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27 Common Care Mistakes of Exotic animals [LI Vet Shares Experience]

Many pet owners are at risk of making common mistakes with the care of their pet. Even for seemingly straightforward pets like hamsters, it’s all too easy to miss something.

Dr. Malka, a veterinarian in Long Island, treating exotic pets from the Greater New York area including Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn, has shared his insights on some of the most common exotic pets and how to care for them properly.

Table of Contents

Common Care Mistakes By Animal Type





Guinea Pigs







Yes, bunnies are adorable, but they’re also notoriously high-maintenance and the most commonly neglected exotic pet. This stems from a number of misunderstandings:

  • Bathing

There are huge numbers of youtube videos showing rabbit owners bathing their bunnies, but this is actually harmful to your bunny. Rabbits will groom themselves, plus their undercoat constantly sheds keeping the fur clean and new.

If your rabbit is really dirty, then they need to be taken to the vet to find out what the cause is. If your bunny has a pooppy bottom, you’ll need to find out what’s causing it. As a temporary way to cleanse the area, you can give the rabbit a dry bath but only with talc-free baby powder.

Avoid using water, as rabbits are particularly skittish around water and can easily injure themselves. Water also tends to get trapped in the undercoat causing their skin to get waterlogged or infected.

  • Lack of Dental Care

Bunnies in the wild eat plant matter that most other animals can’t consume, so it stands to reason that their teeth are hugely important. A rabbit’s teeth never stop growing throughout its lifetime, and while the teeth would normally wear down in the wild to the proper length, that’s not always the case for domesticated rabbits.

It’s imperative that rabbits get their teeth checked by a vet regularly. As prey animals, bunnies are especially good at hiding any issues and illnesses they acquire.

Need a quick check up for your rabbit? Find a veterinarian near you.

  • No vaccinations

Rabbits are fragile creatures, and catch easily catch diseases. Be careful not to assume that because they seemingly do well in the wild, that they do not need vaccinations. With the right care, rabbits can live to be up to 8 to 12 years old.

  • Not spaying or neutering

Owners who do not spay or neuter their rabbit are often met with undesirable bunny behavior once the pet matures. As territorial creatures, they may bite, scratch, and males will spray the furniture and room. Females especially should be spayed as they are prone to reproductive cancers. Fixing your rabbit can literally add years to their lifespan and reduce overall stress for them.

  • Locking it up

Rabbits are smart, social and curious. As such they need plenty of space to run and explore. Most rabbit cages are way too small and can cause health problems, obesity, and deformities in your fluffy friend.

You can give your pet free range of the house easily by bunny proofing the home (be sure to cover all electrical cording in particular) and giving them chew toys and a dark box to hide in occasionally.

  • Keeping it outside

There are innumerous dangers to keeping rabbits outside. Nearly every predator on the food chain would be delighted to have a go at your pet, but even with a well protected hut that has mesh fencing both around and above, bunnies can get heart attacks just by seeing a predator.

Rabbits are also incredible escape artists and will often burrow out of an enclosure. If you absolutely must keep your bunny outside, be sure the mesh fencing reaches far enough below ground as well as above.

For residents of New York City, do not keep rabbits on a roof! This is especially common in Brooklyn and Manhattan, but rabbits can overheat or freeze.

Having trouble finding a veterinarian specializing in rabbits near you? Find NY Exotic Pet Clinics

  • Feeding sugary pet store treats

Pet stores sell a vast variety of bunny treats, but many of these are high in sugar and not healthy for your bunny. If you don’t want your bunny having soft stool and other issues, avoid these treats.

Basic rabbit food requirements are unlimited water and hay, daily serving of veggies, and plain pellets once in awhile. Fruit and veggies make for great treats, but you can also find patches of clover as a free bunny snack.

  • Cuddling

Rabbits have very delicate spines, so if they’re struggling, do not pick it up. Most bunnies don’t like to be cuddled, but like a cat, will come to you when they want attention. If your bunny is particularly affectionate, it might even sit on your lap for periods of time.

  • Not paying attention

As prey animals, rabbits are very good at hiding their illnesses, so owners need to be attuned to the slightest changes in their routine. Any difference in eating, going to the bathroom or behavior can be a sign of serious discomfort and a medical emergency.

They also need specialized care from an exotics vet, not your neighborhood cat or dog vet, which means researching a vet ahead of time so you have him on call for emergencies.

If you live in New York City or Long Island, there are plenty of exotic pet clinic options near you. Click here to find out more.


