Melissa cares for a variety of exotic animals and has completed a certificate
in veterinary assisting and a bachelor’s degree in biology.
It’s important to recognize and understand the different diseases that can
affect exotic pets.
Jonatan Lewczuk, CC0, via Unsplash
Many special interest groups that oppose the keeping of ‘exotic’ pets put on a
facade of pretending to care about public health and resort to exaggerating
the zoonotic disease threat of non-domesticated pets.
Think about it; the same applies with groups that promote vegetarianism and
veganism—the focus is exerted more on eliminating animal-based dietary protein
from the human diet to suit an ideological view and less on the actual (many)
causes of diet-related chronic illness in the United States. Therefore, you
will see more blown up reports about diseases caused by meat than from
cat’s_101 CC BY 2.0 Via Flickr
Zoonotic Diseases & Dogs | Oregon Veterinary Medical Association
Zoonotic Diseases & Cats | Oregon Veterinary Medical Association
What About Non-Exotic Pets?
On pages that discuss the horrors that exotic pet keeping has wrought in our
society, you will see large lists of diseases that are claimed to be spread by
exotic pet owners, presenting an illusion that non-exotic pets are ‘clean and
safe’ to own in comparison.
In fact, the subject of disease from domesticated animals is entirely
disregarded, because people are comfortable and familiar with these animals,
making them more likely to accepted due to this fact alone.
Some studies do back up some of the claims made by organizations like Born
Free, The Humane Society of the United States, Animal Defense League, and
others. This article will put the disease threat of exotic pet ownership and
other captivity forms into an honest context.
What Is Zoonosis?
A zoonotic disease is an infectious disease that can be transmitted from
animals to humans. Therefore unsurprisingly, a common mode of transmission is
through the pet trade where humans contact animals.
Many people tend to associate these pet-related illnesses toward the ownership
of unusual and exotic pet owning situations; however, all animals harbor
and can transmit bacteria, pathogens, viruses, and other organisms to humans
that has the potential to cause illness.
In fact, the number one vector of pet related-zoonosis that varies in severity
are dogs and cats due to their commonality and presence in public places.
The above video provides an example of the ‘reports’ that exotic pet owners
are faced with because since they already deal with a socially stigmatized
lifestyle, they are easy targets of sensationalism and misrepresentation. This
preview (and the actual report) failed to specify that:
- While approximately 70% of emerging diseases come from ‘wildlife,’ these are animals that are existing in the wild (such as the rabies threat in your backyard), while much of the commonly kept exotic pets are captive bred. This figure does not only pertain to exotic pets kept in the United States (these are likely a small fragment of the figure).
- There are already stringent laws existing for importation of ‘wild’ animals. Those who import animals from other countries must be licensed to do so.
- Exotic pet owners have nothing to do with the ‘illegal wildlife parts’ trade yet are discussed interchangeably with this to simplify the situation.
- This report included an entirely irrelevant discussion of the Zanesville Massacre just to arouse hatred of ‘exotic pet owners’.
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A Threat to Human Health?
Much scientific literature exists documenting incidences of pet-initiated
zoonotic transfer occurring in domestic situations that are allegedly the
result of what is touted as an ‘increasing threat’ to human health. Many of
these studies conclude their findings by ‘recommending’ avoidance of exotic
pet ownership, and their definition of ” exotic pet “ appears to include
every animal outside of those that are fully domesticated (often, the studies
include domesticated farm animals in their analysis on the causation of
‘exotic’ pet zoonosis).
I’ve shuffled through these studies, but one important factor seems to be
missing from the conclusion on the prevalence and danger that captive-bred
exotic animals supposedly possess: is there a higher percentage of illnesses
related to exotic pets, and/or are they more ‘severe’ than that of what is
related to the animals that they do not criticize?
Do exotic pets pose such a severe risk to human health and public safety that,
in comparison to domesticated pets, the right that people should hold to own
pets is invalidated?
Peter Békési CC BY-SA 2.0 Via Flickr
What Are Exotic Pets?
The definition of what qualifies as an exotic pet may vary from person to
person; however, it is safe to define this group of animals as a vast range of
species, from rodents to big cats. This definition may extend beyond non-
domesticated animals and often includes animals such as commonly-kept ferrets,
chinchillas and small very commonly bred hookbills like cockatiels and
parakeets. Many vets consider them to be all animals other than dogs and cats.
All have spread zoonotic diseases.
Therefore, it is easy to see why the disease threat of exotic pets, compared
to the eternally socially acceptable presence of cats and dogs and other more
common pets, may seem high. We are talking about a large number of different
animals that include fish, rodents, reptiles, birds, insects, and mammals vs.
canines and felines. If any problems are found with any member of this group,
‘exotic pets’ will collectively be lashed out against.
