Exotic pets can bring a bundle of unexpected joys and challenges into their owners’ lives.
That’s why Katie Rainwater, associate veterinarian at Exotic Vet Care in Mount Pleasant, encourages potential pet owners to diligently do their research before committing to an exotic pet.
“I love educating exotic pet owners on the many ways they can help their unique pets lead healthy and (hopefully) fulfilling lives, and seeing them realize how much more they can be getting from their relationships with these amazing animals,” Rainwater said.
Currently, Rainwater has two cats, Dexter and Fireplace, but previously, she owned a California kingsnake, Charlie, and has fostered a bearded dragon and leopard gecko.
“I have always been one to cheer for the underdog,” she said. “So many people have the attitude of ‘It’s just a [fill in the blank: hamster, guinea pig, bird, lizard]’ and think that somehow they are less deserving of good care than pet dogs and cats, or are disposable and easily replaced.”
With a background in caring for exotic pets at home and in a veterinary practice, Rainwater shared tips to consider before bringing a new pet home.
What should pet owners contemplating adding an exotic animal to their family consider before they take a unique pet home?
They absolutely must educate themselves on the needs and lifespan of captive exotic pets BEFORE they purchase them. I recommend clients consult at least five reputable sources including thorough online care sheets and new or newly revised books (even the “For Dummies” books can be a good start). Avoid internet chat rooms or groups until you are very well-established with your pet and can evaluate advice from other pet owners in the context of reliable, science-based information.
We offer pre-purchase consultation appointments for people who are considering a new exotic pet to help them learn about the animal’s husbandry requirements before they bring it home. Unfortunately, many pet stores and even some breeders will give out inaccurate or antiquated advice on caring for animals they sell, which can lead to severe health problems. For example, many people we see don’t know that their parrots should not eat seeds as a major part of their diet. We get people in every week who have had their pets for months or even years but didn’t know how to care for them properly. Improper care can lead to devastating medical problems that were often completely preventable.
What types of animals do you see most frequently at your practice?
We see about 40 percent avian (mostly small and large parrots but also backyard chickens, some canaries and finches or other passerines), 40 percent small mammal (ferrets, rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas, hamsters, sugar gliders, gerbils, degus, mini pigs, etc.), 15 percent reptile (turtles, tortoises, snakes, lizards) and the rest are things like amphibians, pet tarantulas, or what I consider to be “captive wildlife” — falconer’s hawks, squirrels, raccoons, kinkajous, New World monkeys (marmosets, tamarins, capuchins) and prosimians (mostly lemurs). We also provide surgical and medical services to The Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw.
Is there particular type of exotic pet that you are seeing become more popular in the Charleston area?
Rabbits and bearded dragons have really taken off as pets recently, I think because of their widespread availability.
Unfortunately we are also seeing a lot of people “rescuing” baby raccoons lately. I beg anyone who finds a baby raccoon to please get it in to the hands of a licensed rehabilitator immediately. For many reasons, you are often doing a disservice to raccoons and other wild animals by keeping them, and they can become extremely dangerous once they reach maturity.
What challenges does living in the Lowcountry present to exotic pet owners?
Similar to dogs and cats, many of the small mammals we treat are affected by the high heat. For example, wild rabbits spend hot days underground and are most active during the dawn and dusk periods. Pet rabbits need to be kept inside somewhere cool during the hot summer months or you need to provide a place for them to burrow. On the other hand, most birds and reptiles are kept inside all the time, but some actually may benefit from time outside in the sun. This is where knowing the species-specific needs of your pet is so important.
Of the exotic pets you treat, which tend to require the most involved care from their human families?
They all present unique challenges, but the needs of reptiles and birds seem to be the most often underestimated.
For example, water turtles, such as red-eared sliders, are very difficult and expensive to keep properly because their water quality has to be excellent and they tend to be messy. Large tanks and even larger filters are required, and eventually they really need an outside enclosure to reach their full potential.
Another example of a challenging pet is the veiled chameleon, which can be found commonly in pet stores. They need high humidity and gut-loaded and mineral-dusted live insect prey, as well as high calcium greens, UVB light and warmth, and special, ventilated caging. Keeping them warm and humid enough is difficult in our air conditioned and heated homes, and keeping up a supply of crickets to feed them is not easy.
With birds, managing the mess, noise, and some of the objectionable behaviors they can exhibit such as biting, screaming or pulling feathers is more than many people anticipate when they bring their bird home.
In some species, longevity is a challenge — some of the larger parrots can live into their 70s, and some tortoises can live to be over 100. You can’t expect a zoo or rescue to be able to take on your exotic pet when you can’t keep it any longer, so you really have to plan for their whole-life care, including who will inherit them.
What are the rewards of welcoming an exotic pet to a household?
Enjoying all the surprises they have to offer, and their individual personalities. I can’t tell you how many people have said, “I never thought I could love a guinea pig this much!” If you take the time to really learn about them and appreciate their special adaptations, many exotic animals can be rewarding pets and have a good quality of life with their human companions.
Is there anything else you would like the community to know about exotic pets?
One thing we always discuss with exotic pet owners is the concept of being a prey animal; birds, reptiles and small herbivores like rabbits and guinea pigs will hide symptoms until they are extremely sick or have been sick for a long time. In the wild, they have to do this to avoid getting eaten by predators. Unfortunately, this means that by the time you notice they are ill, it can be very difficult to get them healthy again.
Although most exotic pets (except for ferrets) do not require vaccines, we do recommend wellness exams every 6 months for most species to help educate people and detect problems early.