Ferrets make such great pets because they are playful, intelligent, and very people friendly, but there's a lot that people don't know about these creatures and misinformation online. Here are the common ferret care mistakes:

  • Not spaying or neutering

This is extremely important, as not only does spaying and neutering your ferret reduce some of their natural musky odor, it will prevent male ferrets (hobs) from spraying your home. Females especially should be spayed, as they can die when in heat if not bred or given a hormone shot.

  • Bathing to reduce body odor

Bathing your ferret often won’t reduce their odor, it’ll actually make it worse. When you bathe your ferret too often, it strips their fur of healthy natural oils, causing their body to produce too much to offset this, which increases the ferret’s natural odor.

You only need to bathe a ferret once every month at most, using mild scent free shampoo. Ferrets will groom themselves and smell better if you keep their bedding fresh and clean.

  • Not getting annual checkups and vaccinations

Ferrets are prone to diseases and parasites just like dogs and cats. It’s important to give your ferret their necessary vaccinations and have them checked regularly. Your vet will also be able to check their teeth and give you grooming tips.

  • Not grooming regularly

Ferrets shed twice a year and should be brushed during that time to help get rid of loose fur. They also need to have their ears cleaned regularly to prevent infections from the buildup of wax. It can also help reduce odors. While cleaning their ears, you should also check for ear mites.

Ferrets can also develop tartar buildup, so brush their teeth using a small pet toothbrush and pet safe toothpaste and check for tartar once a month. Nail trimming should be done every two weeks or as necessary. Your veterinarian can show you how to properly groom your ferret.

  • Not potty training

Ferrets poop… a lot! Properly potty training your ferret will save you a lot of strife, and it isn’t that hard. You can walk them with a for ferrets harness and leash, although be forewarned that they don’t cross streets well and prefer to walk directly next to a wall.

Litter box training is really easy too. Your ferret will naturally pick its preferred toilet area, so put the litter box there and only use paper pulp litter. (Never clay or clumping litter!) Gradually, you can move the box closer to the area you would rather it to be. Ferrets like to go in the corner though, so you’ll have greater success if you choose a corner.

  • Keeping it caged

Keeping your ferret caged when it has no human supervision is fine, but at a minimum, it needs to have 4 hours to run around the house. Ferrets are incredibly playful and affectionate, and as such require lots of attention.

The cage should be fairly large, especially when keeping two ferrets. It's also a good idea to have multiple levels and a sleeping area for them. For a single ferret, the cage should be at least 24 inches long, 24 inches deep, and 18 inches high. These adorable little pets are bundles of energy and need lots of space to run, jump, and play.

  • Not for young kids

When mishandled, or handled roughly, ferrets might bite or scratch. Although not normally aggressive, once they learn that violent behavior can get them what they want, it can be very hard to break the habit. For older kids, make sure you teach how to handle the ferret properly.

  • Feeding veggies or dog food to ferret

Ferrets are purely carnivorous and cannot eat fruits or veggies at all. They also cannot digest dog food, as most brands use too many fillers and complex carbohydrates. Even food that claim to be made for ferrets often get it wrong.

If you want to feed your ferret dry kibble, you have to read the label thoroughly. The food must have 30 to 40 percent crude protein, and 15 to 20 percent fat. When checking the ingredients, the first 3 listed should be meat, not grain, rice, corn, or any other carb or vegetable.

All treats you give should be meat based. Freeze dried 100% meat products are a great choice, as are meat based baby food, like chicken beef or turkey. No table scraps though! Cured meat and salt isn’t healthy for ferrets.

  • Do not use sprays and collars for fleas

Go to the vet for any parasites. This includes fleas, mites, and heartworms. Ferrets are particularly sensitive to most pesticides and should never be given any sort of over the counter parasite medication.

  • Keeping other pets with ferrets

A ferret's playful and curious nature makes it a natural companion to most larger house pets. Introductions should be made with caution, however, and proper supervision is a must. Dogs with a strong prey drive should not be introduced to ferrets. It is not recommended that ferrets be introduced to birds, rabbits, rodents (this includes hamsters, gerbils, and guinea pigs), or reptiles.

  • Not ferret proofing the home

As mentioned before, ferrets need to be let out of the cage for at LEAST 4 hours a day. If properly potty trained, they can even live cage free. Either way, you need to ferret-proof your house.

Here’s what to look out for:

• Cabinets and drawers (Ferrets can open them.)

• Heaters (Ferrets might knock them over.)

• Furnace ducts (Ferrets can get inside them.)

• Recliners and sofa beds (Ferrets have been crushed in their levers and springs.)

