Some people are drawn to the exotic or esoteric, including their choice of pets. Exotic pets have become widespread in the United States and many other countries. While a source of enjoyment for the owners, these pets can cause serious problems and present many dangers, especially when they bite. What follows is a discussion of the hazards and risks associated with exotic pets, as well as medical calculators for exotic animal bites and diseases.

Exotic pets are wild animals who can turn on their owners or anyone else they come into contact with at a moment’s notice.  Even when the owner believes a bond has been established, wild animals can attack their owners.  The most well known case in recent years occurred in Las Vegas, when Roy, of Siegfried and Roy was attacked onstage by his white tiger. A woman who felt “unqualified love” from her 9 pet wolf dogs was mauled to death.  A 19-year-old Brooklyn man was attacked by his pet Burmese python, and in Germany, a man was fatally bitten by his black widow pet spider.  All too often these owners may not be aware of what they are getting themselves into.

What Kind of Exotic Pets Do People Own?

Exotic pets come in every shape and size. These may include:

  • bears
  • crocodiles or alligators
  • lions, leopards or tigers
  • lizards
  • ostriches
  • piranhas
  • rodents
  • scorpions
  • tropical birds
  • venomous snakes

Some of these exotic animals may seem cute and harmless when small, only to turn into something quite different as adults.

What Are the Risks?

Direct hazards from these pets include exposure to bacterial pathogens (such as Salmonella), viral pathogens, various toxins or venoms, physical trauma, and allergies. Calculators to assess these risks include:

  • Injuries Associated with Monkey and Primate BitesInjuries Associated with Monkey and Primate Bites
  • CDC Criteria for Human MonkeypoxCDC Criteria for Human Monkeypox
  • Risk Factors for Being Bitten by a Pet FerretRisk Factors for Being Bitten by a Pet Ferret

Not only the owners are at risk. The pets may be at risk too.  They may get poor care and may be abused. They may be transported to an environment for which they are ill-suited. Collectors may cause a decline in native populations. Release of the pets can result in displacement of native species, especially if there are no natural predators, as seen with Burmese pythons in Florida.

Who is at Risk?

There are many ways to look at risk.  A person who is considering an exotic pet may be at risk for making a bad decision when one:

  • Does not consider possible drawbacks
  • Is unaware of the potential hazards
  • Deals with an illegal or unlicensed dealer
  • Is impulsive and irresponsible
  • Abuses drugs or alcohol

While the owner is often the person at greatest risk, others may also be affected.  Some proud owners may want to bring a pet for show-and-tell at schools, nursing homes or hospitals. Small pets and children may look like an easy snack to a large predator. A person who is immunocompromised may be at increased risk for a life-threatening infection.

Cleaning up the Mess

If something does go wrong, then someone has to deal with the problem, and that person may be unfamiliar with the hazards. Essential therapeutic agents such as antivenom may not be readily available. An exposure may not even be recognized if the information is not provided. Having rapid access to reliable information and decision support tools can make all the difference in quickly handling a potentially dangerous situation.

  • Crotalid Snakebite Severity ScoreCrotalid Snakebite Severity Score
  • Clinical Score for Identifying a Patient Who Should Be Hospitalized Following a Scorpion EnvenomationClinical Score for Identifying a Patient Who Should Be Hospitalized Following a Scorpion Envenomation

Take Home Message

Some people feel the need to own exotic pets. Often they are unaware that they may be facing significant problems, or they may be overconfident in their ability to handle any situation.  Healthcare providers who respond to an incident involving an exotic pet may be totally unprepared. In such a situation medical algorithms can be helpful in identifying the risks, making a diagnosis and treating the patient.