Snakes and Lizards and Hedgehogs… Oh My!

hedge hogMention the word pet and most people will think of something warm, fuzzy, and cuddly.   But, for 15% of households in North America, the words might be scaly, spiny, or even creepy.  Welcome to the world of exotic pets!

For most of us, picking up food for our pet will entail a drive to the pet store or grocery store for a bag of dry kibble, or maybe even a can or two of something tasty as a treat.   But for a growing number of pet owners, some of their pet’s food can be found right in their own back yard!

According to the American Pet Products Manufacturer Association (, exotic pets, such as snakes, lizards, spiders, and even hedgehogs are growing in popularity.   Comprising more than 15% of American households, about 11 million reptiles, 17 million birds, and more than 18 million small mammals have joined the ranks of dogs and cats in sharing our homes.  Strange new mammals, such as sugar gliders and prairie dogs are now sold along side the more common hamsters and gerbils.   Tarantulas, scorpions, and even bearded dragons are routinely seen in pet stores and at local reptile swap meets.  What possibly would make a sane person want to keep something that slithers as a pet?

baby-adder-snakeFor many people, the mere thought of being in the same room as a snake brings chills to their spine.   But for people who own reptiles, or “herps”, the thrill is in having something so unique, a literal living conversation piece.   Some owners choose the large constrictor type of snakes, such as Burmese Pythons or Red Tailed Boa Constrictors; others might choose a pair of leopard tortoises, or maybe a colony of tree frogs.   With “herps”, the list seems as endless as the imagination.   Other reasons that reptile owners prefer their pets to the more common kind include the fact that reptiles tend to be quiet, don’t shed, require much less maintenance and space and often can go several days or weeks without eating.  For apartment dwellers and busy travelers, these pets may seem ideal.

It’s still hard for many people to get over their fear of snakes or spiders, yet they also would like to have a pet that is unique.   African Pygmy Hedgehogs, Sugar Gliders, and Prairie Dogs have helped to meet the needs of those folks.  As their name suggests, the pygmy hedgehogs are insectivores from the savannahs of Africa.   Nocturnal in nature, the hedgehog can be a lively, inquisitive pet when properly socialized.   Sugar Gliders are Australian marsupials (pouched mammals) that resemble flying squirrels.  Like the hedgehogs, gliders are mainly nocturnal animals and eat insects as their main food source.  Finally, despite being implicated with viral outbreaks, the Prairie dog has also found its way into many homes.   A very social animal, the Prairie Dog can become a friendly, although somewhat demanding pet.

The distinctiveness and individuality of these pets are easily seen, but are there drawbacks to having an exotic pet?   For snake owners, the obvious drawback might be finding suitable housing.   Some of the large pythons can grow to exceed 15 feet in length.   Even smaller snakes have an uncanny ability to find ways out of enclosures and into heating ducts and other inappropriate places in the home.   While it might seem easy to go outside and find bugs, such as crickets, for your lizard or hedgehog friend, the nutritional needs of these pets can be very demanding.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of reptiles die due to lack of adequate nutrition in captivity.   There are also major concerns about transmission of disease to others in the household.  Reptiles are commonly associated with Salmonella bacteria.  These bacteria can cause severe vomiting and diarrhea in humans.  As mentioned above, Prairie Dogs were implicated in an outbreak of monkey pox in the Midwest.   All members of the household should learn to wash well after handling these pets and also learn to identify when the animal might be sick.

lizardBut knowing when a reptile or exotic mammal is sick is very challenging.   Owners of these atypical pets may find that obtaining veterinary care will be a challenge as well.  For most veterinarians, reptile and small mammal care is a very limited course in a four year curriculum packed with important, vital information.   Although some veterinarians specialize in the treatment and care of exotic pets, a search on www.herpvetconnection.comshows generally less than a dozen such veterinarians in each state.

While some exotic pets may require less maintenance, they all have very special needs.  Educate yourself well before purchasing such a pet.  A call to the family veterinarian should definitely be on your list.

To learn more about the pros and cons of exotic pet ownership, visit to see a video.