Boredom Busters You'll Use Again and Again With These Unusual Pets

exotic pet

Story at-a-glance -

  • Exotic pets are far more than cage ornaments; it’s a myth that these animals require less interaction and stimulation than dogs and cats
  • Exotics (e.g., tropical birds, small mammal “pocket pets,” reptiles, etc.) need to spend time outside their enclosures and engage in instinctive behaviors to prevent stress, boredom and destructive behavior
  • There are clear signs of boredom to watch for in each species of pet; likewise, there are many ways to provide environmental enrichment depending on the species you own
  • If you’re considering an exotic pet, it’s extremely important to research the species thoroughly and connect with others knowledgeable about how to best care for the animal you’re considering adopting or purchasing

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Exotic pets, which are indoor animal companions other than dogs or cats (e.g., reptiles, birds, hamsters, rats, rabbits, ferrets, amphibians and even pot-bellied pigs), are present in millions of American homes. And while increasing numbers of pet parents understand that exotics need environmental enrichment just like dogs and cats, sadly, many people still don't get it.

It's a myth that exotics require less care and/or stimulation than other types of pets. Lack of interaction with humans and regular time spent out of their cages or enclosures inevitably leads to behavioral and health problems.

"This is particularly an issue with birds," Dr. Laurie Hess, an avian veterinarian, tells veterinary journal dvm360. "Sometimes they're good for the first few years and then the bird reaches sexual maturity and then it starts screaming and biting because it's frustrated and wants more attention.

The bird isn't fun anymore, so the pet owner doesn't want to be with it as much, which leads to more cage time. It's kind of a vicious cycle."1

Signs Your Exotic Pet Needs More From You

It's important to understand that exotic pets have been removed from their natural habitats and social groups, and are living in a foreign environment, which is stressful. They can't perform many or any of the instinctive behaviors they participate in in the wild, such as foraging for food, making nests or burrows, or searching for a mate. Signs of boredom in an exotic pet can include:

A highly intelligent parrot who begins screaming frequently in an effort to find other birds, feather picks or self-mutilates (recommended: 7 Things to Consider Before Getting a Parrot)

A hamster who curls into a ball and sleeps constantly, even at night (recommended: How to Make Your Hamster Happier)

A rabbit who over-grooms herself to the point of pulling out her fur (recommended: Why Rabbits Make Excellent House Pets)

A highly active ferret who lies around, sleeps, eats and gains weight

A very social sugar glider who chews on himself and self-mutilates

A reptile who becomes lethargic and refuses to interact or even eat

Sadly, many exotics end up being "set free" or relinquished to an animal shelter or rescue because their issues have become too much for the pet parent to manage

Environmental Enrichment Recommendations

Different species require vastly different environments to thrive, which is why it's so important to do your homework and talk to experts before deciding to adopt or purchase a captive-bred exotic pet. However, it's safe to assume they all need time outside their enclosures to exercise and safely explore their environment.

All species also benefit from foraging for food (preferably species-appropriate, fresh food), so whatever you can do to encourage your pet to hunt or work for his food will provide him with much-needed mental stimulation. Beyond these two universal requirements, your pet's individual needs will depend on what species he is, for example:

Birds require a tremendous amount of environmental enrichment — including plenty of time outside the cage — to prevent destructive boredom-based behaviors. I recommend rotating through a collection of nontoxic, destructible (chewable) toys daily to keep your bird interested and engaged in play.

Also add in fun training sessions and plenty of time socializing, grooming and conversing. When it comes to diet, omnivorous parrots enjoy live mealworms, waxworms and crickets, which you can obtain from a chemical-free bug farm.

Rabbits are social creatures who do best with a buddy or two (obviously, they must be sterilized or be same-sex pairs/groups to prevent unwanted baby bunnies). It's best to let your rabbits live primarily indoors while giving them safe access to the outdoors daily to prevent vitamin D deficiency.

You can put your rabbit on a harness, or you can simply move her cage outdoors for a few hours (as long as it's not over 80 degrees F and she has access to a shady spot in the cage). Cages should be at least eight times as large as the biggest rabbit, and the flooring should not be wire.

Rabbits can roam freely around your home (or in a certain area of your home), but be sure to thoroughly rabbit-proof the place, taking special care to remove electrical cords, which can prove fatal to your rabbit if chewed. And speaking of chewing, rabbits do a lot of it naturally, so be sure to provide ample safe chewing materials such as untreated wood blocks or cardboard, bowls, balls and rings made of willow wood, and paper towel or toilet paper cardboard rolls.

Rats are intelligent, inquisitive and affectionate, and in captivity will thrive given the opportunity and appropriate environment. They can learn their names and be trained to come when called, and they live for time out of their cage to play and interact with their owners.

Many rats even "groom" their owners, which is a sign of affection. In general rats enjoy the companionship of humans (and other rats). Many rats enjoy being petted while others are content to perch on your shoulder.

Rats will often cuddle up on your lap (especially males) and some even play games like peek-a-boo. While rats enjoy spending time outside of their cages with their owners, they also require ample room to move around for stimulation while in their cage, so consider multiple levels, hammocks, tunnels, ramps, shelves and other areas of interest to keep them active and mentally engaged.

Ferrets are very active, so provide yours with multiple-level houses that allow them to run and tunnel and hide (look for cages exclusively designed for ferrets that include multi-level structures). Other necessary supplies include a litter pan and ferret litter, a blanket for burrowing, and an assortment of toys to keep your naturally intelligent, curious little pet mentally and physically active. If you're considering a ferret, first make sure they're legal to own where you live.

Reptile environmental enrichment is best achieved by providing a way for them to perform natural behaviors and endure minimal stress. This requires an enclosure that offers features of the animal's natural habitat and provides mental stimulation by offering choices. You can hide food, for example, to encourage foraging, and add a digging substrate or vertical objects (to simulate trees) depending on whether your pet is a burrowing species or a land or tree dweller.

Reptiles also have specific indoor lighting and heat requirements and benefit from spending consistent time outside, as long at the temperature falls within the species' preferred optimal temperature zone. Read here for more details about environmental enrichment for reptiles.

Please Be a Knowledgeable, Well-Prepared Exotic Pet Parent

If you decide to add an exotic pet to your family, it will be up to you to not only create an emotionally and physically fulfilling environment for your animal companion, but also to continually strive to learn more so you can provide the best life possible. An integrative exotic veterinarian can provide wellness care for your pet while giving you additional insights and advice about species-appropriate diets and specific nutritional requirements.

Joining local exotics clubs, such as the American Federation of Aviculture, is an excellent way to learn more, and you can also join online forums or volunteer for a local rescue organization. Keep in mind that there are many captive-bred exotic pets in need of good homes — from snakes and lizards to birds and even sugar gliders — so rather than shopping for one (never buy wild caught animals), rescue one from an organization near you.

+ Sources and References