• Anything spongy or springy, such as kitchen sponges, erasers, shoe insoles, foam earplugs, Silly Putty, foam rubber (including inside a cushion or mattress), Styrofoam, insulation, and rubber door stoppers (Swallowing pieces of these items will often result in an intestinal blockage.)

• Filled bathtubs, toilets, and water and paint buckets (Ferrets can drown in them.)

• Plastic bags (Ferrets can suffocate in them.)

• Holes behind refrigerators and other appliances with exposed wires, fans, and insulation (Ferrets love to chew on wires and eat insulation.)

• Dishwashers, refrigerators, washers and dryers (Ferrets can get trapped inside them.)

• House plants (Some are poisonous.)

• Box springs (Ferrets love to rip the cloth covering the underside of box springs and climb inside, where they may become trapped or crushed. To prevent this, attach wire mesh or a thin piece of wood to the underside of the box springs.)

If you’re worried, you can always purchase fencing to create a ferret safe enclosure that still give them lots of room to play. An exotic animal physician can help you provide the best care for your ferret.


There are so many varieties of avian birds, but even with small parakeets, lories, love birds, cockatiels, canaries, finch, songbirds, or budgies, there's a lot that can go wrong. This is just as true for parrots, African Greys, cockatoos, macaws, conures, caique, even other birds like pigeons, duck, waterfowl, peacock, goose/geese, chickens, dove. They will have different care requirements per species, so if you're ever unsure about something, consult an animal clinic specializing in birds and exotic pets.

Here are the most common bird mistakes to look out for:

  • Improper feeding

There are a huge variety of foods that are safe for birds to eat but because of this, it’s also harder to know what they shouldn’t eat. Be sure to visit a vet specializing in birds to get proper nutrition information for your bird.

It’s a good idea to feed them first thing in the morning, as they tend to be very hungry after waking up, especially larger birds like parrots. Just remember that all fresh fruit and vegetables should be washed thoroughly first, and should not be left in the cage for a long period of time, as it can go bad.

Dry food must be changed regularly, even if they didn’t eat it. A very common mistake people make with birds is assuming there’s still food in the bowl, when there are only empty seed shells, or not noticing the water bottle doesn’t work properly. Another common mistake is not noticing that there is bird poop in the food or water. Bird poop contains urine which will seep into food and water and contaminate it, so make sure to change it out often.

Veterinarians specializing in birds can show you how this is done properly when you consult with them. For animal doctors who service birds in the New York City and Long Island area, Click HERE.

  • Household hazards

It’s very easy to forget how sensitive birds can be to simple hazards like air pollutants and chemical cleaning products. The basic rule of thumb is to never smoke around birds, avoid incense, aerosol sprays and scented candles around birds. If you cook with non-stick cookware, be sure your bird is kept away from the kitchen in a well ventilated space. Small birds, finches, parakeets, canaries, and cockatiels are especially sensitive.

  • Too much cage time/unsafe cages

Birds are highly intelligent and playful. They need to be let out of their cages for at least a few hours everyday. Just be aware that they will chew on everything in sight, so give them plenty of toys and help them learn how to play with them. Don’t let them chew on electrical wiring or on paint, as both can be hazardous.

When picking out a cage, make sure it’s very spacious since you’ll also have to put perches, toys, and feeding dishes in it. A few things to keep in mind: birds prefer width over height, the bars of the cage should be easy to clean but not spaced so far apart that the bird can fit its head or body through, and it should be big enough to fit perches of varying size.

  • Dirty Cages

Birds move around using their feet, especially in cages. They also use their feed to eat with, so bacteria spreads around their living space very easily, not to mention their poop can get caked onto the bars. Clean cages often, but avoid chemical cleaning products. Mild dish soap or white vinegar diluted in water are good alternatives.

  • Not enough vet care

Birds are very complicated and need regular visits to the vet. They are very sensitive and can get sick easily without you ever noticing. Here are some common medical issues:

- Budgerigars (Parakeets, Budgies)

These birds are more prone to tumors than any other species. They are also susceptible to getting mites.

- Cockatiels

Giardiasis: A disease caused by a gut parasite. Symptoms include painful feather picking and passing of whole seeds.

Candidiasis: A disease caused by a yeast that is common in hand-fed chicks. Antifungal medicine is a current course of treatment.

Chlamydiosis: This disease should always be ruled out in sick cockatiels. Conjunctivitis and sinusitis are frequently the only symptoms seen.

