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Exotic pets

Exotic pets, such as reptiles and other wild animals in captivity, have the same needs as they would in the wild. This means that caring for them properly can be difficult. Before deciding to get an exotic pet, do plenty of research. Exotic animals can have more complex needs than your average domestic pet.

Sugar gliders

Sugar gliders are tiny marsupials that originate from New Guinea and the Eastern Coast of Australia. They get their name from their preference for sugary nectarous food and their ability to glide through the air for a distance of up to 50m! Sugar gliders have become very popular as pets due to their small size and very cute appearance, but it is essential that potential owners are aware of their specific needs.

Behaviour

In the wild, sugar gliders are social animals and live in groups of 6-10 animals. They are arboreal, meaning that they live up in the trees. All animals in a group sleep in a communal nest in leaf-lined tree holes. Due to this normal behaviour sugar gliders should not be kept alone and are quite demanding pets. If they are kept alone it is advised that they receive at least 2 hours of socialisation each day! Sugar gliders are nocturnal and will often become grumpy or irritable if woken and handled during the daytime, so time should be spent with them at night. However, it really is recommended that they are not kept as solitary pets.

Sugar gliders respond best to the people they know who have handled them the most. They enjoy curling up inside pockets which mimic their small nests and will happily ride around this way. They very rarely bite but will explore fingers with their mouths, and when threatened will respond with an alarm ‘yap’. Sugar gliders can live for up to 10-12 years, which is significantly longer than other pets of a similar size.

Caging

As sugar gliders would naturally live in trees they do require large cages with a lot of height. They need space to climb, run and jump, and also to glide. Cages require designated areas for food, water, shelter and exercise and a number of food and water bowls should be placed at different heights within the cage. Wire spacing for the cage needs to be very small to prevent the gliders from escaping. Nest boxes or pouches should be available high up in the cage and bedded with hardwood shavings, shredded paper, dried leaves, coconut fibres etc. Artificial material such as artificial wool, cloth strips etc should not be used as they can become tangled around the limbs causing injury. It is essential that gliders have permanent access to these next boxes as will sleep most of the day. Sugar gliders also respond well to bird toys such as swings and chew toys and these can be dotted around the cage to enrich the environment.

Feeding

Sugar gliders are omnivorous and in the wild will eat a wide diet including sap, gum, nectar, pollen, manna, honeydew and insects and arachnids. It is obvious from this that they have quite different dietary requirements when compared to other small mammals. Captive diets should include nectar, insects, other protein sources such as eggs, lean meat, commercial protein sources and limited amounts of fruit and vegetables. Various commercial diets are available for sugar gliders and should be included as part of the diet.

Below is a simplified example of a diet for captive sugar gliders:

  • Approximately 50% insectivore/carnivore diet – commercial
  • Approximately 50% Leadbeater’s mixture – an artificial nectar mix
  • Small amounts of other foods as treats – lean meats, diced fruit, bee pollen, insects.

Leadbeater’s mixture:

  • 150ml water,
  • 150ml honey,
  • One shelled hard boiled egg,
  • 25g high-protein baby cereal,
  • One teaspoon vitamin and mineral mixture.

The mixture is kept in the fridge and discarded after 3 days if unused, but can be frozen for later use.

Reproduction

Marsupials are best known for possession of a pouch in which the female raises her young, a ‘joey’. Joeys are typically born in the spring after a gestation period of 15-17 days. They then crawl up to the pouch where they remain for a further 70-74 days. When the joey becomes too large to stay in the pouch it is left in a nest until it is weaned at 110-120 days of age. Sugar gliders raise one to two young at a time and their pouch contains four teats.

It is not uncommon for them to have two litters of young during the breeding season.

Bearded dragons

Bearded dragons can make wonderful pets for children and adults alike. They are generally docile- especially with regular handling and are very inquisitive.

All Bearded Dragons available in the UK today are captive bred as bringing them over from the wild in Australia is no longer allowed. As with most animals and birds, it is essential that their captive environment mimics the wild conditions they evolved in as closely as possible.

