Common Mistakes People Make When Choosing an Exotic Pet

If we’re brutally honest about it, exotic pet keepers have developed something of a poor reputation over the years.

Not only are many people scared of the animals that we keep (especially snakes and tarantulas) but animal rights campaigners point to poor captive husbandry standards.

This is hardly helped by all the many different exotic pets that are put up for adoption each year, or simply deserted without a thought as to their welfare. For example, just last year I found a corn snake that had been placed into a plastic water drum and then thrown into a hedge. Bearing in mind I live in the UK, this is not a native species, and it was found in near-freezing temperatures.

Many of these cases of “unwanted” exotic pets are down to the same old mistakes being made time and again. While I doubt this article will have much of an impact on exotic pet husbandry, even if it prevents just one unnecessary rehoming then I feel I will have done some good.

Please feel free to share it with others if you find the article useful, and leave me your own thoughts and opinions on the topic in the comments section below…

Impulse Buys

corn snake photo

Possibly the biggest mistake people make when choosing an exotic pet is to make an impulse buy. I am forever seeing corn snakes and bearded dragons that nobody wants anymore, often because someone bought it without enough thought, and soon got bored of the novelty.

This seems particularly prevalent among people who buy exotic pets for their children, many of whom promptly lose interest and move on to the next fad. Mum and Dad don’t want to do all the work themselves so instead they try to convince someone else to take it off their hands.

Firstly, therefore, don’t buy any pet on impulse and certainly not an exotic. Take the time to do your research, set up the cage properly and to be sure that this is a commitment you’re willing to see through for the long term.

Additionally, if you’re buying an exotic pet for your children then only do so if you’re confident that even if/when your child gets bored you’ll be more than happy to look after it for the long term.  

A Lack of Knowledge About Lifespans

Many exotic pets live a surprisingly long time. While a stick insect or praying mantis may be lucky to reach their first birthday many reptiles and amphibians live much longer. For example, I have a ball python that is now 13 years old and that I expect to have for several more decades to come. Tortoises, of course, can live even longer.

Therefore before you invest in a corn snake or a bearded dragon be certain you understand just how long they’ll live for. Furthermore, only make that buying decision once you can honestly say that you’re willing to look after them all that time. If you’re not, then perhaps you should start off with some stick insects instead and see where things go from there.

A Lack of Research About Maximum Sizes

When viewed in a pet store there is very little difference between a ball python and a Burmese python. Surely the only difference is which color you prefer? Of course, knowledgeable readers will be aware that within a few short years the Burmese python will be several times the length of the ball python.

These days my heart sinks when I find a reptile store selling larger pythons, green iguanas and the likes. While a tiny fraction of owners may genuinely have the space and time for such a pet these individuals are likely to be few and far between. Indeed, it’s much more likely that within a few years that giant reticulated python will be yet another rehoming statistic.

Before you purchase any exotic pet, therefore, take the time to understand just how big it can get. Don’t let “I no longer have the space for him” be an excuse. Oddly, there are a host of reptiles, amphibians and exotic pets that reach only modest sizes even as adults, so why not start with one of those instead?

If you need somewhere to start then here’s my list of small pet snakes ideal for beginners.

Ignorance About Future Caging Requirements

With their specialist requirements for heating, humidity and (often) ultraviolet light your pets cage is crucial to a long and healthy life. Get the caging right and you’ll be 90% of the way to success.

All too often, however, people fall in love with a certain species without considering what sort of caging they’ll need in the future. That baby ball python might look cute in their tiny plastic box, but even he will need a decent-sized new cage within a matter of months.

Before buying any exotic pet therefore be sure to do your research so you understand what sort of caging you’re going to need. This relates not just to the eventual size of the cage but also the features required.

Lastly, don’t forget to work out how much all this will cost you. If you can’t afford the best caging possible for the pet you’re considering then it may be best to choose something less demanding.

Not Considering How an Exotic Pet Will Be Fed

Many exotic pets have feeding habits that could be considered “distasteful” by many. Snakes eat dead mice and rats. Tarantulas, lizards and praying mantis will catch live insects – often nibbling away at them while they’re still wriggling. It might not be pleasant but it is a crucial part of owning an exotic pet.

Some years I sold a praying mantis to someone, and provided them with a full care sheet. I also provided my details so they could ask me any questions they might have in the future.

After that I heard nothing at all, till I bumped into them out of the blue some months later. It turns out that their mantis had died. The reason? They decided they didn’t like feeding it on insects, so had instead given it nothing but banana to eat. Stupid, no?

In other words, don’t buy a snake if you’re unhappy about handling dead rodents or watching it eat one. Don’t buy a tarantula if you’re unhappy about handling live crickets or locusts, or feel bad about seeing them getting eaten. Things won’t change.

While there are a few vegetarian reptiles, generally speaking you’re going to have to feed most exotic pets on foods that make many people squirm. If you can’t handle that then perhaps look for another type of pet.  

Not Appreciating the Costs of Properly Caring for an Exotic Pet

Buying an exotic pet is a “front loaded” investment. The vast majority of the cost involved with buying an exotic pet is getting their cage all set up properly to begin with. But don’t think that once you’ve bought your ball python cage with all the trimmings that you’re done.

Buying exotic pet food isn’t cheap. Vets bills can be high. Many exotics also grow rapidly and so may need to be rehoused several times in the coming years. It is therefore a mistake to assume that exotic pets are “cheap”. Oh sure, a little tub of stick insects is unlikely to break the bank, but reptiles and amphibians require funds to care for properly.

As a result it makes sense to consider your financial situation. Only invest in an exotic pet if you’re confident that you’ve got the disposable income necessary to look after them for the long term, no matter what their requirements may be.

Not Understanding the Time Commitment of Exotic Pets

In comparison to more traditional pets like dogs, horses or tropical fish one benefit of exotic pets is the minimum time commitment they require. They don’t need to be walked daily and many can be cleaned far less regularly than your rabbit in its hutch. That said, there are still some commitments.

For example you’ll need to find the time to buy food for your pet. If that involves an hours round trip to the exotic pet store then so be it. Larger reptiles will also need to be handled regularly to keep them docile. Cleaning and feeding obviously takes time.

Just as importantly, however, you’re going to want the time just to enjoy them at your leisure. Peering into a vivarium and watching your crested gecko or bearded dragon going about their day is one of the true pleasures of exotic pet keeping.

Possibly one of the most common reasons of all that I see given for rehomings is that “I simply don’t have the time anymore”. Now, whether this is genuine or just the excuse of someone who got bored but won’t face the truth is another matter. But think about the future and be honest with yourself.

Are you planning to have children in the near future? Is your career likely to involve crazy long hours from time to time (such as those working in accounting near tax return time)? If so, an exotic pet may not be for you. Their needs may be quite modest but if you’re going to buy an exotic then you must be committed to giving them exactly what they need – no matter what.

Conclusion

This is a call to action. There are too many exotic pets being put up for adoption, and at least here in the UK animal shelters are being overrun with corn snakes and bearded dragons.

So as passionate exotic pet owners lets really put some effort into helping new keepers understand the realities of the hobby.

Hopefully, if we work together, we can help to ward off people who don’t have the time, money, space or commitment to look after their pets for the long term.

In doing so, we’ll improve the situation for many reptiles and amphibians, as well as helping the public perception of exotic pet keepers in general. And let’s be honest; we can do with all the help we can get.

Richard Adams

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