Chronic egg laying, egg binding: These frequent problems can cause the death of the bird. Treatments include environmental manipulation, hormonal therapy and hysterectomy.

- Cockatoos

Blood parasite problems: These parasites may be associated with kidney disease, and most of these birds are immuno-suppressed.

Behavior problems: Self-mutilating cockatoos chew their bodies open, especially the chest and legs. This is extremely difficult to cure

-African Greys

Feather picking: This can be caused by physical, behavioral or environmental problems.

Hypocalcemia syndrome: This is low blood calcium, which can result in seizures. Birds aged 2 to 5 are most commonly affected.

Aspergillosis: Many African species seem to have problems fighting off this fungal disease. Warm, moist environments frequently cause more infections.

  • Bad cage location

Believe it or not, this is a very common mistake people make. Your bird’s cage should be located away from the kitchen, but still in an area where they can see or hear you often.

  • Lack of supervision

Whether your bird is clipped or capable of flight, there are plenty of risks for them. Flying birds can fly into windows or glass doors, ceiling fans or chimneys, while clipped birds can easily trap themselves while exploring, or chew on hazardous materials. It’s important to supervise them when you can, and keep them in safe bird proofed areas when you can’t.


Hamsters are often thought of as the perfect low maintenance pet, and they can be. Most hamster issues comes from bad information usually supplied by pet store workers. As each species has its own requirements, an initial trip to a small animal clinic, or clinic that services exotic pets, will save you a lot of strife and money in the long run.

  • Wrong bedding

Hamsters live in their bedding, so avoiding bedding with dangerous chemicals and that are harmful if ingested, is key. The only safe wood shaving bedding is Apen, so avoid cedar, pine, and softwood beddings as these types of wood all produce chemicals to kill and repel insects. Not good for your little friend.

Cotton bedding should also be avoided, since it can kill your hamster if accidentally ingested. Corn cob bedding is also dangerous as fungus and bacteria grow on it easily. Here are the best kinds of bedding to use:

-Aspen wood shavings

-Hemp bedding

-Unscented paper pulp (Carefresh and generic versions)

-Unscented shredded paper (Kaytee Clean & Cozy, Boxo)

-Unscented paper crinkles (EcoBedding, Carefresh crinkles)

-Unscented granule-type bedding (Kaytee Soft Granules)

-Unscented paper pellets (Vitakraft Fresh World)

  • Putting males and females in same cage

Unless you’re a hamster breeder, this is always a bad idea. If you’re not sure about your hamster’s gender, you can always consult a veterinarian that treats small animals.

  • Wrong wheel size/wire wheels

Having a wheel is important to a hamster’s health as it allows them to exercise and release pent up energy. Picking the right size is important to motivate the hamster to use the wheel and avoid injury. Just be sure to avoid the kind with metal or wire bars. Hamsters can easily get their foot stuck in the wire and break their leg.

  • Wrong cage size

Even if hamsters are small, you need to choose a roomy cage that provides plenty of space for exercise, play, and exploration. The minimum cage size for hamsters in Europe is about 80cm x 50cm, except Germany. In Germany, the minimum cage size for hamsters is 100cm x 50cm.

In the US and Canada, the minimum hamster cage size is 61cm x 38cm or 360 square inches. Remember, the larger the cage is, the better it is for your pet hamsters. Just be sure that there is plenty of ventilation so the hamster has air.

  • Neglecting oral health

Like rabbits and other rodents, hamsters’ teeth grow continuously throughout their lives. They need chew toys and safe types of wood to chew on. An indication of bad teeth is if the hamster is not eating properly. In that case you’ll want to take your hamster to see an animal doctor specializing in exotic pets.

  • Bathing hamsters

Hamsters do not need to be bathed! No matter how cute and funny it looks on youtube, bathing your hamster in water is dangerous for the animal.

They are very clean animals and will groom themselves. If their fur is oily or dirty, clean out their cage and put in fresh, unscented bedding. You can however, give them sand baths using chinchilla sand. Just put some in a bowl and watch the show that will unfold.

  • Lack of supervision

Hamsters are fast, small, and love to explore, so it’s all too easy to lose them. If it’s difficult to keep an eye on them while they run around, consider getting a hamster ball.

If you have other pets you’ll definitely want to take extra care with them.

Guinea Pigs

Guinea pigs are another animals that is assumed to be low maintenance. When purchasing a guinea just keep in mind that they are rarely healthy as a lone animal, and require much more space than pet stores say. The most common guinea pig mistakes are:

  • Small Cages

Most cages you can buy for your guinea pig, also called cavies, from the pet store are way too small and overpriced. Guinea pigs need space to move around, especially because rodent wheels are bad for their spine.

