Can an "Ease of Care" Labeling Scheme Help Exotic Pets?

Could a standardized grading scheme that rates pets from “easy” to “extreme” improve the welfare of exotic pets?

A standardized scheme that rates exotic pets from "easy" to "extreme" could improve animal welfare. This leopard gecko, often marketed as a beginner pet, is not easy to care for well
A leopard gecko. Photo: Gaschwald / Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

This page contains affiliate links which means I may earn a commission on qualifying purchases at no cost to you.

Exotic pets face many welfare issues, according to a new paper in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior by Clifford Warwick et al. The paper suggests a standardized scheme for rating the difficulty of caring for exotic pets that it is hoped will make people think twice about keeping pets with hard-to-meet environmental needs.

What is an exotic pet?

Exotic pets are unusual pets. Essentially they are animals that are not native to a particular area, and are not domesticated (or only semi-domesticated).

Another definition of an exotic pet is anything that is not a cat or dog. That’s the approach taken by the Calgary Humane Society, for example.

Whichever definition we choose, it means there are many exotic pets in North America. For example, most of the fish that are kept as pets are not native to Canada or the USA, which means they are exotic species.

The same applies to small animals kept as pets, such as hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils, hedgehogs, ferrets, and chinchillas. Common birds that are kept as exotic pets include canaries, lovebirds, and parrots. Ownership of reptiles is believed to be increasing, and common reptile and amphibian pets include lizards, frogs and snakes.

It is not clear how many households keep exotic animals as pets. In the United States in 2016 there were estimated to be 9.4 million reptiles kept as pets, 158 million fish, 20.3 million birds and 14 million small animals (according to the American Pet Products Association).

Although exact numbers are not known, globally it is estimated that for some types of exotic pet, up to 44% are animals that have been captured and taken from the wild. Some of them are then sold as ‘captive bred’.

What are the concerning issues with exotic pets?

The report identifies three main issues with the keeping of exotic pets.

In terms of animal welfare, the report says “many animals suffer at all points in the chain from point of capture/breeding to sales/housing.”

There are big issues to do with conservation, since many species are taken from the wild. Not only does this deplete the habitat of that species, it may have knock-on effects on other species in the area, since species are inter-connected in many ways. In addition, if exotic pets are released into the wild, they can become invasive.

Finally, there are public health issues due to the risks of infection from these pets (many of which carry salmonella, for example) and the risk of bites or scratches given they are not domesticated.

Welfare issues with exotic pets

The fact that many exotic pets are simply caught in the wild and then sold as pets is obviously a big concern. The report estimates that around the world there are more than 13 million species that are kept as pets. They say that a quick search of online pet sales in the US and UK found 550 species of reptile and more than 170 species of amphibian for sale. (You can read about animals being smuggled into Canada for the pet trade here).

For some species, even scientists do not know the needs of the animal, making it impossible to provide good welfare in captivity.

Another issue is that many species are described as easy to keep or suitable for beginners when this is not really the case. As well, some items for pets (such as tanks to keep them in) are sold as if they are suitable for particular species, when in fact they are too small to provide good welfare.

Poor information online and in other sources is another factor that makes it hard to care for these pets.

The scientists write,
“The prospects for exotic species in domestic environments without the relative benefits of professional management and facilities are highly concerning, and several studies demonstrate that poor husbandry is commonplace even for commonly traded and kept species.”

A real turtle vs a soft toy turtle

The paper illustrates some of the issues with exotic pets by comparing a pet turtle to a soft toy turtle.

The toy turtle has to meet certain standards so that it is not a hazard to children who play with it. For example, the eyes must be stitched in properly so they cannot be removed and swallowed, and it is made of washable, fire-resistant material. It does not have sharp edges that could injure a child. It has a label that conveys information about how it meets standards.

In contrast, the real live pet turtle does not come with any guarantees or standards. The person who buys it does not know how it was sourced (captive-bred or wild-caught). They are not necessarily given information on how to care for it, and for some turtles this information may not even be known to scientists. It is not washable and is a hazard in a number of ways, such as bacteria on it, its poop, and the ability to scratch and bite. The scientists say consumers' lack of knowledge of these issues raises questions about their ability to have "informed consent" when purchasing an exotic pet.

