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What You Really Need to Know Before Getting an Exotic Pet

Green iguana

Podcast Version

Welcome to the pets section of Home Stratosphere! If you’re familiar with my other work here, you’re probably aware by now that I tend to cover the topics going beyond the norm. Pets are no exception, as I’ve been a toad mommy for over 25 years and people often tell me I’m the first person they’ve met who’s kept toads as pets.

I’ve had parents contact me on Twitter and my website to ask me whether a toad would be a good fit for their child, or a good alternative to a dog or cat as a family pet if one or more household members is allergic. Some people also end up with accidental pet frogs because 52% of the incidents of live animals being found in packaged produce turn out to be frogs or toads, and start frantically looking up how to build an amphibian habitat.

Raising a frog or toad can be a wonderful and life-changing experience for a child, it certainly was with me! But since this post expands beyond just frogs and toads, there’s some caveats you need to be aware of if you’re thinking about getting an exotic pet of any kind: reptile, amphibian, avian, arachnid, lagomorph, you name it. Toads are MY LIFE, but I’ve seen as both a child and adult that they’re not as universal as dogs and cats. 

This means having to make extra considerations before deciding to adopt an exotic pet. You may have been told to just do your research, but here’s your guide on WHAT to research from a long-time toad mom.

Related: Soundproof Pet Crates | Home Décor and Design Consideration for Exotic Pets | How Does Pet Insurance Work | Pet Friendly Flooring Options 

Learn the Difference Between “Tamed” and “Domesticated” Animals

Domestic pet cat looking in mirror showing ferocious tiger

Before I hung around professional herpetologists (scientists and in some cases, veterinarians, who specialize in reptiles and amphibians), I used to get the two terms mixed up. But while they’re seemingly similar words, they’re actually two different things.

A “tame” animal means that they’re wild animals that have taken to you. Even if you got your pet from a specialized breeder, dealer, or pet store and not straight from the wild, chances are the animal was wild-caught and not raised around humans. (Please don’t catch wild animals unless it’s a rescue or invasive species you are competent at handling!) This is a tame animal once it’s become used to humans.

Domesticated, on the other hand, means that this species was specifically bred for some time to be part of human households, like dogs and cats. While exotic pets aren’t as rare of an occurrence as they used to be, there aren’t snakes, lizards, toads, and so on being expressly brought up for symbiotic reasons, such as the way dogs have helped with sheepherding for millennia.

The closest you’ll come to a domesticated exotic pet is captive-bred (c.b.) reptiles, amphibians, and other exotics that were raised by a professional breeder from eggs. Captive-bred animals are used to being around humans since birth and will be more likely to bond with you right away. However, they can be harder to find and more expensive than the wild-caught pets you typically see. Still, they are your most ethical option and if you adopt while they’re still young, you can be in for a really rewarding experience raising your new scaly, warty, or feathery friend!

Check Your Local Laws and Relevant Housing Rules (Lease, HOA, Homeowners’ Insurance)

Frog in a book

In most places, it’s illegal to keep an obviously wild animal like a tiger or dolphin as a pet. But sometimes state and local laws sneak in less obvious exceptions, such as ferrets and iguanas being outlawed in New York City. There’s the law, it says NOTHING about amphibians so there is nothing stopping me from adopting a puppy-sized cane toad and pushing it in a stroller down the Grand Concourse.

Still, you have to check your local statutes to make sure your pet doesn’t get you fined or sent to jail! Then once you’re sure your pet is fine on the books, you have to clear it with where you live. 

Landlords often frown upon pets, but if your rental was billed as pet-friendly, make sure your specific type of exotic pet is permitted in your lease if you don’t want to risk eviction. When it comes to small animals contained in their own biosphere like fish, hermit crabs, hamsters, and small frogs and toads, landlords will be pretty laissez-faire unless they’re hard-up for an excuse to evict you. But you’re not always in the clear even if you own your place.

If you’re in one of those miserable co-ops, SOME killjoy is probably to complain if your turtle is making too much noise skittering across the hardwood floors. Even if it’s a condo, they may have pet rules in the by-laws or house rules, and forbid pets altogether or just certain types of exotic pets. Like they won’t care about a bird or a quiet, well-behaved toad in a tank but don’t like the prospect of a six-foot Burmese python. In some cases, pets could be disallowed but it’s not really enforced. Every association is different, so read the documents and tread carefully.

The same is true if you own a single-family home. If you belong to an HOA, they might not permit certain exotics or only extend this to outdoor pets. Moreover, whether you have to be part of an HOA or not, your homeowners’ insurance could drop you if you have a pet that violates any law and/or their own rules. So if you go to Westchester County to flee those oppressive iguana laws in the city, some insurers might not be pleased that Iggy has run of the house if an adjuster discovers him when you make a claim.

Every insurer handles this differently so check the fine print if you have any doubts! Some will just rubber-stamp this section of your policy from the state and local health codes where provided that you don’t have a pet cheetah roaming your vast manse, they won’t care. Other carriers might want to raise your premium or drop you if a large pet the adjusters deem dangerous lives with you, even if they’re as sweet as Big Boy.

