If the average hamster or cat isn’t your style, there is a wealth of exotic pets that are legal for you to own. These unusual pets are typically found in the wild, but the right caretaker can provide the perfect environment for those animals to thrive in a domestic setting.
Exotic species can include birds, reptiles, rodents, different bird breeds, amphibians, and animals like teacup pigs. More people than ever own specialty or exotic pets, such as fish, ferrets, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils, turtles, snakes, lizards, poultry, livestock, and amphibians. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, almost 15 percent of U.S. households owned a specialty or exotic pet as of 2016—a 25 percent increase in just a few years!
Those interested in owning an exotic pet should first assess their ability to care for an exotic pet. Some questions to ask may include:
- How many people are in your household?
- Do you have any young children or elderly adults?
- Which member or members of your family will be caring for the pet?
- How much space does your household have?
- Do you have access to outside areas? Is that access open or enclosed?
- How much time do you have to feed and socialize with your pet?
- Do you have the time and ability to clean enclosures and equipment for your pet?
- How many years can you commit to caring for a pet? Will the main caretaker be available for each of those years?
- Is there a risk that you may need to move into a home or to a state that does not allow your pet? If so, who will care for your pet?
After assessing your ability to care for an exotic pet, prepare for lots of research to find an animal that fits your capacity and schedule. Some pets, such as rare parrots, may live up to 60 years and require a lot of interaction and care—not to mention a designated caretaker in the case of an owner’s death. Others, such as ferrets, are highly social animals that may also fight over resources.
Buying or adopting an exotic pet is a serious commitment, so make sure to thoroughly research different animals and have the right household type and budget to provide the best home for your pet. Last but not least, always check state laws and regulations. Certain pets are not legal and others may only be allowed if the owner has a permit.
The next step is to determine if you want to purchase an exotic pet from a breeder or adopt from a rescue. Just like domestic pets, there are a number of ways to bring a new pet into your home. Adopted animals may require more care than those coming from a breeder, depending on their medical history and past ownership. Those adopting an animal should work closely with a rescue facility to make sure they are qualified and able to make the commitment needed to adopt an exotic animal.
Those looking to purchase an animal from a breeder should be prepared to take care of a young pet that may require additional training and attention. This may mean more frequent feeding, observation, socialization, and more. Furthermore, those purchasing an animal from an individual breeder or business should always check their credentials to make sure they are operating legally and humanely.
The states with the least strict laws for exotic pet ownership include Nevada, Wisconsin, Alabama, North Carolina, and South Carolina. But don’t move to Alabama just yet! Keep in mind that this just means these states have little regulation for all exotic pets, including lions, tigers, and bears (oh my). These laws keep people, animals, and the environment safe. Maybe that’s why Hawaii has the strictest exotic pet restrictions in the country, as many of these animals could end up as invasive species and disrupt their delicate ecosystem.
If you’re a pet owner ready to take on the challenge of taking care of an exotic pet, check out a few of these unique and surprisingly legal pets below!
The miniature marsupial, also known as a sugar glider, can weigh up to a whopping half of an ounce. They resemble flying squirrels because of the folds that connect their wrists to their sides, enabling them to glide with ease. However, these nocturnal wonders are cousins of the kangaroo and also have a pouch where females raise their young.
Sugar gliders are party animals that are very vocal and active at night. In the wild, they are typically found in groups of up to ten. Accordingly, they should never be kept as single pets and do best in pairs. If properly socialized, they are also great with their human caretakers. Those that are not daily handled will start to bite. Help socialize your sugar glider by holding them or letting them curl up in your shirt pocket. Specialty pet stores may also sell sugar glider-friendly pouches for caretakers to wear.
Be sure to keep an eye on your sugar glider when they are outside of their cage, as they are very quick and may get into areas that are not appropriately pet-proofed. Keeping in line with their spirited nature, sugar gliders should have a big cage with lots of places to glide, hide, and curl up.
Sugar gliders are omnivores with a very strict diet. They typically do best on a diet of:
- Pelleted Food (50 percent): commercially available pelleted food (which serves as an important source of nectar)
- Protein (25 percent): cooked eggs, lean/cooked meat, or smaller amounts of insects like crickets and mealworms
- Vegetables and Fruit (25 percent): green, leafy vegetables and smaller amounts of fruit such as mango, apples, grapes, and berries.
Sugar gliders are high-maintenance pets that require a financial commitment to a rich and varied diet, a well set-up cage, and supplies. They also need a lot of socialization with other sugar gliders and human caretakers. Their sharp teeth and claws may not make them a good fit for a household with small children.
