test A quest for the exotic seems to motivate some people to pass up dogs and cats for the unknowns associated with nontraditional pets. When Junior asks for a sugar glider (small rodents imported from Indonesia), pot-bellied pig, Gambian pouched rat, or flying squirrel, consider how it will affect the household.

“Exotic wildlife doesn’t make good pets,” says Jeff B. Bender, DVM, MS, assistant professor veterinary public health at the University of Minnesota. “We don’t want to encourage folks to want to buy exotic animals, especially those that come from outside the country, or dangerous animals—venomous snakes, the big cats, or primates. Those are inherently dangerous.”

Health Dangers

Anticipate the unexpected when it comes to exotic pets. Spring 2003 brought the country’s first report of monkeypox when people became sick from infected pet prairie dogs. Monkeypox is similar to smallpox , only milder. Symptoms include fever, headache, muscle aches, general discomfort, and exhaustion. This is followed by a rash with raised bumps. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suspect prairie dogs caught the virus while housed with rodents imported from Africa. The federal government now prohibits the importation, sale, and release of prairie dogs and certain rodents.

A year before the prairie dog-monkeypox cases, the CDC investigated an outbreak of tularemia that killed a number of prairie dogs at a Texas animal distributor. The facility had shipped hundreds of the animals to outlets in the United States and abroad. Tularemia causes fever, chills, cough, head and muscle aches, and weakness. Prairie dogs and rodents also may carry plague.

But prairie dogs are not the only exotic animals that pose a personal and public health risk. Monkeys may carry diseases and show no signs of illness. But if they bite, as they often do, they may transmit potentially fatal herpes B. Monkeys also may carry hepatitis A and bacteria that cause intestinal diseases in humans. The United States government does not allow people to import or keep monkeys. Yet folks continue finding ways to buy primates as pets.

Salmonellosis , an intestinal infection, is associated with iguanas, pet turtles, sugar gliders, hedgehogs, and birds. Salmonella bacteria cause diarrhea, fever, and stomach pain. Symptoms can last a week and may require hospital care. From reptiles alone, about 70,000 people acquire the disease each year. The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that 3% of US households contain a pet reptile.

Wild Vs. Domestic Animals

Many exotic pets are wild animals and as such are unpredictable. They are not suited for captivity. Do not plan on taming one. Although cute and cuddly as babies, once grown up, they may become aggressive or bite.

The American Animal Hospital Association, the Animal Protection Institute, and the Humane Society of the United States discourage people from keeping wild animals as pets. Confining wild critters increases their stress levels. Many destined for the pet market die in transit.

Bender warns people not to touch or try to help an orphaned raccoon or other wild animal. Call the authorities, who can take the animal to a wildlife sanctuary.

Animals sold in pet stores may not be tame. Ask where the animal came from. Was it imported from the wild or bred in captivity?

Marc Morrone, owner of Parrots of the World Ltd., a pet store in Rockville Centre, NY, sells chinchillas, ferrets, and hedgehogs. He considers them domesticated animals, because humans, through selected breeding, control the genes.

Selecting and Housing a Pet

Morrone believes “children should be encouraged to explore any interest in the natural world.” He pointed out that many people do not have time for dogs. But other animals can be responsive and, because caged, will not interfere with a busy lifestyle. “A child who grows up taking care of and being humane to another organism is going to be a more humane person.”

Bender cautions potential pet owners to opt for an animal that provides companionship, is great to interact with, and that you are not going to discard in a year or so because you become bored with it. He recommends US-bred hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs,or rats if you want a small “pocket pet”, or fish if you want a low-maintenance animal. Consult your local veterinarian about an appropriate pet for your needs.

If you decide to move forward with an exotic pet:

  • Avoid monkeys, tigers, venomous snakes, skunks, and other wild animals.
  • Learn all you can about the animal before buying.
  • Check local and state laws regarding harboring the type of pet you want.
  • Talk to someone who already owns that type of animal.
  • Purchase animals born in captivity in the United States—not exotic wildlife.
  • Find a veterinarian familiar with the type of animal you are considering.
  • Take the animal for regular medical care if it becomes sick.
  • Buy an appropriate cage, supplies, and food.
  • Avoid reptiles if you have small children or if someone in the home has a compromised immune system.
  • Never release an animal you are tired of caring for into the wild. It can expose native animals to disease.
  • Wash your hands after handling the pet or anything it has touched.
  • Do not let reptiles wander around the house.
  • Keep the animal out of the kitchen.
  • Do not kiss or nuzzle reptiles.

“We need to curb our thirst for exotic animals,” Bender says. “We don’t know what we are bringing into the country, how to appropriately care for the animals, or the impact it will have on our wildlife, pets, and people.”

Meanwhile, animal shelters are full of adoptable cats and dogs that would make wonderful, loving pets. Remember bringing any animal into your home requires a commitment of caring and the provision of food and medical care.

* This is the fifth in a series of five articles on animals and your health.

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