December 25, 2017

Exotic & Pocket Pets

Exotic pets need love, too! Don’t ignore important veterinary services.

by Aili V. Heintz, DVM

The term “exotic pets” can be confusing to people. You might envision wild animals from deep in the jungle that were smuggled out of a country far away. However, exotic pets are any an animals, other than dogs or cats, than are kept for companionship.

Exotic pets can be snakes or rats. But, they can also be birds, rabbits, and hamsters. You might also hear the term “pocket pets” in reference to guinea pigs, gerbils, and the like.

Most exotic animals do not display signs of illness until a disease is significant, and at that time it is often difficult to treat or cure them. Exotic pets also require certain care to ensure they live full and healthy lives.


bird on perchSome birds can live 60-80 years! Birds that get bored can develop behavioral problems, so look for ways to keep your bird stimulated. Talk to your bird often. Leave the radio on for your bird when you are not at home.

Provide a climbing structure in your bird’s cage to allow your bird to move around on different levels within the cage. Larger birds, like parrots, need time outside of their cages. Carry your bird around to different parts of the house to give him a change of scenery. Birds like to chew on things. Dyes and treated wood can be toxic to birds, so make sure your bird’s toys are labeled “safe for birds”.

Check with your veterinarian to make sure you are feeding your bird properly. Often times, people feed their birds seeds only. An all-seed diet can be very high in fat. Larger birds also need pellets, fresh vegetables, and fresh fruit in their diets. However, do not feed your bird avocados or tomatoes, as those can be harmful to birds.

Birds need yearly physical exams, blood work, and fecal exams. The yearly physical should be at a separate visit from beak, nail, or wing trimming to help minimize the overall stress for the birds.


Dr. Heintz holding tortoise Reptiles include lizards, turtles and snakes. Create an environment that mimics your reptile’s natural habitat, with proper heat, humidity and terrain. A red-eared slider has different temperature and humidity requirements from a box turtle, even though they are both turtles. Ask your veterinarian for help in determining your reptile’s specific habitat requirements.

Reptiles need vitamin D from natural light. Use a leash and properly-fitting harness to take your reptile on supervised outings. Make sure your pet will be safe from predators while outside. Also, make sure the area is free of toxic chemicals such as fertilizers.

Reptiles need yearly physical exams and fecal exams.

Rodents (mice, rats, hamsters, gerbils)

Rodents like, and need, to chew on things. They have constantly growing incisors, and if their teeth get overgrown they become very painful for the animals. Provide safe toys for chewing and stimulation.

People often feel that rodents are “disposable” pets – meaning that if the pet dies, they will just get another one. These pets are not disposable, and they do require health care. Because rodents have a short life expectancy (often 2-3 years), they age very quickly. Disease may occur suddenly, and rodents may look healthy even when they are not. For that reason, they need physical exams every 4-6 months.

Small Mammals (Rabbits, Guinea Pigs, and Chinchillas)

Rabbits, in particular, have very sensitive backs. If they are held improperly, rabbits can kick out and break their backs. Be sure to teach young children the proper way to hold a rabbit.

Small mammals need exercise. Allow your pet to roam, either outside or around the house, with your supervision. Use baby gates to keep your pet confined to safe areas, like the kitchen, and away from hazardous electrical cords. If your take your pet outside, protect him from predatory animals.

Small mammals need physical exams and dental evaluations every 6 months. Because their teeth grow continuously, rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas may need their teeth trimmed to allow them to eat well and to be comfortable.


ferretFerrets are the clowns of the animal world. They love to goof around and play. Provide your ferret with a multi-level house so he can climb and hide.

Ferrets need yearly physical exams. They may also need distemper and rabies vaccines depending on their exposure to certain risk factors. If an unvaccinated ferret bites a human, it will need to be quarantined for 10 days to determine whether or not is has rabies.

Think Outside the Crate

Dogs and cats are not the only options when it comes to companion animals. Perhaps an exotic pet is right for your family. Consider your lifestyle and the needs of the animal, and contact your veterinarian with any questions you may have.

Dr. Heintz is a small and exotic animal veterinarian at Countrycare Animal Complex in Green Bay, WI. She earned her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from University of Illinois – Urbana/Champaign. Her passion is helping all animals, whether furry, scaly, or feathered, lead long and healthy lives.