Risks When Handling Exotic Pets

While many exotic pets can be handled safely both from your point of view and that of the animal itself I thought that it might be beneficial to provide you with a list of “warnings” or things to be aware of while handling exotic pets.

None of these risks are really too serious when you know about them, understand them and plan for them. Indeed potential problems really only occur with inexperienced exotic pet keepers who aren’t aware of some of the potential pitfalls when holding exotic pets and how to avoid them with minimal effort.

Read the following if you’re new to exotic pets, remember the tips and you’ll have a lot more success when it comes to handling your new pet.

Falling From A Height

If I pushed you off the top of a building I think it’s fair to say that it would hurt and the same goes for your exotic pets. If they’re dropped from a reasonable height (such as an adult standing up straight holding a lizard infront of them) then there is a serious risk of damage to your pet.

Risks may include broken bones, sprains or even death for something like a tarantula where the abdomen has been known to split. Even a broken bone can be a serious problem – especially with smaller herptiles – as it can be very difficult to repair such damage successfully.

In other words when you’re handling your exotic pets try to do so close to the ground so if you do slip (or they make a dash for freedom) they only have a small, safe distance to drop. Holding your herptile over a bed or couch is a great idea because as well as the reduced potential dropping distance if the worst happens they will land on a soft surface which will minimize the chances of any damage occurring.

Chemicals On Your Hands

Many of the everyday chemicals we use – from household cleaning chemicals to standard toiletries – can cause problems for some exotic pets. This is mostly a problem with amphibians who have a very sensitive, permeable skin where even small amounts of chemicals can cause significant health problems.

There are a number of potential ways to avoid these risks. Firstly it goes without saying that you should wash your hands thoroughly before touching your pet and ideally apply one of the reptile safe hand cleaners too which will ensure any pathogens have been killed off. Some keepers opt to wear latex gloves though generally I have never had any problems when just using the “wash and sanitize” technique.

Overly Dry Hands

Amphibian skin needs to stay moist at all times so before handling any amphibian you should ensure your hands are damp. Doing so will make handling your pet a little more difficult because the whole experience will be far more “slippery” but this prevents damage occurring to the amphibians skin.

Also, when it comes to moistening your hands, try not to use water directly from the tap but instead use distilled water or dechlorinated tap water so there are no unpleasant chemicals in the water you just lovingly applied to your hands.

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Amphibian Toxins

Some amphibians like poison dart frogs and marine toads can give off defensive toxins designed to stop predators from eating them and if you manage to ingest these or get them in your eye the experience can quickly become quite an unpleasant one.

Once again consider using latex gloves when handling amphibians or thoroughly wash your hands after handling your pet and use a reptile-safe sanitizer.

Insect Defences

Just because you’re so big and insects are so small don’t necessarily think that they’re harmless. Some stick insects have sharp spines on their legs which they can close around a finger if they feel threatened and may cause discomfort or even draw blood. Assassin bugs can squirt toxins at you from some distance as can some stick insects. Larger praying mantis are capable of drawing blood if they “catch” you with their front legs.

In other words don’t assume that all insects are perfectly safe to handle and that you can do anything you like to them. Treat them with as much respect as any other exotic pet by moving slowly and calmly when handling them so as to not scare them and keep them away from your face to avoid any risks from toxins.

Urticating Hairs

Some tarantulas from the Americas have what are known as “urticating hairs” on their abdomen. These spiders can kick the hairs off with their back legs and these hairs can then cause considerable discomfort if they come into contact with you. Itchy skin is the most common problem though this will quickly subside. However if you inhale these hairs they can make your nose feel sore and “prickly” for a good day or two afterwards while getting these hairs into your eyes can require medical attention as quickly as possible.

Now I’ve been keeping and breeding tarantulas for over a decade and I’ve had dozens of spiders kick off urticating hairs at me. I’ve never got them in my eyes, got them up my nose a couple of times and on my hands far more often. But generally the feeling of these hairs is more a minor irritation than anything else.

If you keep tarantulas then treat them gently and calmly to minimize the risks of them trying to defend themselves by flicking hairs at you, wash your hands thoroughly after handling any spider and keep them well away from your face at all times to avoid the risk of urticating hairs getting into your nose, mouth or eyes.


The snakes commonly kept in the exotic pet hobby are almost all constrictors – that is they capture a prey item and then squeeze it until it dies through lack of air. They then eat the prey item.

In smaller snakes this ability to constrict is rarely a problem. Even a full-grown corn snake is hardly able to do you any damage if it decides it wants to constrict your arm or such.

But larger snakes such as many pythons or boas do pose a potential risk if they decide to try and constrict you – especially if they round your neck at the time.

To minimize this risk take great care if you decide to buy a snake that is going to reach a large size as an adult, take the time while it is young to get it used to being handled, avoiding placing large snakes around your nexk and only handle them when you have another person with you to offer help should the worst case scenario happen.

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Allergic Reactions

Some exotic pets that we keep such as tarantulas and the popular species of scorpion are venomous but the venom is typically too weak to do any real damage to a human. I’ve been bitten by a Chilean rose tarantula and stung by an imperial scorpion and both felt at worst like a bee sting. I felt a burning sensation in my skin which subsided after a few hours and was none the worse for wear.

But there is always a minor risk of anaphalactic shock where your body can overreact to the toxins causing you to swell up and have difficulties breathing.

Venomous bites and stings are few and far between – and the chances of you being allergic are even slimmer – so this is probably not a situation you’re going to get yourself into but to be safe should you ever get bitten by any venomous creature – no matter how low the levels – seek medical attention just incase.

Microbial Pathogens

Some herptiles do potentially have microbial pathogens like salmonella that can be passed on from one specimen to another or even onto you. So after handling any of your exotic pets carefully wash and sanitize your hands to remove any risk and remember this should be done not just when you’ve finished your handling routine but also between handling each individual specimen to reduce the risks of cross-contamination.

Bites, Scratches And Swipes

Larger herps in particular can case bites, scratches or swipe you with their tail. Learn how to handle your pet properly, don’t take risks and consider using equipment like leather gauntlets and snake hooks for larger or more aggressive specimens to help keep you safe.

Almost every potential risk of handling exotic pets here can be avoided with a little common sense. Very few people experience any negative consequences from handling their pets and I’m a perfect example of this. After over a decade of dealing with all sorts of animals I have never had any significant damage done to either myself or an animal as a result of handling them.

The intention of this article is not to scare you off from handling your pet – or to prove to the “anti exotic pets brigade” that these animals are dangerous killers. But they are¬†wild animals and a degree of thought, preparation and knowledge is recommended if you are going to keep both you and your pets safe from harm.

Wash and sanitize your hands before and after handling each of your exotic pets. Keep them away from your face at all times. Use specialist equipment when necessary. Learn how to handle your pets properly. Seek professional medical assistance should anything occur to you or your pet. But above all be smart, be safe and enjoy the thrill of getting in direct contact with your exotics.


  1. Large snakes will 'constrict' the human because they are scared. Basically, in addition to a large strange animal, they see us as really weird trees as well. In the wild, if tree-dwelling snakes feel any shaky movements on a branch, they will hold on very tight to that branch so as not to fall off. Here, the 'shaky movements' can be from a human being nervous, which will cause the snake to be nervous and grip, only escalating the fear of the unwitting human and thus causing a negative loop.

    • Jonathan thanks for your comment. So in your experience would you say that saying motionless in this case will often encourage the snake to loosen it's grip naturally?

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