Research Care and Suitable Habitats For Your Exotic Pet

Frog in a box

This right here? NOT a good long-term habitat for a frog or toad.

Just like us, exotic pets need food, shelter, and a happy home environment to thrive. What kind of food does your exotic pet need? How often should they eat? Do you have steady access to their food? Online shopping makes this part easier than it used to be if you need commercial supplements like frog or rabbit vitamins, or supplies to breed your own bugs. You can shop for your monitor lizard or iguana at the grocery store!

Consult a care sheet to find out what exactly you need to feed your pet. Captive needs are also different than the wild, so some animals don’t need to be fed every day but find this out before they come home with you.

Building the right habitat is also important and you’ll want to make sure you can afford to do so for a high-maintenance pet like a lizard or snake. They need elaborate heating and lighting elements plus large tanks, many which often need to be custom-made. Frogs, toads, and smaller turtles may do fine with prefab tanks (I recommend Exo-Terra hutch-style enclosures, and to have at least two or three people nearby to help you move them because they weigh a ton).

Do the ongoing habitat and food expenses fit in your budget so you can stay committed to caring for them? Will a suitable habitat fit in your home?

Make Sure You Have Proper Veterinary Care Near You

Veterinarian holding bunny rabbit

Depending on where you live, this can be the most difficult part.

Because exotic pets are not as universal as dogs and cats (the whole tame vs. domesticated thing, remember?), most vet practices are unlikely to see exotic patients. However, some of them may have a visiting avian expert, herpetologist, lagomorph specialist, or other exotic pet expert that you need. In my experience, I’ve seen more traditional vet practices be likely to also see birds and small mammals like hamsters and gerbils, but it’s harder to find one that also sees snakes, lizards, and frogs.

In New York, we have a dedicated animal hospital for exotic pets only: the Center for Avian and Exotic Medicine on the Upper West Side. My Yael had the best herpetologist in the state, she got better care than I ever had from a human doctor. Exotic-specific animal hospitals can be hard to find and be really far from your home, so keep this in mind with respect to how reliable your transportation is. They’re not just hard to find, but because exotic pets don’t necessitate as many routine services as dogs and cats–such as dental cleanings, spay and neuter, and clipping nails–they’re often put in more financially precarious positions, hence the rarity.

Regardless of whether you find an exotics-only vet or a traditional vet who will also welcome exotic patients, most of them will have a weight limit for exotic pets, often around 20-30 pounds. Might not be a source of panic for frogs, toads, birds, or rabbits, but that huge monitor lizard or snake might not get seen.

If you have any local pet expos, they can be a valuable resource for finding out about appropriate veterinary care for your exotic pet if you don’t have any recommendations by word of mouth or forums. Once you adopt that pet, make an appointment right away in case they got sick in transit.

Have a System in Place if You Travel

Aldabra giant tortoise. Turtle in Seychelles on the beach near to Praslin

Cat and dog owners got it easy. There’s tons of pet care apps if you don’t have any family or friends who live close enough to stop by to walk the dog and change the cat box while you’re at a conference. Kennels are pretty ubiquitous, and word of mouth and online reviews are pretty trustworthy.

Far less so for exotics. Most kennels don’t take exotic pets, and many pet care apps have incredibly limited options for exotic care even in large cities, so I hazard a guess that it’s even sparser in suburbia and exurbs. Exotic pet shops and exotic-only animal hospitals often offer pet hotel services, my vet did for about $29 per night. Similar to how dogs and cats need to have certain shots, you usually have to get a poop test done for your pet to ensure they don’t have parasitic or viral infections.

For reptiles and amphibians in particular though, diseases are airborne so someone could bring in a sick pet without realizing it. That’s how I lost my toad, so I really don’t want to board ever again even though I trust the staff took care of the babies they were in charge of. They can’t control biology, unfortunately. This reptile kennel didn’t start offering in-home care until several months later. If you find such a place though, hold onto it for dear life.

So if you travel, make sure you have someone near you who knows how to take care of your pet. Show them if they’re unfamiliar, give them care sheets and other resources, and an exotics vet they can contact if they can’t get ahold of you.

If You Can’t Handle Having an Exotic Pet, Don’t Release Them into the Wild

Corn snake on branch in the wild

I really hate that I had to even type that heading, but…yes. This should go without saying but unfortunately doesn’t. DO NOT RELEASE EXOTIC PETS INTO THE WILD.

It’s incredibly traumatizing for the animal and can have deleterious impacts on local ecosystems, especially if that animal is not native to the area. If you’re unable to rehome your pet and you’re about to move or facing some other emergency, contact the nearest zoo, aquarium, or university with a zoology department. Rescue groups in your area may also know the right places to go. Just don’t let an exotic pet go if you can’t take care of it!

Remember, an amphibious/reptilian/avian baby is a responsibility. They’re not toys, gifts, or impulse purchases. Welcoming an exotic pet into your home is rewarding and provides a different kind of experience and companionship than a dog or cat, but you need to be sure you can provide a good home and have the right resources in place before making that commitment.