As an exotic animal veterinarian who treats birds, rabbits, ferrets, rodents, reptiles, amphibians, and other less commonly known pets such as sugar gliders, hedgehogs, and pot-bellied pigs, I am constantly asked whether it is possible to integrate an exotic animal into a home that already has dogs and cats. My answer is a resounding, “Yes!” In fact, I grew up in a small apartment in a New York City high-rise with cats, dogs, guinea pigs, birds, and fish. If you follow these steps, and you are patient, your new exotic pet can live harmoniously with your existing dogs and cats:
1. Ensure your exotic pet is housed safely in a secure cage
Dogs and cats can easily swipe with long claws through the bars of an exotic pet’s cage or grab at an exotic pet’s limb and pull. Parrots, with their sharp beaks, also can antagonize a cat or dog with a quick bite through the cage bars, and many large birds are capable of letting themselves out of a cage and escaping. So, be sure to lock exotic pets’ cages tight, and keep them out of reach of curious cats and dogs.
2. Never allow your exotic pets out unsupervised with your dogs or cats
Most exotic pets are prey species, while dogs and cats are predators. Therefore, they should never be trusted together without supervision. All it takes is a second for a predatory cat or dog to grab or swipe at a bird or other exotic pet. Don’t take chances; keep them apart when they are all out of their cages.
3. Don’t trust even the most well-meaning dog or cat
I hear all the time from dog and cat owners that their pets are too sweet and gentle to ever hurt a bird or other exotic. Many energetic dogs and cats may be well-meaning and just want to play with their new exotic friends; however, with their long nails, sharp teeth, and bacteria-laden mouths, even well-intentioned dogs and cats can inflict serious harm on small, delicate exotic species. Give your dog or cat a toy to play with instead, and keep him or her away from your new exotic addition.
4. Make sure exotic pets get plenty of safe, out-of-cage time
Even though you want to keep your new exotic friend safe in his or her cage, you must be sure to plan plenty of time each day for him or her to be out of the cage, exercising and socializing with the human family members in the house. This way, the exotic animal can become comfortable in his or her new environment and bond to the new family.
5. Be sure to keep all pets in the house up-to-date in veterinary care
Regardless of what kind of exotic pet you introduce, be sure to have him or her checked out by an exotic pet-savvy veterinarian when you first get him or her so that you can better understand how to introduce this particular pet into your household’s existing pet social structure. Some animals, like ferrets, will likely be intrigued by cats and dogs and may even seek out their attention. Rabbits and some smaller birds, however, may be afraid of cats and dogs and may take longer to adapt to environments where these animals already live. If you seek the advice of a veterinarian familiar with the care and temperament of exotic pets before you introduce the new exotic animal into your home, you are much more likely to end up with a new, harmonious balance among all your beloved pets.
Written by Dr. Laurie Hess, one of 125 avian specialists certified by the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners and owns the only Animal Hospital Association of America-accredited exotic animal hospital in NY State – the Veterinary Center for Birds & Exotics – in Westchester County, NY. She is an exotic pet writer, a regular exotic pet expert on television, and a radio show host. Her book, Unlikely Companions: The Adventures of an Exotic Animal Doctor, is available now wherever books are sold. Connect with Dr.