With more Australians living in apartments than ever before, traditional pets such as cats and dogs are sometimes not the most suitable.

But this doesn’t mean these owners need to miss out on the companionship provided by a pet and are instead turning to alternative pets such as birds, reptiles, and small mammals, which often require far less space and are perfect for the urban family.

According to Animal Medicines Australia’s Pets in Australia study, 11 per cent of Australian households keep birds, four per cent of households keep small mammals, and three per cent of households keep reptiles.

This means that nearly one in five Australian households is home to an avian or exotic pet.

When you look inside these households, an impressive number have more than just the one animal, with 54 per cent of bird owners having more than one bird, 48 per cent of small mammal owners keeping more than one small mammal, and 41 per cent of reptile owners keeping multiple reptiles.

Ben Dessen, Retail Manager at Kellyville Pets, said the Covid period saw rapidly accelerated demand for exotic pets as people were restricted to their homes offering an ideal opportunity to bring a new animal into their family.

“This trend extended across the board including avian, reptile, small animals and even invertebrates. In the past six to 12 months, with the sharply rising cost of living, people are thinking twice before bringing a new animal into their life and demand has definitely reduced.”

Dessen said at Kellyville Pets, the most popular exotic pets would include reptiles, in particular the central bearded dragon and small pythons such as spotted and children’s pythons.

“When it comes to birds, nothing can beat the humble budgie, along with small hand raised parrots such as cockatiels, princess parrots, conures and quakers.”

Emma Mitchell-Collett, PETstock Live Specialist, said that since Covid, they’ve seen an increase in people owning more exotic pets.

“The latest PETstock Pet Parent report shows that when it comes to types of pets, the family dog is still Australia’s number one pet, but cohabitating with reptiles, birds, fish and even spiders is growing more common and confirms a trend towards smaller pets.”

Sam Brown, Executive Manager at iPetz, a wholesale business, which specialises in reptiles, said that in the reptile category, bearded dragons and smaller python species are the most popular.

“Bearded dragons are very easy to keep and are particularly good for children as they are placid and easy to handle when handled regularly. The smaller pythons such as children’s pythons and eastern small-blotched pythons only grow to around a metre in length, so only need a small enclosure and again are generally good to handle if handling is practiced from a hatchling stage.”

Brown has also seen interest in frogs as well as reptiles increase over the past few years as they cater for the busy, time and space poor pet lover who still wants to enjoy the benefits of a pet without the higher level of commitment.

“Typically, these species require smaller spaces and less care time than a cat or dog. They are also relatively quiet, making them appealing to both keeper and neighbour alike. The exception perhaps would be frogs during breeding time.”

Creature comforts

While most people know what products and services are required when caring for a dog or cat, the first-time owner of an avian or exotic pet should be doing their research and ensuring their setups are correct for the animal they’re keeping.

Melinda Cowan, Avian Specialist and Exotics Veterinarian at Small Animal Specialist Hospital (SASH) said the care of more unusual pets can be challenging compared to dogs and cats.

“Many birds and exotic pets can be high maintenance, requiring specific diets and environments. Reptiles, in particular, have species specific housing requirements that are essential for the health of the pet. Parrots and many other exotic pets also have strong emotional and social needs.

“Health care can be challenging for birds and exotic pets since many are considered prey animals. This means that they hide signs of illness or injuries, often until the problem has become advanced. At this stage, there are also very limited options for pet insurance for these animals.”

Cowan explained that many health problems found in exotic pets unfortunately develop as a direct result of incorrect diet or housing.

“We see overgrown teeth in rabbits and guinea pigs that are fed a diet deficient in high quality hay. Reptiles are often seen with bone deformities or severe bacterial infections because they have not been kept with the correct UV lighting or heating. We also encounter many behavioural problems that occur as a result of captivity, especially in parrots.”

Matthew Seychell, Manager at Pets Unleashed, said it is important to consider the size of the terrarium and growth potential of the animal being considered.

