'Exotic pets' - what are the facts?
Pets like cats and dogs are domesticated. Through generations of breeding by humans for thousands of years, they’ve become comfortable in our homes.
Wild animals aren’t domesticated, even when bred in captivity. Their home is the wild where they can thrive. Without their natural environment they suffer.
So what about ‘exotic pets’? In our view the term is simply misleading. It’s a way of acknowledging that these pets are really wild animals, without coming clean about it.
If you keep one of these species as a pet, you can find more information here about what you should do to ensure it has the best life possible.
Sign up to our myth-buster emails
Separating wildlife from pets is a complex issue and a whole load of myths have grown up around it. If you'd like to receive our myth-buster emails and hear more about our campaign, just complete your details below.
Frequently asked questions
A domesticated species is one that has undergone a process of genetic alteration over thousands of years through generations of selective breeding by people, to accentuate particular desired traits. Generally speaking, it involves changes in both appearance and behaviour, which sets them apart from their wild counterparts. Dogs may have been domesticated as early as 27,000-40,000 years ago. Estimates for cat domestication are between 3,600-9,500 years ago.
Not all species can be domesticated. In the UK, ‘wild animals’ is defined in Section 21 of the Zoos Licensing Act 1981 as ‘animals not normally domesticated in Great Britain’. Wild animals kept in captivity retain their complex social, physical and behavioural needs, which are adapted to its specific natural habitat. Wild animals bred in captivity are fundamentally similar to those born in the wild, selective breeding of exotic pets has only been done for a limited number of generations and has only altered the superficial appearance of these animals rather than their basic needs. By ‘exotic’ we mean a species that does not have a history of domestication in the UK and which is therefore a wild animal. Exotics are those without a long history of captivity and are likely to have been sourced directly or within a few generations from wild populations.
No, the practice of keeping wild animals as pets has existed for many thousands of years. However, only with rapid globalisation in the latter part of the twentieth century, driven by the spread of affordable transportation and more recently by the rapid development of the internet, has this practice transformed into a global profit-driven trade, which now constitutes a significant proportion of the USD $30-42.8 bn global wildlife trade.
There are few reliable figures available. However, the Pet Food Manufacturers Association (PFMA) Annual Pet Survey (2018-19) estimated that 300,000 tortoises, 300,000 lizards, 200,000 snakes, 100,000 frogs and toads and 500,000 ‘indoor’ birds (including species considered domesticated) are kept in the UK, compared to 9m dogs and 7.5m cats. Figures for exotic mammals are not included in this data. The Federation of British Herpetologists claims in excess of 7m reptiles are kept in the UK.
There is a mass market for so-called ‘beginner reptiles’; approximately 70% of reptiles owned in the UK belong to just six species: bearded dragon; crested gecko; leopard gecko; corn snake; royal python; and Hermann’s tortoise. Other organisations have estimated a pet primate population of 4-5,000 kept in the UK and 4,825 licensed Dangerous Wild Animals, which is likely to be a significant under-estimate of the actual population. There is also an extraordinary diversity of species caught in the exotic pet trade. A study of online classified websites identified 142 unique species for sale in just 3 months including highly endangered species (eg. Egyptian Tortoise), species with particularly high welfare needs (eg. scarlet macaw, primates) and dangerous wild animals (eg. hybrid cats).
Wild animals suffer unnecessarily as a result of wild capture, captive breeding, interactions with humans and captivity because of the limitations these actions place on their natural behaviour. The physiological and psychological well-being of a wild animal is put at risk by captivity. Best practice for wild animal welfare emphasises ‘a life worth living’, which means the opportunity for positive experiences not just freedom from negative experiences. This means providing good nutrition, environment, health and ability to express natural behaviours and understanding their effect on an animal’s mental state through observing their behaviour. In practice, this means providing: housing that allows them to exercise normally, provides stimulation, with sufficient space and environmental choice for security, complexity, challenge and novelty; nutrition tailored to an individual’s species, age, size and health; carers who are trained and competent in observing signs of good animal health and welfare; and the encouragement of natural behaviours.
Poor animal welfare can lead to stress and behavioural problems even when obvious physical health problems are not apparent. Examples include feather-plucking in parrots, pacing or overgrooming in mammals, or, in reptiles, the repetitive interaction with transparent boundaries such as the glass walls of tanks. The general public do not typically have the expertise, knowledge or resources to meet the complex needs of a captive wild animal. Wild animals are not suitable to be kept as pets.
There is comprehensive veterinary literature on the health problems experienced by exotic pets associated with poor care, examples include:
- Reptiles are prone to metabolic bone disease due to inadequate diet and UVB light, obesity and anorexia, thermal burns from heat sources, abrasions from rubbing/banging on glass, respiratory disease, dermatoses and shell diseases due to incorrect humidity and hygiene, gastrointestinal impaction due to inappropriate substrate, anorexia and mortality due to poorly-managed hibernation.
- African grey parrots are prone to hypocalcaemia syndrome caused by poor diets, resulting in tremors, tetanus, and seizures, nasal and sinus infections and respiratory disease from poor housing and environment, and behavioural problems including aggression, shrieking and feather-plucking often caused by boredom, isolation and lack of exercise.
- Sugar gliders are prone to hypocalcemia, hypoproteinemia, anemia and metabolic bone disease due to poor diets, and behavioural problems caused by stress or anxiety including overgrooming, fur loss, self-injury and pacing.
There is growing concern with the poor welfare of exotic pets in the UK. Reptile mortality in the first year has been estimated to be as high as 75 per cent. A survey of vets led by vet Martin Whitehead found that widespread failures in care is making pet reptiles ill. It found that basic aspects of care including diet, UVB lighting, temperature and hibernation were being handled inadequately. As a result poor care contributed to around 70 per cent of reptile illnesses and caused around 20 per cent of deaths.
In November 2019, the British Veterinary Association (BVA) cautioned against purchasing reptiles as pets. Their 2019 voice of the profession survey found that vets reported 49% of reptiles they had seen were not having their five animal welfare needs met.
Absolutely not. We know that most people buy exotic pets because they love animals. Animals bring joy to our lives, so why wouldn't we want them to be a part of our lives every day at home? But the exotic pet trade promotes unrealistic expectations about how easy it is to care for these animals. Owners, despite their best efforts, are not equipped to provide wild animals with the care necessary to fulfil all their needs. Many owners are unaware of the suffering their animals endure. If you already own an exotic animal, we encourage you to continue to give your pet the best life possible, for as long as you can. Read here for our advice on the steps you should take to do so.
World Animal Protection believes that people should only keep domesticated animals as pets in a manner that meets all of their welfare needs. The general public does not have the knowledge, expertise, or resources to meet the complex needs of a wild animal in captivity. Although many domesticated pets experience poor welfare, the care required is common knowledge and these animals are well-adapted to living alongside us. Many exotic pets are vulnerable to poor care. Reptiles have no facial expression and minimal ‘body language’ and vocalisation with meaning for humans, so it is difficult for even experienced owners to establish signs of stress, disease or injury. Sadly, the exotic pet trade misrepresents how easy it is to provide them proper care; many owners are unaware of the suffering their animals endure.
- Raising awareness - most people are unaware of the problems associated with the exotic pet trade and the ownership of wild animals as pets. We are working to reduce the acceptability of exotic pet ownership.
- Changing behaviour –buyers often purchase an exotic pet without proper research into the reality of ownership. We will seek to persuade potential buyers to think again and pledge not to buy an exotic pet.
- Campaigning for change – we will engage with local and national government to ensure laws regulating the exotic pet trade are properly enforced and strengthened.