5 of the most unusual pets

By: Vickie Reichardt

Author: Canadian Living


5 of the most unusual pets

By: Vickie Reichardt
A growing number of Canadians are adding unusual animals to the family menagerie, notably hedgehogs, chinchillas, degus, ferrets and red-eared sliders. But each comes with its own set of quirks. Dr. Don Benoit, a veterinarian at the Fairview Animal Hospital in Halifax, specializes in "pocket pets," and he says it's important to be an informed pet owner. Benoit recommends learning as much as you can about your pet of choice before you bring one home. Here's a primer to get you started.

Red-eared sliders
Semiaquatic turtles that live on land and in water. They are a high-maintenance pet, requiring a lot of work due to their housing and the precautions needed to avoid transmission of salmonella, which occurs naturally in their stool.

Pros: Quiet; long life span.

Cons: Can be expensive (special equipment, housing, etc.); can bite; strict cleaning required to prevent disease.

Food: Commercial turtle pellets; fresh plant matter and aquatic plants like water ferns; raw vegetables; freshwater snails, crickets or earthworms as treats.

Housing: Large aquarium (40 to 120 gallon); heat lamp; water filter; water heater.

Possible medical issues: Parasites; "soft shell" (metabolic bone disease); respiratory tract infections.

Life expectancy: Twenty to 40 years.

Benoit says:
Cleanliness is key. "There's a lot of work involved in keeping their environment as safe as possible, so there's a lot of cleaning and a lot of water changes."

Pint-size mammals known for their roly-poly, quill-covered bodies, as well as their gentle disposition, intelligence (they can navigate mazes with ease) and quiet nature.

Can be litter trained; no natural odour; nondestructive (won't chew furniture, cords, etc.).

Cons: Do not like to share cages – separate housing per hedgehog required; can become obese.

Food: Mealworms, commercial hedgehog food or good-quality (dry) cat, kitten or ferret food; treats of fresh fruit or vegetables.

Housing: Large cage or aquarium (minimum 91- by 61-centimetre base area); pine or aspen shavings; small box for "hiding."

Exercise: A hedgehog wheel and toys, along with playtime with its owner, will suffice.

Possible medical issues: Wobbly hedgehog syndrome, a degenerative neurological disease; cancer; obesity.

Life expectancy: Four to seven years.

Benoit says: Beware of mites. "Mites are probably the number 1 reason I see hedgehogs." Mites themselves are microscopic, but watch for dandruff-like flakes on your hedgehog or loss of quills (bald patches).

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Inquisitive, carnivorous animals known for their playful nature and knack for mischief. They enjoy human companionship as much as that of other ferrets, and are trainable.

Pros: Quiet; affectionate; enjoy human interaction; can be litter trained; very intelligent.

Cons: Mischievous; can bite if not properly socialized; can be destructive; have a strong musky odour.

Food: Commercial ferret kibble; cooked meat (chicken, turkey, beef) in moderation.

Housing: Large, well-ventilated cage; litter box with pellet-form litter, which should be cleaned daily.

Exercise: Ferrets require at least several hours a day outside their cages to play and explore.

Possible medical issues: Rabies (require vaccination); Aleutian disease virus; heartworms or fleas if let outside.

Life expectancy: Six to 10 years.

Benoit says: Ferret-proof your home. "Owners can't leave anything out that could be chewed into small pieces and then swallowed, because ferrets will 
eat it and suffer blockages, which requires surgery."

Cute rodents known for their luxuriously soft fur. They are most active at night, and their naturally nervous nature may not be suited for rowdier households.

Pros: No dander, so less likely to cause allergies; no natural odour.

Cons: Can be skittish; chew everything so homes need to be fully chinchilla-proofed; can overheat in warm temperatures; do not like to be picked up; require dust baths about three times a week with special "chinchilla dust" (purchased at pet stores) to keep fur clean; extremely sensitive to diet changes.

Food: Commercial chinchilla pellets; cubes of hay; treats can include raisins, fresh apple and banana.

Housing: Multilevel (minimum 76- [height] by 61- [length] by 38- [width] centimetres) cage to allow climbing, set against a wall or in a corner in a quiet room away from cords and wires.

Exercise: Require a few hours outside the cage each day to move about 
and explore; a chinchilla wheel for in-cage exercise.

Possible medical issues: Overgrown teeth; heatstroke; constipation or diarrhea.

Life expectancy: Ten to 15 years, though some can live as long as 20 years.

Benoit says:
Be prepared for poop! "They eat a lot of roughage. You will have to do frequent cleanings of their cage because they constantly produce stool."

These rodents look like large gerbils and are native to Chile. It's recommended that you get them in same-sex pairs.

Pros: Sociable; like to be let out to play; will bond with owners.

Cons: Do not like to be handled; need large habitats; voracious chewers, so degu-proofing rooms is important; do not like to be alone.

Food: Guinea pig food or chinchilla pellets; hay; fresh vegetables; nuts as an occasional treat.

Housing: Large, multitiered cage (minimum 61- [length] by 46- [width] by 61- [height] centimetres); aspen, pine or newspaper bedding.

Exercise: They need a lot, and on a daily basis – degu wheels, climbing frames, 
a box of soft soil for digging and toys for play.

Possible medical issues: Prone to diabetes; chronic respiratory disease; teeth problems; mouth infections.

Life expectancy: Five to 10 years.

Benoit says: Handle with great care. "If the owners are not careful and they grab them by the tail, it will cause the tail to slough off. The skin comes off and you're left with the bone and muscle."

Page 2 of 3Where the wild things are
Not every animal on Earth was meant to be a pet, yet people continue to seek out dangerous exotic species. Monkeys, boa constrictors, large reptiles and big cats (e.g., tigers) are being purchased, while native species such as raccoons or squirrels are
"rescued" from the wild and raised in captivity. Kristin Williams, a spokesperson for Ontario SPCA, says this is dangerous for you and for the animal. "The majority of risks are associated with not understanding the needs of the animal and an inability to provide the necessary care," she says. Aggression, disease and malnourishment are common problems when such animals are kept as pets, and it's impossible for an individual to replicate the conditions they would enjoy in the wild.

Where the pets are

Regardless of which species you choose, the best place to start looking for an unusual pet is your local SPCA or Humane Society, a reputable breeder (ask for references, inspect the facility and be wary of Internet sales) or a registered rescue organization. They'll be able to give you detailed information about your animal and provide additional resources – such as listings for pocket-pet vets in your area – to ensure you'll enjoy a happy, healthy life together.

Last-ditch resort
If you have an unusual pet you feel you can no longer keep, do not simply release it into the wild. "The animals are unable to survive in the wild because they're not a native species or they've been domesticated and won't be able to survive," warns Kristin Williams, a Ontario SPCA spokesperson. Instead, contact your local SPCA or a registered rescue organization, which can care for the animal properly.

Read more:
5 best ways to find a vet
Choosing the right puppy
10 tips when adding a cat or dog to the family

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This story was originally titled "Unusual Pets" in the September 2008 issue.

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5 of the most unusual pets