The best way to go about obtaining a good sized cage for your pet, is to make it yourself. Even a large plastic under bed storage container can be suitable. Just don’t put the lid on it, they need to breathe too. Wire storage bins are also a great choice, and you can usually attach a water bottle and food dish to the mesh directly and easily.

  • Keeping a lone guinea pig

Guinea pigs are incredibly social creatures, and most people with jobs or school just don’t have enough time to dedicate to these creatures as they need.

  • Improper feeding (needs hay & pellets, along with fruits and veggies)

Avoid those sugary treats from the pet store. All guinea pigs really need are hay, pellets, and fruits and veggies as treats. Just don’t feed them any lettuce! Most guinea pig owners don’t know that their furry friends should never have lettuce, seeds, nuts, or salt wheels.

Your guinea pig’s food should already have all the sodium it needs, and most lettuces like iceberg lettuce have little nutritional value and will only give your piggie diarrhea. Greener leafed lettuce is a better choice. You’ll also want to avoid hay balls since guinea pigs often get their feet stuck in them and hurt themselves.

If ever you’re unsure, consult an exotic pet vet. They’ll also let you know how you can get extra Vitamin C into their diet which they greatly need.

  • Lack of Dental Care

For guinea pigs this can be a major issue as their teeth grow all their lives. Feeding them some hard veggies and giving them chew toys can help wear teeth down to the correct size, but it's always important to have them checked by the vet regularly to be safe.

  • Using the wrong bedding

Just like with hamsters, avoid cotton, corn on the cob, and softwood beddings.


Rats and mice are ultra smart rodents and by far one of the most easily trained of the small animals. They can be a joy to have in your life, but many people incorrectly assume that they are just as hardy and impossible to harm as wild rats and mice seem.

  • Keeping only one rat

Again, these animals are incredibly intelligent and social, so it can be difficult to keep their minds occupied. Having more than one will make your rat happier and your life easier.

  • Wrong bedding

Bedding keeps being brought up because so many people get it wrong. Even the staff at pet stores often get it wrong. Anything with lots of dust or scent is going to harmful for your rat and could even have mites in it. Avoid sawdust bedding and opt for a dust free one that is still absorbent.

  • Imbalanced diet

Too many people assume incorrectly that rats can eat anything. There are actually lots of foods they shouldn’t eat so here’s the list:

Raw Red Cabbage

Red cabbage is high in thiamine destroying nutrients, thiamine is a key component in vitamin B which is a critical vitamin for all living mammals.


Leeks are very difficult to chew for rats since they break down into stringer sub-sections easily. This can make leeks a potential choking hazard, and means they're generally not suitable for rats.


This is an item that will and has caused great debate and contention, this is because certain mushrooms when cooked are fine for rats... However there's far too many types of mushrooms out there to be able to definitively say mushrooms are fine. If you’re really intent on mushrooms though, cooked white cap mushrooms are okay.

Raw Artichokes

Artichokes inhibit digestion of protein which can cause deficiency. Protein is vital for the healthy renewal of cells, which in high cancer risk rats is vitally important.

Green Bananas

Green / Unripe Banana is often given to rats as it’s harder than the ripe version which can cause possible choking, however raw bananas can inhibit starch digestion which for rats is particularly worrying as they have diets high in carbohydrates.

Also, please don’t fast your rats to make them lose weight! It doesn’t work, and in fact, rat stomachs become completely empty 6 hours after eating, so you’re only doing them harm.

  • Not cleaning the cage often enough

Rat cages need to be spot cleaned daily, and deep cleaned once a week. The reason their cages need more cleaning than other rodents is because the ammonia levels become toxic very quickly for rats, and the males are particularly prone to bladder infections from dirty cages.

  • Not taking them out to play enough

Rats are super social and should be given attention with their owner every day. Having them perform tasks, like fetching or criss-crossing around your feet are great ways to exercise their minds as well. And rat toys don’t have to be expensive either. Even an obstacle course built out of toilet paper tubes can be entertaining for them.

  • Taking rats outside to roam

Rat owners who understand how smart and well trained rats can be are often tempted to take their rats out with them, but anything could happen, and rats have lots of predators.

  • No vet care

Domesticated rats differ greatly from their wild cousins, and need more care and attention than first time owners are aware of. Get your rats checked with a veterinarian and consult with them for advice on feeding and training. You and your pets will be glad you did.

