Odd Pets

Pete Wedderburn
11th June 2020 - 3 min read

I was reminded of one of the interesting new trends in pet-keeping today. I received a phone call from a man who wanted to know how to feed his sugar glider.

Sugar gliders are an example of the new fad for keeping bizarre pets. In the past, dogs and cats were good enough for most people, with rabbits, rats and guinea pigs creeping in as popular pets for children. Fish and reptile keeping has been a hobby for the dedicated few, and occasional exotic creatures like ferrets, chinchillas and others have always been kept by a small proportion of the population.

It now seems that the formerly exotic is becoming common-place. A recent study in the United Kingdom concluded that reptiles are now more common than dogs as pets. The choice of exotic pets is not confined to reptiles. I am sure that Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches are stamped on or swatted in Madagascar, but in Europe, they are feted as eye-catching pets. And so-called Pacman frogs (correctly called “Argentinian Horned Frogs”) are meant to live in tropical rain forest, but they can now be found in aquaria in Irish living rooms.

I’ve no doubt that these peculiar creatures are often bought initially to impress, yet I also know that their owners become very fond of them, and are usually in complete denial about any other pet-keeping motive than affection.

All vets are trained in the general care of all animals, so that in theory we are competent to treat any non-human creature that comes our way. In practice, it can be tricky dealing with life forms that we’ve never encountered before. Most general vets are happier to refer the more unusual pets to other vets who have chosen to specialise in their care.

At the same time, such specialists are not always readily available, and there are occasions when a sick animal needs whatever help is available. The basic biology of most animals is broadly similar, and reference books and internet resources mean that most vets are able to organise some type of effective treatment if no other help is available.

I’ve done my fair share of “exotic” work during my veterinary career. I spent some time working as a vet in the tropical heat of Queensland in Australia, where the local wildlife also featured. People used to bring injured birds to see me, and I became used to exotic feathered creatures like Frogmouths, Kookaburras and Bee-eaters. Kangaroos and wallabies were commonly kept as pets. When a female kangaroo is hit by a car (a frequent occurrence), the joey in her pouch often survives the collision. Caring passers-by know that when a kangaroo casualty is found, it’s important to check the pouch for a live survivor.

I saw many joeys that were being bottle fed after being rescued in this way. They very quickly adapted to life in human homes. A cloth shopping bag, hung on the back of a chair, was generally used as a surrogate pouch, and this became their nighttime sleeping quarters. Joeys used to hop in and out of the shopping bag, just as they would do from their mother’s pouch.

I have heard that wallabies – small kangaroos – are now being kept as pets in Europe. There will be some strange households in the future – with all sorts of strange creatures living cheek by jowl.

My own view is that the best pets are those that have been domesticated for many generations: dogs and cats have evolved to fit in well as our close companions. As for the rest? I am happy to help to care for them, but they’re not for me.

Tips

  • Exotic pets are increasingly being kept as pets
  • These creatures often have special needs that can be challenging to fulfil
  • Traditional pets like dogs and cats are still the best choice for most people