What To Know Before Getting an Exotic Pet

Dr. Kristen Turner with purple and pink hair, holding a chameleon.

By: Dr. Kristen Turner

TVMA Member
Belize, Central America

Published September 2023

A chameleon sitting on a tree branch with beautiful colors of turquoise, green and red on its skinChameleon

Exotic petThere is no conclusive definition of an “exotic” pet. Traditionally, the term has been applied to wild animals taken into captivity. However, the definition has expanded to include any non-domesticated animal brought into homes. ownership has increased significantly in the last several years worldwide and in the United States. Nearly 60% of households in the United States own pets, and almost 15% have exotic or non-traditional species (AVMA). Many exotic pets are advertised as and thought to be great “starter pets” for children, but the level of care and financial commitment for these species is often equivalent or more expensive than a dog or cat, and it can be difficult to find veterinary care for these pets.

What is an exotic pet?
The term “exotic animal” encompasses many species ranging from large, non-domesticated felids to monkeys to venomous snakes. However, the care and keeping of these species, as well as the legality and ethics of owning such animals, is beyond the scope of this article. For the purposes of this article, any small companion animal that is not a dog or cat is considered exotic or non-traditional, from rabbits to hedgehogs to parrots to lizards. This refers to the fact that these species’ care is beyond the norm expected for other domestic pets as well as the fact that many veterinarians are not comfortable treating these species.

What kind of exotic pet should I get?
The type of exotic pet that is best for you depends on the amount of time, space, money and level of care you are willing and able to put into taking care of the pet. Many people believe that exotic pets are easier and more affordable than dogs and cats, but the reality is often quite the opposite.

Pet stores often sell kits advertising that they contain everything needed for care of a species; however, often the items provided are inappropriate or provide inadequate space for the accompanying animal. Check reputable pet websites or ask your local exotic animal veterinarian for information about the type of pet you want to adopt or purchase before taking the leap. You may find that the pet you are thinking about isn’t a good fit for your space or time commitment.

Why is it hard to find an exotic animal veterinarian?
During their training, veterinary students focus on learning the anatomy, physiology and medical care of the most common species, including dogs, cats, horses and livestock. There is so much information to be obtained and absorbed throughout veterinary school that non-traditional or exotic pets are mentioned only briefly. For students who have an interest in treating these species, it is on the student to pursue electives, labs, externships and other training opportunities that focus on exotic animals in order to learn about these species.

Once they have graduated, veterinarians who treat exotic species keep up with the most up-to-date medical care on dogs and cats as well as the less-common species by reading veterinary textbooks and journals, corresponding with other exotic animal veterinarians and attending continuing education seminars. Many exotic animal veterinarians treat a variety of animals so could treat 10 completely different species a day every day!

There are certain treatments that are very appropriate for some species but that will severely harm or kill another type of animal if administered. Also, exotic animals are often prey species so are very good at hiding illness and therefore tend to have a higher rate of death when ill compared to dogs and cats. For all of these reasons, many veterinarians don’t treat exotic animals at all.

What type of care does my pet need?
Every exotic pet has different husbandry (how pets are cared for at home) and diet requirements, and many illnesses in these pets are related to deficiencies in that care. It is important to research your pet’s needs before you bring it home and work hard to meet or exceed the minimum care requirements.

Schedule a checkup with your veterinarian soon after bringing your new pet home; this will allow you to establish a relationship between your new pet and veterinarian as well as to discuss your veterinarian’s husbandry and medical care recommendations. Many exotic pets do not need vaccinations, but regular exams are recommended to monitor for new or developing illnesses.

For prey speciesan animal that is hunted or killed by another animal for food. such as rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters, these animals instinctually hide illness until they are so sick they can no longer hide it. This means they are often much sicker than their owners realize before medical care is sought. Exotic animal veterinarians know this, but because they are few and far between, they may not be able to fit a sick pet in for an exam if they are not an already established patient. If one owns an exotic pet, it is very important to establish a relationship with an exotic animal veterinarian before the pet gets sick.

Where should I get my exotic pet?
The exotic pet industry is a multi-billion-dollar industry, and there are numerous pet stores, expos and breeders from which you can purchase a pet. However, consider checking with your local animal shelter or rescue organizations. There are numerous rabbit, guinea pig, reptile and other species-specific rescues with thousands of adoptable, healthy animals as well as those with more intense medical needs.

Where can I find information about owning certain types of exotic pets?

Where can I find exotic animal veterinarians?

Check the following organization websites for a directory of veterinarians that have a special interest in these species:



  1. AVMA Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook, 2018

Dr. Kristen Turner earned her bachelor’s degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences in 2009 and her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine in 2013 from Texas A&M University with honors. Learn more about her: https://www.theexoticvetconsultant.com/

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