The bearded name refers to the spiky pouch of skin around their throat that they can puff out and change black in colour. When kept as pets, they usually live between around 7 and 12 yrs of age if kept in optimum conditions. They can reach a length of 40-60cm when fully grown. Sexing can prove challenging and is easier to check when adult.

Housing

It is important to be aware of the conditions necessary to keep bearded dragons in a safe, healthy and stress-free way. They require a suitably large vivarium with carefully controlled and monitored temperature, humidity and UV lighting. Variations to the usual regime are necessary at different times of year. For example increased humidity is essential during shedding.

Feeding

Pet bearded dragons should be fed insects and plant material. A good mix may include locusts, cockroaches, mealworms, waxworms, dandelion leaves/flowers, watercress, Chinese leaf, green beans and peppers. This is obviously not an exhaustive list and thorough research into appropriate diet is necessary prior to feeding. The proportion of vegetable/plant material in the diet should increase as your dragon ages, so that it makes up 75% of the ration in adults. Juveniles should be fed a greater proportion of insects. Insects should be ‘gut-loaded’ before being offered to ensure adequate calcium/phosphorus balance in the diet. A high quality vitamin/mineral supplement added to food is also recommended.

Health

Bearded dragons may suffer from a variety of different conditions from dental disease to metabolic bone disease and other problems related to imperfect calcium balance. An annual health check including faecal exam for parasites is recommended to ensure your dragon has the best chance of staying in good health!

Tortoises

Hibernation

Is it necessary?
It is important to know the specific husbandry requirements of your tortoise as there is a great deal of variability between species. Not all tortoise species should hibernate. Please contact the practice if you are unsure.

How long should my tortoise hibernate for?
The most commonly kept tortoises in this country are of the genus testudo. These are the Mediterranean tortoises. Hibernation for these species should not exceed 3 months. This means that availability of an indoor environment/heated accommodation is essential to enable early return to activity after this period.

How should I prepare my tortoise for hibernation?
Allow your tortoise to drink prior to hibernation- ideally warm water bathing, but withhold food for a period of around one month. Reduce the environmental temperature gradually for the same duration. There are several different approaches to hibernation. Perhaps the most suitable is use of a minibar/chiller cabinet. This enables a safe and easily monitored environment. It is important to make use of a maximum/minimum thermometer to guard against unnoticed fluctuations in temperature. Many chiller cabinets are fan-assisted and therefore there is not the same drop in humidity that is seen when using a fridge. Weight checks are easily performed.

Do I need to wake my tortoise?
It is important to weigh your tortoise before and during hibernation at regular intervals. They will often lose a small amount of weight within the first 2 weeks of hibernating, but if this continues beyond the third week or if it ever exceeds 5% of their starting bodyweight, they must be woken up and you should contact the practice for further advice!

Unless you have cause for concern before, your tortoise should be woken after a maximum 12 weeks hibernation.

The first time your tortoise is hibernated, the hibernation should be reduced to 6 weeks. The tortoise should then be warmed up to its selected body temperature within 48 hrs. It is essential to re-check your tortoise’s weight again at this stage and start daily warm water bathing.

  • Never hibernate a tortoise that is ill. A veterinary health check before hibernation is recommended.
  • Monitor your tortoise’s weight carefully before, during and after hibernation.
  • Your tortoise should start eating within one week of waking up. If this does not happen, contact the practice for advice.

This is not a complete guide to hibernation and tortoise care. Please contact the practice for further advice, to arrange a health check, or if you have any other concerns.

Parrots

When kept as pets in the best conditions, it is possible to form very special bonds with parrot species and they can be provided with fulfilled and enjoyable existences. There are lots of different species in all shapes and sizes and with vastly different character traits. From tiny parotlets through to hyacinth macaws that can weigh 3kg! The ‘African Grey’ is the most commonly kept pet parrot.

They are highly intelligent and can be excellent talkers and mimics. African Greys can also be very demanding however and keeping them as pets can be challenging in some individuals!

