Updated: Oct 13, 2020
In the past 10 years, memes have skyrocketed certain exotic pets into internet fame, for better or for worse. The internet (particularly YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram) highlights the charms of certain animals, but a picture or a short video can’t give you the full picture of what it’s like to have them as pets.
Here is a selection of exotic pets who, despite their delightful internet presence, might not actually make the best pets.
You might have seen this picture of a hedgehog circulating online circa 2014. Nala the Hedgehog belonged to a YouTuber named Taylor Nicole Dean. She captioned this picture, “This hedgehog is cheering for you because you can do anything.”
Nala died about a year later of cancer, which is a common cause of death for hedgehogs. In fact, hedgehogs are prone to a variety of health issues, including kidney problems, and a disease that’s similar to multiple sclerosis called “wobbly hedgehog syndrome.” In this video, Dean recommends you only buy hedgehogs from breeders who have a Wobbly Hedgehog certificate. This certificate guarantees that the breeder maintains healthy breeding practices, reducing the likelihood of serious illness.
It’s also not possible to always provide hedgehogs with proper care. Hedgehogs are illegal in many US states, including New York, Maine, Hawaii, California, and Georgia, due to the fact that they’re considered wild animals. And as many hedgehog owners have had to learn the hard way, hedgehogs don’t usually have friendly temperaments, despite what that photo of Nala might suggest. They’re solitary animals and generally prefer to be left alone.
Axolotls are a type of salamander, native to just one complex of lakes outside of Mexico City. Its distinctive feathery gills stick out from its head, and its limbs give it the nickname of “Mexican walking fish.”
They have inspired the squishy plush called a “Squishmallow,” and a search for “axolotl plush” returns over a million results. Plenty of Etsy stores have cute felt, crocheted, and plushie axolotl pals.
There are currently more axolotls in pet stores than in the wild, due to invasive predators like tilapia and pollution. For an exotic animal, axolotls are considered fairly hardy and are relatively easy to care for. They are so hardy, in fact, that they can regenerate missing limbs, eyeballs, and even organs. That said, they are not considered a beginner’s pet. Owners need to look out for temperature fluctuations, and regularly monitor their tank’s water quality.
Fennec foxes have strikingly large ears and delicate features that make them especially photogenic. They are the smallest foxes in the world, and their cuteness is undeniable. But just because they’re approximately the same size as a house cat doesn’t mean they’re ideal pets. Fennec foxes are part of a growing population of exotic pets that often end up donated to zoos.
Fennec foxes are wild animals, and the average pet owner can’t attend to their diet and habitat needs. They have a huge amount of energy for hunting and eat a variety of foods, including insects. Also, it’s not always possible to find a vet who can give advice on their care — this is another animal that is illegal in many states and may be subject to confiscation.
Ferrets star in several viral videos, which may explain their recent spike in popularity, especially on TikTok, where their floppy, noodle-like bodies make for compelling 10-second videos. You’ll also find plenty of videos of ferrets scurrying off to hide various household objects. Ferrets’ natural instinct is to hoard — read this Reddit thread for an idea of the kind of things they want to drag under the bed.
While ferrets can make good pets, owners need to understand just how much they may need to ferret-proof their house and provide safe, enrichment for these active, playful pets.
Designer Exotic Pets
Celebrity culture glamorizes owning wild, or partially wild, animals. Not only are these animals expensive, but owners (even the most lavishly wealthy) also can’t always give their pets everything they need. Take Justin Bieber’s $35,000 Savannah cats, for instance. These exotic-looking animals are the result of breeding a domesticated cat with a wild African cat called a serval. Bieber recently posted on Instagram that one of his Savanna cats escaped and for three weeks was lost in the Hollywood hills. And it’s no wonder Sushi wanted to escape — because of their genes, these animals are never truly domesticated.
Justin Bieber is a repeat offender in the exotic pet community and got in trouble in 2013 for bringing his capuchin monkey to Germany. Monkeys are another great example of adorable animals that don’t make good pets — they need special diets, stimulation, and have complicated demands for their habitats. They’re also capable of passing on diseases to humans, and even playful monkeys can become quite aggressive.
Savannah cats — like the Fennec fox — create the demand for breeders in the exotic animal trade, a la “Tiger King” on Netflix. If you’ve seen the documentary (or read anything about it), you have some idea of how these profit-driven industries often fail to give animals a good quality of life. Just like with non-exotic pets, the best thing you can do if you want a legal exotic pet is to adopt and make sure to do your research before making the purchase. Part of that research includes finding an exotic animal vet in your area, so you can give them the most comfortable life possible, even far away from their natural habitat.