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Getting an exotic pet? Here's what to keep in mind

It is advisable to look up a range of topics, from their life span to any special needs, before getting a new species home

Turtles and tortoises may be tiny when you buy but they grow quite large as the years progress. 
Turtles and tortoises may be tiny when you buy but they grow quite large as the years progress.  (Unsplash/ Robin Jonathan Deutsch)

The number of people who choose to keep exotic animals as pets is steadily increasing. With it comes an increase in the need for awareness about these animals needing specialized care, and visiting veterinarians that specialize in exotic pets. 

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As this trend continues to grow, vets face numerous obstacles due to lack of adequate information on how to manage these animals. Dr Shiwani Tandel, one of India's few exotic pet specialists, who has been practicing for the last 16 years, has witnessed a wide range of patients in the last few years. 

The exotic pets range from turtles, terrapins, tortoises, hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits, to birds like African grey parrots, cockatiels, budgerigar, and snakes, iguana, marmoset, etc. The most common pets in the exotic species are African Grey parrots, Red-eared Slider turtles and rabbits, which comes with problems like stomach and dental issues, breathing problems, feather plucking, liver disease and calcium deficiency. 

In her experience, over 40 per cent clients have little to no knowledge of how to take care of these pets and their needs. There are pet parents as young as six and as old as 60 who've grown old with their birds. 

Lifelong companion?

Certain exotic pets have a long life span. So, longevity is an important parameter to consider when getting a bird or a reptile, Dr Tandel advises. For instance, the rose-ringed parakeet has a 30 year lifespan, significantly longer than a dog or cat's lifespan. Reptiles such as turtles and tortoises, on the other hand, have a lifespan of roughly 80 years. In fact, some of these pets may outlive their owners. Buying or adopting an exotic pet should, therefore, be a carefully considered decision.

Most people who seek out exotic pets are unaware of cost to acquire one, and how to maintain them. A lot of people buy the rose-ringed parakeet or what we call a parrot, just because it is a bird that can ‘talk’. This appears to be the reason for the increased demand for this bird. However, when it comes to seeking medical advice, the bird owners tend to go to the breeder from whom they bought the bird. "Many exotic pet owners prefer to seek advice from a merchant or breeder, and the medical advice supplied is not necessarily reliable," she says. In other words, if your bird is sick, you should get medical advice from a licensed veterinarian only.

Like dogs and cats, birds also need vaccines and nutritional supplements. They require playtime, something to engage themselves with. But many birds that Dr Tandel treats are stressed out due to a lack of mental stimulation, and as a result, start to pick at their feathers.

Turtles and tortoises are two pets that reptile enthusiasts usually go for. However, keep in mind although turtles are about the size of a dime when purchased, they can grow to be enormous size (as big as a dinner plate) as they grow. So, you should take this into account and plan accordingly.

For successful turtle rearing, pet parents must offer a balanced diet. Turtles are not vegetarians; young turtles need more meat in their diet like chicken and fresh water fish. As they grow older, the meat requirement reduces and green leafy vegetables serve as a source of fibre. To thrive, they also require the right water, access to water, and adequate sunlight. 

Here’s a quick trivia. Tortoises hibernate. I didn't know this when I was a young veterinarian with limited experience with exotic animals. Once, I almost declared a tortoise dead when it was, in fact, hibernating. Tortoises can hibernate for up to sixteen weeks in the winter, depending on the ambient temperature. In India, in places where extremes of temperature are not experienced, they will not hibernate. 

Another thing to keep in mind is if your female tortoises and turtles are ready to lay eggs, it’s better to keep a close eye on them. Obesity and calcium deficiency prevents the eggs from being laid properly. Hence attention has to be paid to the diet. They also need dirt to dig a small nest to lay their eggs. Since most owners keep their turtles in a tub or tank, there is no access to dirt, causing complications. 

Small mammal need adult care too

If you are considering keeping a small mammal, you must know that hamsters, guinea pigs and rabbits all require special bedding, food and habitat that allow them to follow their natural tendencies. They require exercise and need variety of toys to play with. Teeth in rabbits, hamsters, and guinea pigs grow throughout their lives, and special care must be paid to them. Negligence might result in injuries and a loss of appetite. Routine vet appointments are required, as well as getting toys that they can munch on to keep their teeth trimmed.

In so many years of her practice, Dr Tandel has noticed people replacing an exotic pet in the same cage or tank after they have lost one. Pet owners should never do this. Most deaths among exotic pets occur due to an infection or mismanagement. By putting a new animal in the same environment without knowing the cause of death of their earlier pet can be a health risk for the new one.

Another important thing that you must check is whether the exotic pet you want can be legally kept. Many exotic animals are illegal brought to the country or should not be kept as pets under Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. 

Exotic pets may appear to be fun to domesticate, but they require a lot of research before you can bring one home. The level of care necessary is significantly more than that required for dogs and cats. In addition, medical assistance is not as readily available. Exotic animals are also difficult to cure and medicate. You should only adopt them as a member of your family when you have educated yourself adequately and are certain.

Dr Nameeta Nadkarni is a practising veterinary soft tissue surgeon and pet blogger from Mumbai, who loves to play the piano in her free time and is ruled by her whimsical cat, Catbury, at home.

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