not to mention hygiene issues.
With the holidays approaching, this is a great time to give some thought to how your pet will weather the familial storm. If your pet is used to a rather calm environment, he’s most likely going to be terrified when a dozen humans he doesn’t know descend upon his world.
Before any large gatherings, set aside a quiet space for your exotic pet to keep him happy, even if that means no one gets to see him. A spare room, the basement — if it’s heated or cooled — or even a friend who is trained to take care of your exotic pet are all options to explore.
Signs that your pet is overstimulated vary between species. Some birds, for example, may start plucking their feathers. Hedgehogs, as I mentioned, form a protective ball. Snakes, lizards or spiders may hide. It’s up to you to determine your exotic pet’s mood and adjust the situation accordingly.
Here are some great tips on how to handle small lizards:
Educate Your Guests
This is key. You’re not being rude if you tell someone it’s not OK to handle your pet and why. You are being a responsible caretaker. Take the opportunity to teach your guest about your pet and why improper handling is a problem. In some cases, it can be dangerous for your guest as well.
Caring for an exotic pet brings with it a slew of responsibilities that more traditional pets may not require. After all, you certainly can’t just fill a food bowl for a tarantula and walk away.
However, if you have the opportunity to add an exotic pet to your household, then you can benefit from learning about an animal who can be just as loving as any dog or cat.