Hamsters can spread disease too.
Maarten Dirkse CC BY 2.0 Via Flickr
Your Pet Might Be Considered “Exotic”
Many people make the mistake of believing that the disease potential of exotic
pets does not pertain to their harmless pet gecko or guinea pig.
Many people probably also do not realize that these animal rights groups are
targeting their animals as an ‘exotic pet’ as well, falling for the illusion
that it is only about pet bears, tigers, and other large dangerous animals.
Size does not matter when it comes to disease, and of course, there are
probably more occurrences of diseases such as the popularly feared salmonella
with these smaller animals than that of animals typically not in mind by those
supporting bans of exotic pets on the pretense of their disease threat.
Such an enormous group of species are often lumped together, and the range of
possible disease transmission is vast with different levels of severity.
According to the literature, all of these pets are a concern, and no official
comparisons have been made to dogs, cats, and humans themselves.
- Potential Zoonotic Diseases in ‘Exotic Pets’
Diseases Often Claimed to Be Associated With Exotic Pets
- Salmonella (reptiles and amphibians)
- Tuberculosis (non-human primates)
- Herpes-B virus (macaque monkeys)
- Herpes (monkeys)
- Rabies (all mammals)
- E.Coli (everything)
- Hepatitis B
- Monkey Pox (prarie dogs, Gambian pouched rat)
- Hantavirus (rodents)
- Ebola (primates)
A monkey species known for transmitting hepatitis B.
David Dennis CC BY-SA 2.0 Via Flickr
Facts About These Diseases
Herpes B virus : While the risk exists and should be acknowledged, infections of this viral disease from monkeys to humans are undeniably uncommon. The last transmission of this virus from a captive macaque monkey occurred at a federally-licensed research facility over 15 years ago. ‘Old world monkeys’ (monkeys from Asia and Africa) in general have higher zoonotic disease threats, so they should be tested for this virus. Humans are far more likely to give the Human herpes type 1 virus to pet monkeys.
Rabies : Cats are the most common pet animals found with this virus (notably those that are feral, free-roaming or unvaccinated). Exotic pets are rarely found with rabies (the only cases I’ve located are a few ferrets and one pet raccoon, for more information). Rabies is contracted by outdoor exposure and free-roaming, which exotic pets, unlike many domesticated pets, are not allowed to do without supervision.
No one has ever contracted rabies from an exotic pet in the U.S.
Salmonella : A serious infection in the young and elderly, but not so much in most healthy individuals. Infection is commonly transmitted through improper handling of raw meat and eggs. Only 0.2% of salmonellosis cases have come from reptiles within a given year.
Recommendations for Prevention of and Therapy for Exposure to B Virus (Cercopithecine Herpesvirus 1)
linda CC BY 2.0 Via Flickr
E-coli ( _ Escherichia coli) : This gram-negative bacteria is carried by _all warm-blooded animals, including dogs, cats, humans, birds, etc. Infections usually result in temporary intestinal distress.
Monkey Pox : A small outbreak occurred due to an exotic pet dealer housing an imported Gambian pouched rat in close proximity to prairie dogs (who then also caught the disease), infected 70 pet owners. There were no fatalities as the disease is not as serious in nations with better healthcare, but this resulted in a ban on importing African rodents. Captive-bred animals are still sold, and no other issues have arisen.
Ebola: A wonderful scare-tactic inclusion to anti-exotic pet websites (really, if it were possible to get this from exotic pets this webpage wouldn’t exist because I’d get a new hobby). This disease is transmitted by primates in Africa, notably by the bushmeat trade. No issues with this disease have been recorded to be associated with the exotic pet trade, especially since the virus will rapidly kill its host. Another ridiculous entry to the ‘list’ of scary diseases you can get that I’ve witnessed is the bubonic plague (on the AZA’s website), for time and space-sake I won’t include every nonsensical entry here.
Stephen Michael Barnett CC BY 2.0 Via Flickr
Hepatitis B: A virus that is mainly a risk to great apes (gorillas, chimps, bonobos) and gibbons. Primates can be screened and vaccinated.
Hantavirus : This disease is mainly a concern with wild rodents, not captive-bred animals, and these are specific species of mice.
Tuberculosis : This disease is a threat to mainly old world monkeys (and elephants) but is a debilitating illness that will prove fatal to the animals. TB tests are available and should be given annually for pet primates.
Diseases Transmissible From Monkeys To Man – Monkey to Human Bites And Exposure
Rich Moffitt CC BY 2.0 Via Flickr
Upon reviewing the research that advocates against exotic pet keeping due to
disease transmission, I noticed that much of the zoonotic disease statistics
came from petting zoos—that of which hold animals that are not only
domesticated , but are common and harmless animals that we often even
consume as food.
