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
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
-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.
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 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:
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.
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.
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.
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 / 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.