Parrots are very sociable creatures and the vast majority of them are flock animals in the wild.

As with most pets, keeping them in conditions that mimic the species’ wild state as much as possible helps minimise the chances of ill health and maximises their mental wellbeing. It is likely to be less clear-cut in bird species that have been domesticated for several generations and therefore are more dissimilar to their wild equivalents!

Birds can either be kept in outdoor or indoor environments, and there are advantages and disadvantages of each.

Although usually essential to ensure safe housing of the bird for periods, it is preferable to ensure considerable periods of time outside of cages. Further details about housing requirements are beyond the scope of this article as there are numerous possible options- each suiting different species better.

Sexing

Some parrots are sexually dimorphic- meaning female and male birds can be distinguished by their appearance. For example male budgerigars have blue ceres (the bit at the top of their beak), and females have brown ceres. Sexually monomorphic parrots may be easily sexed by DNA analysis from blood or feather sampling. It is also possible to sex birds by using an endoscope (surgical sexing).

Identification

It is recommended that your bird has a recognised means of identification to reduce the risk of losing your bird should they escape, and enable you to prove ownership. Parrots can be microchipped at the practice. This would involve insertion of a microchip into the left pectoral region of your parrot. Depending on the size of your bird, a very brief anaesthetic may be recommended. When stray birds are retrieved that are microchipped, the details can be used to trace the owner.

Alternative means of identification are rings around the bird’s leg, tattooing, or even storage of a DNA profile at a recognised laboratory.

Poorly Parrots

Birds will often hide signs of ill health until the problems are more advanced. It is therefore preferable to bring in your bird for yearly health checks to try and identify signs of ill health at the earliest opportunity. Birds that are very closely bonded to an owner may allow detection of problems at an earlier stage with subtle changes in behaviour that would otherwise be hidden from strangers. Nevertheless, the extent of their illness is often underestimated if judging by appearance alone.

Please contact the practice if you require any further advice, or to arrange a health check.

Ferrets

Ferrets are now commonly kept pets throughout the UK and their popularity is continuing to increase. Contrary to popular opinion, they are usually extremely friendly, affectionate and can make fun and interesting companions. They sometimes use their mouth to investigate and can gently bite objects as they explore.

They are very inquisitive and have an amazing ability to escape if their housing is not secure. It is important to provide them with lots of time outside of their house to explore and play (assuming there are no escape routes!) and they can even be taken out for walks on a lead with a harness.

Ferrets require high levels of protein and fat in their diet. Ferret specific biscuits are available to help provide balanced nutrition.

Some people wish to supplement this with cooked meats to add variety. Raw meat diets are also sometimes offered by some ferret keepers- especially to working animals. Extreme care has to be taken if a decision is made to follow this regime to ensure the diet is balanced and food safety is maintained.

Ferret Facts:

  • Male ferrets are called hobs, females are jills and the babies are kits.
  • They often live to 8-10yrs of age, but may reach 15yrs.
  • Hobs average around 1200g in weight, and jills 600g.
  • Jills come into season each spring and stay in season until mated.
  • If Jills are allowed to remain in season, they can develop a life-threatening anaemia.
  • There are several options to prevent this occurring- you should contact us to discuss which may suit your situation best.
  • Routine spaying of ferrets is NOT currently recommended in most situations as there are links to increased risk of adrenal gland disease.
  • Hobs that are uncastrated have a much stronger odour as a result of the oily secretions they produce.
  • Although castrated hobs have a much reduced odour, there are some potential disadvantages of having males neutered.

Vaccinations

It is sensible to consider having your ferret vaccinated against canine distemper virus. The disease may be contracted from bodily fluids of dogs and wildlife such as foxes, weasels, mink and badgers, or it can be passed between animals through the air. There is no cure for the disease at the present time and is almost always fatal. The vaccination is easy to give and can be performed as part of your ferret’s annual health check.

Please contact the practice to arrange an appointment for a health check or for further advice.