Domesticated farm animals are not exotic pets. They obviously pose a
disease risk, which is why they are not kept in congested environments like
cities, but it is rather preposterous that the health conflicts of every
animal other than dogs and cats receive so much attention.
However, many studies also point to the health benefits of being raised on
farms and around animals. Animals kept in nature centers, zoos, and other
educational facilities are not being attacked by the public as being negative
for society even though they are included in these cited studies as a major
source of the infection incidents.
Advice for Avoiding Zoonotic Disease Infections (ALL Species)
- Do not keep or buy wild-caught or imported warm-blooded animals (unless you are qualified)
- Wash your hands thoroughly after contact with fecal matter or surfaces that may be contaminated with such (at least 20 seconds). This is especially important with reptiles.
- Maintain a clean and organized environment.
- Learn proper disinfection procedures.
- Avoid reptile contact with very young children, sick people, or the elderly (and if they do handle a reptile, follow the 2nd procedure).
- Research the appropriate vaccinations for your pet.
One may think unusual animals host the potential to start pandemics and
epidemics to the level of fictional movies such as depicted in the film
The best argument made by special interest groups (those that would really
just prefer to end the practice of keeping all pets) is that exotic pets may
introduce diseases that are unique toward the population and therefore will be
harder to deal with. Yet, despite this proposition, There have only been a
handful of incidences involving exotic pets and uncommon or potentially
serious disease causation.
The small monkey pox outbreak was one of them, and is an example often cited
by exotic pet trade detractors. Do these small pets arouse attention from the
public as often as less common or more intimidating pets? Special interest
groups mainly have a priority in banning non-human primates, big cats, and
other uncommon exotic pets because they have ideological objections toward
people keeping them in captivity.
The saying that ‘one fears what they do not understand’ rings exceptionally
valid for exotic pets.
Unfortunately for people whose lives are invested in animal care that happens
to extend beyond dogs and cats, people have a tendency to single ‘exotic pets’
out. They are a convenient scapegoat because people do not understand why we
desire to have them.
Some people look down on the caging of what they perceive as ‘wild’ animals,
while others are fearful of reptiles and specific mammals. Snakes have always
garnered unwarranted fear from many throughout history. Phobias of snakes
(Ophidiophobia) are extremely popular.
vastateparksstaff CC BY 2.0 Via Flickr
Therefore, any one incident regarding an unusual animal will equate to about
50 incidences. If a cat bites someone, it is pathetically uninteresting and
un-newsworthy. If a Savannah cat (a popular domesticated/serval hybrid cat)
bites someone, it becomes a sensationalized mauling that rattles the cages of
the public and sends lawmakers into a frenzy trying to do away with new
purchases of any uncommon, non-domesticated animals defined as an ‘exotic’.
With fear and anger toward this group of pet owners due to several
misrepresentations of their hobby and lifestyle, it would seem that this
should be enough disdainful public sentiment to impose restrictions and bans
on this minority group of people.
In contrast to the hype about the danger of exotic pets, many provide
therapeutic value and have health benefits for their owners and other people
not unlike dogs and cats, which this Animal Planet show used to depict before
turning to programs like Fatal Attractions.
Dogs, Owners May Swap Disease-Causing Oral Bacteria: Study
If you’re a pet-owner who kisses your dog on the mouth, you might want to
think twice. A new study in the journal Archives of Oral Biology suggests that
it’s possible for disease-causing oral bacteria to be exchanged between dogs
and their owners.
Exotic Pets’ Human Health Risk: Could The Global Pet Trade Import The Next Pandemic?
Part of a series investigating the complex links between human, animal and
environmental health: The Infection Loop. Dr. Anthony Pilny had just finished
neutering a baby chinchilla when we met under the watchful eyes of his
Manhattan clinic’s reptili
Find something here to be untrue? Factually incorrect or misrepresented?
Please leave a comment and correct me (in a friendly manner) and I will alter
it in the article and/or amend my position on the subject.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It
is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription,
or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional.
Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a
© 2013 Melissa A Smith
kenzie walczak on February 04, 2019:
I think their should be a lot more information about exotic pets and their
poopman sailor on January 30, 2018:
i think there should be more explanation on pros and con
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on December 20, 2013:
torrilynn on December 20, 2013:
thanks for sharing the diseases that can come from these animals. it always
great to be safe and cautious. voted up.
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on November 30, 2013:
“they really have nothing to do with this hub about diseases.”
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on November 30, 2013:
Hi janeanonymous, irresponsible pet owners are inevitable like irresponsible
drivers, babysitters, police, dog owners, gun owners, ect. How common is it
for people to release exotic mammals or allow them to free roam? Not very at
all. How many exotic pets have turned up with rabies? None. How many people
free-roam cats? Millions. How many cats have turned up with rabies? A few.