Gerbils & Hedgehogs

  • Use a tank instead of a cage

Glass tanks with a wire mesh top are a great choice for gerbils because these little creatures are master escape artists! They can easily squeeze through the bars on most wire cages. Just make sure the tank is large enough for the gerbil to roam.

  • Plenty of toys

These inquisitive little guys need to play and explore.

  • Wrong Bedding

Follow the same advice as with hamsters and you’ll be fine, same goes for sugar gliders.


Most chinchilla owners are aware of how tricky taking care of these creatures can be, but there is so much bad advice circulating both online, and in pet stores that it can be hard to sort out the truth. Here are common chinchilla care mistakes:

  • Small Caging

Chinchillas need a large enough cage to run, jump, and climb. The minimum space for this social and playful critter is 24-36”x 18-24” x 24” (WxDxH). Cages should have two stories, and there’s literally no such thing as a cage that’s too big.

To save on space, you can opt for a cage that has a metal collection pan at the bottom (similar to a bird’s cage) for their excrement, but chinchillas are also fine with a litter box in the cage like a rabbit.

  • For metal tray substrate, never use cedar!

Cedar bedding is notoriously harmful to both humans and animals and should be avoided for all pets.

  • Improper Feeding

Chinchillas do not eat hamster food nor dog food, however rabbit pellets are perfectly acceptable. It’s best to buy chinchilla pellets from certified chinchilla food vendors online, since store pellets and hay are often of very poor nutritional value. You'll want to avoid alfalfa hay since it is too high in protein and can make them sick. Timothy hay or grass hay are good choices.

Fresh veggies should be given to the chinchilla at least 3-5 times weekly, but daily is ok as well. If the chinchilla develops soft stool, back-off on the amount and type of vegetables and see if the stool returns to normal within 24-48 hours. If it doesn’t then contact your vet immediately.

  • Improper treats

Pet store treats look fun but are not healthy for your chinchilla. Instead, you can give them fresh, washed fruit. Grapes, orange slices, apple slices, kiwi slices, craisins, raisins, etc., can be given as treats. Chinchillas have sweet teeth so make sure to use these as treats 1-2 times a week or you may end up with an overweight chinchilla, dental problems, and/or diarrhea.

  • Lack of vet care

Chinchillas can live over a decade, but can easily die from dental issue and even from diarrhea. Getting them checked regularly by a specialized pet doctor at an exotic animal clinic is essential.

  • Lack of toys

Chinchillas are playful, but toys also serve health purposes for chinchillas. Their teeth grow throughout their lives so they need things to constantly chew on.

  • Bathing in water

Don’t bathe your chinchilla in water! They actually take bathes in sand, which is available in most pet stores. Just don’t get regular sand. They use chinchilla sand which is very soft, fine, and clean. Be sure to change it often, because they will use it as a toilet.

  • Overheating

Chinchillas can’t tolerate high temperatures well, so if you live in a hot climate, it’s important to keep your chinchilla’s living area cool.

  • Not taking them out to play enough

Chinchillas as prey animals require lots of exercise, so take them out to play often. Play should always be supervised since they will chew wires and get into spaces that can be dangerous for them. You can also use large, chinchilla specific running wheels in their cages to give them more exercise.


Reptiles share many common properties, and indeed the 4 most common errors with all reptiles are improper heating, lighting, humidity, and diet. Here are snake specific mistakes owners often make, and the general requirements of the most common types of pet snakes kept in the United States:

  • Improper heating/lighting/humidity

All reptiles, including snakes, are cold blooded and so heating becomes a priority for them and it’s very easy to get it wrong. Snakes come from naturally humid, to naturally arid environments, and so have very specific requirements. Each species has its own requirements, so it’s something you need to find out before hand. Here are some of the more common pet snake species and their preferred temperature:

- Corn Snake

No special light requirements (close to natural light is best) and prefers 70-85 degrees Fahrenheit. Doesn’t have special humidity requirements, although if it’s skin is shedding in pieces, add a damp washcloth or clump of moss during shedding periods. Avoid misters as they can cause harmful fungi growth.

- Ball Python

Needs a basking spot between 88 to 96 degrees. Their regular cage temperature should be 78 to 80 degrees, and never fall below 75. Humidity levels should be kept at 50 to 60%.

- California King Snake

Natural lighting is best (not in direct sunlight), and no special lighting is required. In cage temperature should vary, with one end around 85 degrees, and the other end of the cage in the 70s. This snake doesn’t need any humidity devices.

