Pets and Fads
Any type of pet can become a fad – even among the most common domestic animals, breeds go in and out of fashion. In the 1980s, Dalmatian breeding and sales exploded after the release of a popular Disney movie. Currently, toy breeds (the so-called “purse dogs”), such as the Chihuahua, are considered a trendy accessory. Most fad pets, however, are among the so-called “exotics” or any type of pet beyond domestic dogs, cats, and farm animals.
Not everyone buys fad pets simply because they are new or chic. In some cases, apartment or condo regulations prohibit cats and dogs, and people look for a suitable replacement for companionship and entertainment. Many new exotic species are touted as “the perfect pet” and potential drawbacks are glossed over, or even unknown to salespeople.
In fact, the lack of information available on many newly “domesticated” species is a major drawback. Not only can it be difficult to determine nutritional and habitat requirements, but if the animal does become ill, it can be difficult to find a veterinarian that is familiar with the species.
Sugar-gliders (nocturnal, squirrel-like marsupials with enormous, adorable eyes) often suffer from specific nutritional deficiencies when kept as pets. The resulting hind-limb paralysis can often be reversed with changes to the diet or added supplements, but only if the problem is correctly identified and treated early. A veterinarian or caretaker who is unfamiliar with Sugar Gliders could easily mistake these symptoms for another disease, delaying or preventing appropriate treatment.
Many exotic species are susceptible to disease when kept as pets, in part due to our inability to precisely replicate their natural environment. Prairie dogs held in captivity often suffer from obesity and dental problems. In addition, their natural behaviour involves a lot of (occasionally aggressive) social interaction, and plenty of destructive digging and chewing; problems develop if they are prevented from performing these activities.
Ideally, a suitable home for “pet” prairie dogs would probably be large enough to hold a colony, filled with dirt for digging tunnels, and completely enclosed to prevent unnecessary interaction with pesky humans. In other words, a zoo exhibit. This type of pet may suit some people, who are happy to simply watch animals carry on with their daily lives, but for most people, the joy of owning a pet is in forming a relationship with it. Regrettably, not all cute or interesting exotic species are suited, temperamentally, to rewarding relationships with humans.
The truth is that a tame individual, even one that has been hand-raised, is not necessarily domesticated. Pet species such as rabbits and ferrets have been selectively bred for hundreds of years to be docile and compatible with humans. Domestic dogs, those stalwart providers of companionship to humans the world over, have been bending themselves to our will for hundreds of thousands of years. We simply cannot ask the same sort of behavioural predictability from a species such as the prarie dog that has been captive-bred for a few generations at most.
This is not to say that all newly “discovered” exotic pet species will make bad pets. Some wild animals have personalities and habits that are well-suited to the pet lifestyle, and captive breeding, for a few generations at least, eliminates many of the behavioural and health problems that result from plucking creatures directly from the wild. Captive-bred skunks are said to be intelligent, friendly, and cat-like. They can be litter-trained and are not picky eaters. Captive breeding in skunks also eliminates the risk of rabies, which is carried by many wild skunks.
Zoonotic diseases (diseases that people can get from animals) are a serious problem with many exotic species. Some animals naturally harbour microbes that do little harm to them, but can be harmful to humans – many reptiles and amphibians carry Salmonella, for example. Hedgehogs can transmit a variety of zoonotic illnesses including Salmonella and the Plague. In 2003, Gambian pouch rats brought from Africa and sold as pets were blamed for an outbreak of Monkey pox in the U.S.A. It is now illegal to import them into the States.
Although Canada has very few federal laws regarding exotic pets, many animal control laws exist at the municipal and provincial (or state) level. Local exotic pet ordinances may prohibit not just the import, but also the possession of some types of pets. These laws are enacted in hopes of addressing not only the increased health & behavioral dangers associated with these animals, but also the potential risk they pose to the local environment. In Hawaii, Florida, and other climatically suitable areas of the U.S.A., feral Green iguanas have become a significant invasive species. Most of these individuals were purchased as small, cheap pets and subsequently “released into the wild” by their owners when they became ornery, unpredictable, and up to 5 or 6 feet long.
Many owners do not consider what they would do with a pet if they were no longer able to care for it. Exotic pet owners may be surprised to find that many humane societies and animal shelters are ill-equipped or simply unable to care for exotic species. The problem is compounded by ignorance and misinformation about the needs, life span, and natural behaviour of these animals.
During the 1990s, Vietnamese potbellied pigs became quite popular as a unique alternative to the dog or cat – they are hypoallergenic, intelligent, easy to train, and generally very clean. Many people bought these pigs believing that they would keep both their small size and affable nature as they aged. When the pigs grew up into territorial, lawn-uprooting adults, weighing up to 200 pounds or more, thousands of them were given up for adoption… and unfortunately, many others ended up at slaughterhouses.
Many exotic species can make excellent pets, in an appropriate environment and with well-informed owners. Be wary, however, of the latest critters in vogue – their popularity may not last as long as their life span.
By Jen Perret – Pets.ca writer