” The article refers to animals that are collected IN THE WILD, not animals
coming from reputable captive breeding programs.”
Thanks for making my point, I think I state in this article that collecting
mammals from the wild to be pets is not a good idea nor is that even legal. Do
you know of anyone who obtained an exotic pet with the bubonic plague in this
country? This has happened, again, with cats (although obviously it’s not
” Animal cruelty laws don’t protect the public (cases in point – the escaped
python that killed 2 children in Canada or the chimp in Connecticut that
attacked a woman)”
I think what you meant to say is that animal cruelty laws are not
*infalliable. We’ve outlawed murder, does that mean it doesn’t happen? Can you
honestly say that deaths from exotic pets are common? Not even dog-related
fatalities are common, but they surely outnumber incidences involving exotics.
“or the local fauna”
We can again look to our wonderful domesticated companions to see which animal
has the biggest impact on wildlife. Cats are basically in all 50 states
including Hawaii, at least the pythons are only in Florida. I’m not saying
that their escapes are a good thing, but if we’re going down for that, what
exempts our domesticated animal owning peers?
“the attacked woman tried to sue the state for not removing the dangerous
I know, idiotic, wasn’t it? Glad she lost. Frankly, history tells us that
exotic animals are the biggest threat to their owners or people involved with
them. Your chances of being torn apart by an escaped exotic are pathetically
low. And what about dogs escaping and attacking? Does this happen? This
article is about DISEASE, I have other articles that address public safety.
” and nowhere in that article does it state that these diseases ONLY come from
Err so? What’s the problem here? Isn’t that my point? These diseases are not
just those which exotic pets possess. I thought people might be interested in
some more info about which species presents which disease risk.
And please educate me, what is a “boid?
janeanonymous on November 30, 2013:
The 4th & 5th paragraph in my above posting were by accident. They are from my
posting in response to Banning “exotic” pets is senseless. My apology, they
really have nothing to do with this hub about diseases.
janeanonymous on November 30, 2013:
I commend and thank you for educating the general public about diseases humans
can get from animals (be they deemed “exotic” by some, or domesticated).
However, I have a couple of comments about your hub.
To quote you: “Another ridiculous entry to the ‘list’ of scary diseases you
can get that I’ve witnessed is the bubonic plague (on the AZA’s website), for
time and space-sake I won’t include every nonsensical entry here.” The article
refers to animals that are collected IN THE WILD, not animals coming from
reputable captive breeding programs.
Again a direct quote: “Rabies is contracted by outdoor exposure and free-
roaming, which exotic pets, unlike many domesticated pets, are not allowed to
do without supervision.” Sorry, an exotic animal that escapes captivity or is
intentionally released, doesn’t know it’s breaking the outdoorsupervision
rule, but the human does. There are many exotic pet owners in areas that have
no rules and irresponsible exotic pet owners don’t abide by the rules. Thus
“outdoor exposure and free-roaming” is not controlled.
“The Ohio incident was an incredibly exceptional case, one that should have
been prevented by legislation barring a person convicted of animal cruelty
from owning animals, even “only” a domestic cat.” Cruelty laws and penalties
are usually weak and where are the confiscated animals supposed to go? To
another facility that has no regulations except animal cruelty? Animal cruelty
laws don’t protect the public (cases in point – the escaped python that killed
2 children in Canada or the chimp in Connecticut that attacked a woman) or the
local fauna (the Florida python problem) from an escaped or intentionally
released animal from an owner who is not deemed cruel to its animals. In the
chimp case, the attacked woman tried to sue the state for not removing the
dangerous animal. Now Connecticut has enacted legislation to protect the
public once again from an escaped animal whose owner was not, by animal
cruelty laws, to have been cruel to her animals.
Any domestic or exotic pet owner should voluntarily have liability coverage,
and if it takes a state law to make that happen, so be it. The liability
insurance not only protects the owner from financial ruin if a major problem
happens, but protects the injured person from incurring major financial output
to hire a lawyer and sue the owner, and to recover medical costs.
You present an article Potential Zoonotic Diseases in ‘Exotic Pets’ which is
written by Amy Worell DVM, and nowhere in that article does it state that
these diseases ONLY come from exotic pets. Melissa Kaplan (whose website
contains the article) seems to have done an informative website about
herpetological animals. The link to the website is just stuck in the middle of
your article with no explanation as to why you included it.
And please educate me, what is a “boid?”“ “I often see this statement
alongside articles that cover the sporadic incidences of an escaped pet bobcat
or discovery of a large boid in a bathtub.”