“Consider the time you must spend with said animal and maintenance for enclosure. Consideration needs to be given around obtaining the correct license and ensuring that they undertake any courses if required.”

Brown emphasised the importance of doing research, as although time and maintenance can be low, the initial set up costs can be high, and it is important that this is done correctly.

“Work out first where the interest lies and find out how big an animal will get and whether the person has the resources and space to accommodate this. Often first-time owners will purchase an animal in its juvenile stage and some of the pythons, for example, can get very large.”

The criticalness of providing the right environment for these pets, is a reason why Brown and iPetz focus on ready-to-go packages that are easy for the customer to take home, plug in and use, and they contain the correct equipment for the species they are keeping.

“Initially, the most important products and accessories a customer should take home (if they haven’t set up already) is an appropriate enclosure with correct heating, lighting, and thermostat control. This is the imperative basic requirements that should be met prior to a customer taking the animal from the store.”

Dessen said that with such a wide array of exotic and avian pets available, all with vastly differing husbandry requirements, it is crucial that people do thorough research about the species they are considering caring for.

“Non-negotiable products and accessories would include a suitable enclosure, heating/lighting (for reptiles and amphibians), specialised diets, enrichment, and enclosure furnishings etc.”

In-store care

Before the pets reach their future homes, they are cared for by the staff of the store they’re in, so it is important that team members understand the appropriate care and husbandry required.

Dessen explained that these animals require specialised in-store care with suitable housing, diet, and husbandry routines.

“Most importantly, stores that wish to find homes for exotic pets need qualified and experienced staff with a wealth of practical, hands-on experience working with each animal type.”

Seychell agrees that a properly trained member of staff should be responsible for the care of these animals.

“There needs to be daily feeding and health checks with someone trained on healthcare and maintenance. As well as regular temperature checks and light changing. Some species also need individual housing to avoid fighting and aggression.”

Mitchell-Collett said that in-store care at PETstock involves both daily and weekly routines to ensure the health of the animals.

“Daily, we do health checks, spot cleans, replacing food and water and interaction throughout the day as well as detailed record keeping. Weekly, we do deep clean and an enclosure refresh. In-store, the animals are treated as though they are our own pets and are provided with the highest standard of welfare, care, and love.”

Speaking about the sale of reptiles and frogs, Brown said that enclosures must be immaculate and feature all the basic elements that fulfill the animal’s needs.

“Animals should be in good condition with records kept of feeding and any other healthcare. In the case of reptiles and frogs, it is essential to offer an appropriate range of enclosures in various sizes, featuring products that can heat and regulate an environment’s temperature, and products that emit the correct lighting.”

Laying down the law

As laws and regulations around the keeping of avian and exotic pets vary from state to state, it is imperative that the retailer is well-informed, for both their and the consumer’s sake.

Brown said that these laws and permit systems are there to protect the animals, which is important to the continued success and sustainability of keeping these animals in captivity.

“Overall, we support this idea as this reflects both our passion for these animals as well as our ability to continue to grow in this industry. There will always be sections or features of legislation that could be improved or changed but for the most part the system works and achieves what it sets out to do.”

Seychell agrees that most laws and regulations have been introduced with animal welfare in mind, but there are some he would disagree with.

“The import/export permit for NSW is outdated, with NSW the only state required to pay these permits. Also, the regulations around buying from WA is allowed but selling to WA is prohibited.”

For Dessen, he would like to see specialised stores in NSW such as Kellyville Pets permitted to carry a wider variety of unique pets, such as a broader range of reptile species as well as suitable amphibians.

“Specialised stores can provide a one-stop-shop to customers including healthy, ethically bred animals, expert advice and education as well as a myriad of high-quality husbandry products and equipment.”

Mitchell-Collett said another challenge is keeping up with the supply and demand and ensuring they are sourcing from only the most ethical and loving breeders.

“Supply and demand for the products needed to keep these animals happy is increasing so yes, a challenge, but also an opportunity for range expansion and new supplier relationships.”

This article originally appeared in the 2023 Winter Issue of Pet Industry News.

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