By Dr Emma Milne BVSc MRCVS 5th October 2022

I qualified as a vet in 1996 and back then, Chinchillas were about the most exotic pet we might come across. In the couple of decades since then, the popularity of all manner of exotic pets has rocketed, from geckos to snakes to spiders. In fact, one time when I was being filmed for Vets in Practice a client told me they were going to bring in their red-backed spider the following week because it was losing its hair. I had not a clue about these creatures so did some research and found out that the major cause of hair loss in these spiders was the stress of being handled. It gave me the perfect excuse not to handle it!

But this brings up an important point, how many wild animals that we keep in captivity are chronically stressed by the whole experience? When we take a non-native species and try to keep it somewhere fundamentally different can we ever really recreate the habitat that they would prefer? All too often the answer is no, and this is why many exotic pets are presented to vets with diseases related to their nutrition and environment.

Whenever I think about animal keeping and welfare I love to do it from the point of view of the five basic welfare needs. And we need to remember that these really are the most basic things. So let’s go through them and see if we can really reconcile the keeping of exotic pets.

The need for the right food and fresh water

This seems pretty obvious but you would be amazed how difficult it can be to get right, even for the mainstream pets like dogs, cats and rabbits. Exotic wild animals have vastly varied diets depending on the species and where they originate. Their anatomy and physiology is often starkly different from mammals. Some of the reptiles may only need feeding very infrequently and this can be difficult for owners to accept. Humans love to feed animals, it’s a big part of the human-animal bond and also a reason that the majority of pets now are overweight. 

Many of these animals catch and eat live prey and even if we provide inanimate substitutes, some animals will not recognise it as food. It needs to be warm and moving to trigger the desire to eat. This presents another ethical dilemma; how do we care for the welfare of the animals being eaten as well as the pet who needs to eat?

The need for the right environment

I think, for me this is one of the biggest reasons I am against the keeping of exotic pets. For many of these species we are simply failing to provide anything like the right environment. Some originate in very sunny, hot, arid environments and we take them to northern Europe and try to recreate a mini desert in a glass tank.

Many of the animals rely heavily on ultraviolet light, as well as a good diet, for production of minerals like calcium. In practice vets see reptiles all the time with metabolic bone diseases and pathological fractures because they simply aren’t getting enough light. 

Too often the enclosures are too small to allow for an area that has a UV light and enough room for a shaded section. Add to this the need for pools of water for some of the species to swim or bathe in and you can see that many set-ups will be woefully inadequate.

I think it’s particularly depressing when people have a vivarium and put a picture of a rocky desert at the back of it as if this is going to make the poor creature feel more at home! Like giving a prisoner a mural of a beautiful beach restaurant and thinking that will help the monotony and frustration of life in a cell.

I’d also like to seriously question this assumption that snakes do not need an enclosure large enough for them to stretch out fully. Who made this rule? What on earth makes us think that we should accept, as good welfare, that any animal can never fully extend its body if it wants to? Humans too often neglect the needs of the animals they keep because the needs are inconvenient. This is unacceptable. If we can’t meet these needs or don’t want to, then the choice of pet is wrong.

The need to be protected from pain, injury and disease

I’m sure you will have guessed by now that we are failing here because of what I’ve said before.

Too many exotic pets have the wrong nutrition and potentially dangerous environments.

We also have the problem that we don’t yet understand all there is to know about diseases and for general practitioner vets this can be very difficult. Even from the medication point of view, most drugs are developed for mammals so safety data in other species can be lacking.

The need to be with or without other animals and the need to behave normally

I’ve lumped these two together because they are inextricably linked. I view these as the needs for mental, rather than physical, well being. These are so vitally important. We must consider these as as important as the other three, if not more. Animals should be happy as well as healthy.

My husband is a vet too and he did a lot more exotic work in practice than I did. He would often see bearded dragons with lesions on their noses where they had run repeatedly into the sides of the tank, trying to escape. I find this incredibly sad.

I do a lot of welfare and ethics and many of our mainstream pets’ behaviour is misunderstood. We keep cats with other cats when they find it stressful and we keep rabbits on their own when they absolutely need rabbit company because they are social animals. How can we possibly hope to understand the behavioural needs of hundreds of other species? And then get them right? 

I live in the south of France and we are lucky to see geckos every day. When you see how much they explore to hunt and see them basking in the beautiful sunshine it’s impossible to imagine that we can ever replicate that life in a tank. If you see an iguana swim across a whole lake and climb a tree, how can we ever reconcile keeping one in an enclosure that is barely longer than the creature itself?

I think we still don’t look after our ‘normal’ pets well enough.

I also think that wild animals belong in the wild. Life in captivity is miserable for most animals, in my opinion.

I would even go as far to say that any animal that needs to be in a cage or a tank shouldn’t be kept as a pet. We will never meet the needs of these animals fully because they are not free. And freedom is fundamental to welfare.

5th October 2023

Dr Emma Milne BVSc MRCVS

Emma graduated from Bristol in 1996. She was a trustee of the Animal Welfare Foundation for 6 years and sat as their representative on the BVA Ethics and Welfare group for 2 years. She has written 9 books on pet animal welfare and responsible choices for pet owners. Emma has spoken at various conferences on different animal welfare subjects, notably pedigree animal health and the welfare issues of extreme conformation. She is a patron of RWAF and Dogs Trust, a trustee of the Dog Breeding Reform Group and also works with many other charities helping animals around the world.

Emma now lives in France with her family, including a cat and two gerbils. She continues her welfare and writing work.