Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Where Did My Exotic Pet Come From?


Pet Column for the week of August 4, 2003


Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ann Marie Falk
Information Specialist

In many circles, an exotic pet is any small companion animal that isn't a dog or cat. With people keeping sugar gliders and prairie dogs as pets these days, however, hamsters and guinea pigs don't seem so "exotic." Most people purchase exotic pets at their local pet store, but where does the pet store acquire these critters? And can these pets pose a health threat to people?

"Many of the small mammals people keep as pets are domestically bred and pose little disease risk. However, there are surprisingly few restrictions on importation of most animal species, and problems can arise with them," explains Dr. Julia Whittington, an exotic animal veterinarian at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana.

Hamsters, gerbils, rabbits, and guinea pigs are all domestically bred. (Interestingly, nearly all pet ferrets come from New York state. Most hedgehogs come from breeders as well.) These small mammals have become so common that species-specific rescue organizations exist to find new homes for unwanted pets.

"Prairie dogs are not imported. They come from wild populations inhabiting the western United States. Out west prairie dogs are considered a pest, and many exterminators make their living eradicating these wild animals. Prairie dogs do not make very appropriate pets because their natural habitat cannot be replicated in the home," states Dr. Whittington.

"Public health and animal disease problems are most often encountered with importation of reptiles and amphibians, which is not strongly regulated," notes Dr. Whittington.

In contrast, stringent laws exist regarding importation of parrots. In the 1970s importing and exporting parrots was banned because wild parrot populations were being depleted. Now all parrots in the pet trade are captive bred, although very old parrots likely originated in the wild.

Often wild-caught animals can have ectoparasites-ticks, for example-that can affect people and other animals. They are a means of spreading zoonotic diseases, i.e., diseases that can be transmitted from animals to people. Two zoonotic diseases that recently received a lot of media attention are those caused by the West Nile virus and the monkeypox virus.

How exotic pets are transported and housed in the marketplace is another concern. They may be transported with or near imported animals from different countries. Since there are few health regulations for imported pets, the animals may be carrying parasites or diseases. Buying a pet at a swap meet can be risky. Often dealers cannot tell you where the animals have been.

"We are living in a global community. A disease that once was found only in a specific area can now be easily spread to new areas, causing large disease outbreaks, as in the case of West Nile virus," comments Dr. Whittington. "Because such diseases may be zoonotic, affecting animal and human populations, wild-caught, imported animals do not make appropriate pets."

Today people are more aware of disease and disease spread, in part due to attention devoted to the threat of bioterrorism. This awareness has led to more preventive measures and better disease control. A main goal of disease control is to keep disease agents from entering wild populations. Never release an unwanted pet into the wild! It is easier to prevent diseases from entering the environment than it is to eradicate them after they have been introduced.

Contact your local veterinarian for more information about the world of exotic pets. Your veterinarian and the Centers for Disease Control (http://www.cdc.gov/) are excellent resources for information on old and new health concerns.