Note that sugar gliders are legal in all states except Alaska, Hawaii, California, and Massachusetts. Other states may require a permit to own them.
While hedgehogs don’t come in blue like Sonic, they are loving pets that will respond to their owner’s voice and appearance if properly socialized.
While timid, they can become very interactive if handled by their owner every day. Have no fear about being able to tell whether a hedgehog is scared. Their strong back muscles allow them to curl into a tight ball, hiding their face and legs behind their puffed out quills. They are happy living alone but will respond with fear to caretakers if not socialized and introduced to other people regularly.
Hedgehogs are nocturnal, so this is perhaps a pet best for those who are heavy sleepers or have a large enough home that their hedgehog can be kept in a separate room. Hedgehogs should be kept in larger cases, roughly the size of a guinea pig’s, that have a solid floor covered in paper-based bedding. Their cages should have a place for them to hide and a smooth-sided wheel to run in. As hedgehogs are known for getting obese, the more stimulation, the better!
Like cats, hedgehogs also can be trained to use a small litter box for owners who have the time and patience to teach this. Caretakers should spot-clean their cage daily and replace bedding on a weekly basis.
Hedgehogs primarily eat insects, but also enjoy carrots, peas, and corn from time-to-time. The insects they eat come in a convenient pellet form, although they love an excuse to catch live mealworms, crickets, earthworms, and more.
Most states allow people to keep hedgehogs as pets with the exception of Georgia, California, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C.
If you have no fear of large reptiles, then a boa constrictor may be for you. These massive snakes can grow up to six to eight feet and are known for their spectacular physique. Boa constrictors aren’t for the squeamish, as they require a diet of live mice and more rarely, rabbits. Younger boa constrictors are fed weekly, while middle-aged snakes should be fed every two weeks and senior snakes on a monthly basis.
For reference, snakes typically live for 25 to 30 years. Snakes typically hide their food to eat it and it is not advised to feed them by hand. Always wash your hand after feeding so your boa constrictor does not mistake your hand for prey.
These snakes also require a large cage that is about ten square feet. Pet owners should be able to maintain a climate of 82 to 90 degrees with spots for snakes to bask in the artificial sun that may go up to 95 degrees. Humidity can be maintained by including a large bowl of water in the corner of the cage. Note that snakes may climb into this bowl to bathe or defecate, so be sure to get a large bowl that is sturdy and clean it regularly. Boa constrictors should also have a cage with plenty of spots to hide in.
Prospective boa constrictor owners should consult state regulations prior to purchasing or adopting a boa constrictor. Note that some states may have additional permitting requirements.
Fennec foxes are adorable yet destructive, making them perfect for a pet owner willing to handle a rambunctious bundle of energy. They are carnivores and their diet should accordingly consist of mostly lean meats, such as chicken and rabbit. There are kibble options available, although those who wish to feed their fennec a raw or whole prey diet can procure fresh ground rabbit or chicks.
Fennecs can be destructive if kept indoors and are known to tear up carpet and furnishings. As these animals are happiest to explore and move around, it is best to build an enclosed structure for them to roam freely. There should be lots of places for them to jump, hide, run, and dig. It is not recommended to keep fennecs inside unless they have free range of the house. Keeping them caged all day is considered inhumane.
Most states allow people to keep fennec foxes as pets with the exception of Missouri, Minnesota, Nevada, and Washington.
If you can get past your fears of getting sprayed, skunks are resourceful and loving companions. Granted, most pet skunks have their scent or musk glands surgically removed at a very early age. However, that delightfully resourceful nature can still make them a handful!
In captivity, skunks can live up to ten years and weigh almost 20 pounds. With a love for digging, they do not like to be caged for long periods of time and are happiest when they are stimulated with lots of things to play with and do. It is not advised that skunks live outside unless they are harness trained or have skunk-proof enclosure that is at least six feet wide, six feet long, and three feet tall with a nesting box. Those who are inside should have access to a dog-sized kennel that they can hide in and use as a safe place.
While it may seem counterintuitive to not house your skunk outside, it is important to remember that skunks without the ability to spray have no protection against predators. Furthermore, skunks can cover miles of ground within a single day and without its spray to act as a homing beacon, it will not be able to return home.
Skunks are omnivores. About 60 to 70 percent of their diet should be a lean protein such as eggs, fish, or feeder insects. The remainder should be fresh, cooked, or thawed vegetables (never canned, as these typically have higher salt content). Although they get most of their water from their diet, skunks should also have access to fresh water.
Skunks are legal in the following states: Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.