- Milk Snake

Needs a heating mat at one end of its enclosure. This end should be kept in the mid to upper 80s. The other end should be kept at 78-82 degrees, although at night lower 70s is fine. Milk snakes only require incandescent lighting. It should have a relative humidity of 40 to 60%.

- Boa Constrictor

Keep the heating lamp to one side of the cage, not in the middle. The hot end should be 85-90 degrees, and the cooler end should be in the high 70s, never below 75 degrees Fahrenheit. In the hot end, have an undertank heater as well, as boas prefer rising heat. UVB lighting is not required, but also not harmful. A trickier matter is humidity as boas are from tropical regions. They require high humidity levels at 60 to 80%

No matter what type of snake you have, never leave them in direct sunlight! Another important thing to keep in mind is to avoid using “hot rocks” since these create overly centralized heat that can burn your snake. If the snake is having trouble shedding, or shedding its skin in pieces, try increasing the humidity a bit.

Be sure to replace all lighting/UVB bulbs every 6 months. Just because they still produce light, that doesn’t mean it’s the right type. Specialty bulbs often lose their coating after 6 months.

Because getting these 3 things right is so tricky, you should always consult a vet before getting a snake enclosure set up. For NYC and LI residents, you can find the best reptile veterinarians HERE.

  • Lack of handling/too much handling

A lot of people assume snakes are a look but don’t touch pet, but it isn’t true. Captive snakes still require plenty of activity in order to reduce stress. Handling them often will help acclimate them to life as a domesticated creature, and prevent them from becoming unmanageable. They can be trained to be incredibly tame and docile, but can revert back to being aggressive after only a couple weeks without handling.

Just don’t handle them after feeding. They should be left alone for a day or two to digest. They should also be left alone for several days after moving them to a new environment, otherwise they might get ill from over-stress. You should also hold off handling them when they are shedding.

  • Improper feeding

Feeding snakes can be tricky. The prey they eat should be roughly about the width of the snake, though a little smaller or larger is fine. Too small, and they’ll have to eat again. A few things to keep in mind about snake feeding, are:

-They need 48 hours to digest food

-They do not need food everyday. Once every 5-7 days is plenty

-They do not stop eating once they start

Missing a feeding for a week or two won’t harm your snake, as long as it isn’t a habit. For baby snakes, live prey is not the best option.

  • Improper cage/enclosure

Most snakes are expert escape artists so it’s a good idea to keep an enclosure that has a locking mechanism or latch, especially with milk snakes. Any loose area in the mesh screen can become an escape route for them.

Another thing to consider is how big the adult snake will be. For many baby snakes, the average fish tank size is appropriate, but adult snakes can become huge, so instead of purchasing several tanks as it grows, it might be a good idea to get a medium and large one. 20 gallons is suitable for most adult snakes, but size will vary by species.

  • Lack of Vet care

All reptiles carry salmonella and can become infected at any time. Don’t wait for your pet to “look sick”, take it for regular checkups to be safe.

Turtles & Tortoises

  • Too small of a tank

Turtles need lots of space to swim and space to walk, about 10 gallons per inch of turtle. You’ll also want to consider its adult size, since they do grow much faster than you would think. Females will also grow to be larger than males due to sexual dimorphism. Also, never have a glass top on the tank! They need UVB rays which do not penetrate glass.

You can choose to keep a turtle outdoors, but once you’ve made the initial decision to keep them indoors or outdoors, you should never move them. These are cold blooded animals and are sensitive to sudden environment changes. The shock can kill or harm them.

For outdoor enclosures, just be sure to keep the area clear of materials that the turtle may eat, but can’t ingest.

  • Improper lighting

Turtles require UVB lighting in order to grow their shell properly. For outdoor enclosures this isn’t an issue as the sun provides for all its lighting requirements, but if your indoor enclosure doesn’t have enough natural sunlight, you’ll want to purchase a UVB lamp. The bulbs will also need to be replaced every 6 months even if they produce light still, because the UV coating fades quickly.

  • Bad filtration

Turtles, while cool, are very dirty, so don’t skimp on filtration! If you’re keeping your turtle with fish, the fish will be grateful too. Because turtles produce so much waste, it’s recommended to use a filtration system that is strong enough to handle a tank twice the size as the one you’re using.

An aquarium vacuum or siphon device is also necessary for partial water changes, which should be done at least once a week. A bubbler is great too, to help curb bacteria and algae growth.

Turtles aren’t as sensitive to pH changes as fish, but you’ll still need to test the water levels to keep it at a stable and healthy condition. This means purchasing a pH kit, ammonia tester, and nitrite/nitrate tester.

