Exotic Pet Welfare Needs

Good animal welfare means that an animal feels good.

Over millennia exotic pets have evolved physical, psychological and social attributes that allow them to live in specific kinds of habitats and conditions. In captivity however, only the most rudimentary aspects of an animal’s natural living conditions can be replicated, even in the best of circumstances. Conditions analogous to the spacious, complex, flexible environments that animals experience in nature cannot be provided.

The reality for many exotic pets today is that they live in spatially limited, sterile and unchanging environments. That can be the case for small, common African clawed frogs and Green anole lizards, as well as for the more charismatic pet monkeys and tigers. Substandard conditions that restrict natural movements and activity can be chronically stressful and debilitating. The results of marginal or poor conditions may be manifested in poor or diminished physical health and/or psychological/behavioural issues, including, but not limited to, lethargy, stereotypies, hyper-aggression and other aberrant behaviours, and negative emotional states such as boredom, frustration, anxiety and fear.

Nearly all exotic pets require far more than food, water and a small living space to achieve good welfare. They need sufficient space to engage in normal movements and beahviours, a complex, species-appropriate physical environment that encourages activity, an ability to exercise control and make choices and an appropriate social context, to name just a few key requirements.

Unfortunately, many exotic pet keepers equate good animal welfare, especially in reptiles, amphibians and fish, with the animal looking “normal,” being free of obvious injury or disease, moving about and eating. But animals may look fine, move about, eat and breed and still be experiencing very poor welfare. Breeding is often mentioned as an indicator of good welfare, but the drive to reproduce is very powerful in many animals, so many will still breed in excessively poor conditions.

Making things even more problematic is the fact that many exotic pet keepers, some of whom may be familiar with physical indicators of health, are unaware of the behavioural indicators of stress, discomfort and suffering.

Animal welfare has been defined as the state of an animal as it attempts to cope with its environment. Welfare exists on a continuum from poor to excellent. Good animal welfare includes both the physical and psychological/social aspects of animals. Good animal welfare cannot be achieved through good health alone. An animal must have positive experiences and psychological/emotional states to enjoy good welfare. Good animal welfare means that, for the most part, an animal feels good.

The Need for Space

Lack of space restricts natural movements and suppresses normal behaviours. In fact, space is a critical husbandry consideration that is often dismissed, ignored or overlooked when exotic pets are concerned. When it comes to space the rule of thumb for exotic animals in captivity should be bigger is better. There is no downside to providing more space than an animal needs and not having the animal use that space, but there is a big downside in not providing an animal with the space it requires. Unfortunately, many exotic pets are kept in spaces that allow only a limited ability to move around and many animals are so severely confined and restricted that they are forced into a state of almost perpetual idleness.

Lack of movement and exercise caused by lack of space can also result in physical deterioration, such as a general loss of fitness, and problems such as obesity, skeletal disorders, decreased muscle mass, friction sores and lesions, to name just a few. But physical health problems are not all the animals have to deal with. Being forced to sit, lie or stand the majority of the time may lead to unpleasant emotional states and psychological issues.

In an attempt to cope with impoverished living environments, many animals develop abnormal behaviours, such as pacing, circling, rocking, bar biting, excessive licking, overgrooming, hyper-aggression, hyper-sexuality, to name just a few. Other animals may just sit, lie or sleep for excessively long periods of time – the perpetual idleness mentioned previously.

Unfortunately, when animals develop abnormal behaviours as a coping mechanism, the behaviours fail to address the source of the problem (i.e., captivity) which led to the behaviours in the first place. Unless something changes, the behaviours may persist and become even worse over time resulting in increasingly poorer welfare and suffering.

The Need for Proper Environmental Conditions

Inappropriate or inadequate environmental conditions, including temperature, humidity, ventilation, light and hygiene, can also have a negative effect on exotic pets. In their wild state many animals live within a specific temperature range and employ a variety of physiological and behavioural strategies to stay within that range, even when the ambient temperature fluctuates widely. They may also seek particular intensities of light or humidity or other conditions. In contrast, most exotic pets are kept in environmentally uniform environments that fail to consider natural daily and seasonal cycles of temperature, light, humidity, etc. If variety is provided, it routinely falls far short of what that animal would experience if it were in a wild state. For example, many wild reptiles live in environments with a broad range of temperature choices. They can adjust their body temperatures, subtlety or substantially, by basking in the sun, moving to shade areas, squeezing into crevices, burrowing or occupying burrows created by other animals, climbing to cooler above ground locations, immersing in a water source, to name just a few options they may be able to employ. By comparison, most pet reptiles are kept in thermally simplistic environments featuring only a cool spot and warm spot, with few thermoregulatory options available.

The Need for Choice

In their normal wild state, animals live in complex, flexible environments, including many that are exceptionally dynamic and changing. Most, if not all, vertebrate species have evolved physiological, physical, behavioural and/or social attributes and capabilities that allow them to live and thrive in the specific kinds of environmental conditions they inhabit. In their daily lives, many, if not most, animals also make decisions and choices about how they live and what they do. Some of those decisions and choices may be the result of the animal’s hard-wiring, but many involve some level of deliberation and thought. Some decisions may be very small, such as how to move over or around a rock pile, while others may be more serious, such as where to find water in a drought. Making decisions and choices is how animals exercise control and make a meaningful contribution to the quality of their own lives. But for most exotic animals kept as pets, the ability to make decisions and choices is severely restricted or, in some cases, entirely eliminated. A good example is the keeping of snakes in plastic tubs and drawers. The animals are entirely removed from their natural ecological context and are unable to do anything they would normally do, including making any decisions or choices about what they do or how they live. They are viewed and kept as biological robots that have no cognitive, emotional or social lives at all. That unscientific way of looking at snakes and other animals is outdated and damaging.

The Need for a Proper Social Environment

Many highly social exotic animals are kept as pets and a great many are kept in social isolation. Parrots, monkeys, wallabies and other exceptionally social animals are often sold individually and kept alone for however long they survive with their custodians. This is an antiquated and damaging practice. Social context is important to animals, even some that were thought in the past to not be particularly social. For example, new science reveals that many of the smaller animals, including reptiles and fish, often have exceedingly complex social lives. The social needs of exotic animals are an often ignored or overlooked aspect of proper housing and care.

Inconvenience Impacts Welfare

The costs of owning exotic pets range considerably depending on the species, but for anyone trying to keep an exotic pet in a way that truly provides for its full range of needs, the costs are not inconsequential and may vastly exceed the ongoing veterinary costs associated with dogs and cats. While it can be cheap to keep an exotic animal poorly, it is usually at the expense of animal health and welfare and can lead to discomfort, pain, stress and suffering. Keeping an exotic animal properly, no matter what size it may be, is expensive. The suggestion that some exotic pets are beginner level or easy to keep is false. There is no such thing as an easy to keep exotic animal – not if it is to be done comprehensively and humanely.

In addition to housing and ongoing care costs, the costs of feeding exotic animals can also be very high, especially for species with specialized diets.

Some exotic pets also become an inconvenience when they become aggressive (often at sexual maturity) or too dangerous to handle due to size or other physical attributes, like sharp claws or teeth. Instead of trying to provide more satisfactory conditions to mitigate problematic issues, exotic pet keepers often simply choose to keep their animal confined all the time in a cage or on a tether or they may pursue other more radical measures, such as surgical declawing or removing canine teeth in big cats. Animals may also be castrated or altered in other ways. These measures tend to address the symptons of problems, rather than their cause.