The proposed scheme for describing exotic pets

The paper says some European countries and parts of Canada have adopted or are considering the idea of a “positive list”, a list of the species that are appropriate to be kept as pets. The idea is that this would reduce the trade and keeping of species that are not on the list. Positive lists don't need updating as often as negative lists.

The paper suggests that a scheme called EMODE be used to describe exotic pets. EMODE groups animals as “easy”, “moderate”, “difficult” or “extreme” and is designed to be easy for ordinary people to understand.

EMODE assigns points to each animal according to the class it is in (e.g. amphibians, cats and dogs, fish), and according to yes/no answers to six questions. Five of the questions relate to the animal, while the sixth asks whether anyone in the household is immunocompromised (including children under 5 and seniors). EMODE is described as a standardized system for assessing the difficulty of keeping each animal.

Some of the authors of the paper were involved in the development of EMODE, althouh they do not receive any financial benefit from it as it is free to use.

EMODE is based on animal welfare (the Five Freedoms) and public health (the risk of disease/injury and the availability of professional advice on how to mitigate those risks) (Warwick et al 2014).

EMODE does not take into account whether or not an animal could potentially be an invasive species or what its conservation status is; it focusses only on pet-keeping.

Certain classes of animals are never considered “easy”, including birds and reptiles.

The “easy” category includes some (not all) invertebrates, fishes, domesticated animals and dogs and cats. The label “easy” does not mean no work is needed to care for the animal, as some responsibility is always required.

As examples from Warwick et al's earlier (2014) paper, goldfish are rated “easy” to “moderate”, budgerigars are considered “difficult” and African Grey Parrots “extreme”. Small mixed-breed dogs are considered “easy” to “moderate”, while a German Shepherd is considered “moderate” to “difficult”.

Summary and conclusion

The paper highlights many shocking issues with the welfare of exotic pets, from trade in wild-caught animals that may be endangered, to lack of knowledge of how to care for these animals, to poor information being available to the general public.

The EMODE scheme sounds like a good way to describe exotic pets that takes account of both animal welfare and the risks to the public of infection or injury due to the pet. The scheme would allow people to seek out pets that are suitable for their level of experience and expertise. And it could help with selecting animals for positive lists that can be kept as pets.

Although the scheme says it is standardized, this seems to underestimate the difficulty of assessing the quality of information on particular pets, or the risks of zoonoses/injuries. Nonetheless for common pets this is probably relatively easy to assess.

I am not sure how helpful the toy turtle vs pet turtle comparison is since people have different expectations of toys and pets.

The German Shepherd is an interesting example. If a German Shepherd is rated as moderate to difficult - basically 2 and 3 on a 4-point scale - then, to me, extreme (i.e. 4) does not seem adequate to describe some of the animals that basically should not be kept as a pet. It overlaps with a spider monkey which, according to Warwick et al 2014, is rated as difficult to extreme. It is illegal to keep spider monkeys as pets here in BC.

It remains to be seen whether prospective pet owners would use such a scheme. People who want to acquire certain kinds of pets, like reptiles, may not be put off by the fact none of them are considered "easy" pets. To be effective, the scheme would also need to be accompanied by good quality information about how to care for these animals.

The paper is open access so you can read it in full (reference below).

What do you think would improve the welfare of exotic pets?

P.S. The leopard gecko that illustrates this story is often marketed as a suitable beginner pet, but lizards have complex needs, including an environment with gradients of heat and ultraviolet light, as well as hiding places and branches and rocks for climbing. Read the RSPCA’s advice on how to care for leopard geckos. The RSPCA also has helpful care guides for other common exotic pets.

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

You might also like:

What is the best enrichment for your ferret?

Enrichment for goldfish

Going for a song: The price of pet birds

Warwick, C., Steedman, C., Jessop, M., Arena, P., Pilny, A., & Nicholas, E. (2018). Exotic pet suitability: understanding some problems and utilizing a labeling system to aid animal welfare, environment, and consumer protection. Journal of Veterinary Behavior.
Warwick, C., Steedman, C., Jessop, M., Toland, E., & Lindley, S. (2014). Assigning degrees of ease or difficulty for pet animal maintenance: the EMODE system concept. Journal of agricultural and environmental ethics, 27(1), 87-101. (also open access)

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. As an Etsy affiliate and Marks and Spencer affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Follow me!

Support me