Not sure where to start? Consult your local New York animal doctor. For vets specializing in reptiles, Click Here.

  • No yearly exams

Again, turtles are reptiles and as such are carriers of salmonella. It’s really hard to tell if a reptile is healthy or sick, so all reptiles, including turtles, should have regular, annual vet exams from an animal doctor or veterinarian specializing in reptiles or exotic pets.

  • Don’t mix with other pets without supervision

Cats and dogs have been known to scratch or bite turtles, so be careful when introducing turtles to other pets. Diseases like salmonella can also be transmitted to other pets as well.

  • Overfeeding

Just like with most fish, turtles will eat and eat and eat even when they are full. They’ll also beg for food every time you pass, which can be hard to resist, but for their sake (and your wallet’s) you need to.

While growing, juvenile turtles need to be fed fairly often, adult turtles can be fed a few times per week. Give your turtle a healthy combination of store bought pellets, fresh leafy greens, and finely chopped fruits and vegetables. Because they are also carnivorous, many turtles will also enjoy small fish, shrimp, and insects as a special treat. Any of these foods can be dusted with calcium powder to provide an extra boost of this vital nutrient.

On the flip side, many species of turtles observe a hibernation period and may refuse food for long periods of time. If your turtle does stop eating and you are concerned that it may be ill, be sure to schedule a checkup with your veterinarian.

It’s always best to remove any uneaten food from a turtle’s enclosure to avoid a mess from cast-off and decaying matter, which can make the tank water get very nasty. Some owners feed their turtles in a separate area to avoid this from happening.


  • Too much handling after purchase

Lizards are more attentive to their owners than other reptiles, but they are also more prone to stress and shouldn’t be over handled, especially during stressful times like introduction to a new environment.

Once they get acclimated, you can and should handle them more often. While too much handling can lead to stress, not enough handling can also lead to stress. Finding a good balance is key.

For example, iguanas, geckos, bearded dragons, anoles, chameleon, and water dragons will all have different requirements. For alligators and crocodiles definitely consult a specialist.

  • No vet visits

New lizard owners often underestimate the complexity of care that lizards require. More than snakes, these creatures are very sensitive to environment changes and stresses and need exactly the right conditions: lighting, heating, humidity, diet, handling, etc, to thrive.

It is also extremely difficult to tell when a lizard is ill, so vet visits are especially crucial, as they are carriers of salmonella.

  • Lack of variety of foods

All lizards feed every day, and some species do well on non-living commercial food, while others will require live prey as part of their diet. Some lizards even have specialized diets that may be difficult to acquire. Horned lizards, for example, mostly eat ants in the wild. Make sure you have researched your pet’s needs thoroughly and have access to the proper diet for your particular lizard. Again, talking it over with a reptile specialist at an exotic animal clinic is always the best bet.

  • Poor habitat (lighting, humidity, size)

Many lizards, iguanas and bearded dragons included, require UVB lighting. If you can’t provide them with enough natural sunlight (do not place their enclosure in direct sunlight) then you’ll need to purchase UV lamps, and change the bulbs every 6 months, because even if the still produce light, the UV coating may have worn out.

You’ll also want to give your lizard plenty of space to move and walk within their enclosure, and since they can get very large as adults, especially iguanas and many monitor species, this means investing in a big tank.

Each species has its own heating and humidity requirements that can’t and shouldn’t be learned with just a quick chat with the pet store staff. Consulting an exotic animal veterinarian is always the safest (and in the long run, money saving) option.

  • Cleanliness

Keeping your lizard’s enclosure clean is one of the best ways to prevent it from becoming infected with salmonella. Of course, reptile enclosures must not only be cleaned, but disinfected as well. This means using diluted bleach and thoroughly rinsing everything!

  • Hot rocks, heatpads, or floor heating

Hot rocks should be avoided for all reptiles, but for lizards, floor heating should also be avoided. Lizards prefer heat from above.

  • Adding pools to enclosures

Lizards need a water dish, but having a pool in their tank is both unnecessary and can be harmful. This is a mistake too many owners make. Water has to be kept fresh, clean, free of algae, bacteria, and ammonia, and without a filter, this is near impossible. Your lizard’s home is not an aquarium and doesn’t need to be.

Exotic animals are wonderful to keep as pets, but there is a lot of incorrect information available on the web. To prevent mistakes that can be detrimental to your pet, it is always important to see an exotic pet specialist, and have them on have for regular check ups.

Consulting with the vet will give your pet a healthier, and longer life, and less headache for you.

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