Should you keep an exotic animal as a pet? A new guide can help you tell.

When you hear the word ‘pet’, you may immediately think of a dog or cat, since they’re the most common pets. But exotic pets are challenging that perception as the demand for more unusual animals has boomed in the past twenty years. They have become more accessible and easier to keep with new advances in food and housing.

Social media and the internet have popularized exotic animals as pets, making them much easier to buy with the press of a button. This means that anyone can purchase an exotic pet without knowing basic information about how to properly care for it, the behavioral or health risks to people and the animals, or where the animals were sourced from. And with lucrative smuggling and illegal sales thriving, it could be that the pet, or its parents, were stolen from the wild. 

But it is hard for most people to know about wise exotic pet choices, and there is no one-stop guide to help—that is, until now. Have you ever seen an axolotl pop up on your social media feed? This charismatic amphibian has a face that you can’t help but smile at, but should those bred in captivity be kept as pets? Let’s take a look.

1. Conservation

When it comes to exotic pets, animal sourcing is a complex topic. From a conservation standpoint, most of the exotic pet trade is legal. However, illegal smuggling and collection has intensified due to increasing demand for rare and unusual species, compromising conservation efforts and profiting criminal gangs worldwide. Wild populations of some exotic pet species are being rapidly depleted, and the animals themselves can endure stressful, inhumane conditions while being smuggled to their destination. 

Naturally occurring in just two lakes in southern Mexico City, axolotls are a critically endangered species for many reasons, including the pet trade. Demand boomed as consumers were drawn to their big eyes and smiling expression. They can be captive bred easily and legally, and legitimate breeding facilities exist. One helpful indicator of a captive bred axolotl is that it has a white or pink color, instead of the dark brown coloration found in the wild.

It is important to obtain an exotic pet legally and directly from a reputable rescue center, breeder, or supplier. They should be able to show where their animals come from and follow best practices for the species they sell, including making sure they only sell live exotic pets to people who know how to care for them.

2. Legality

Exotic pet ownership and the regulations and laws involved aren’t entirely straightforward. In the US, endangered species and those animals that are a risk to human, environmental, or agricultural health are regulated at the federal level. However, exotic pet ownership is also regulated at the state, county, or city level. Many of these regulations are in place for either conservation, public, or environmental safety purposes. It is important to know and follow the relevant laws at the federal, state, and city level.

Axolotls are a protected species in Mexico, and there are international regulations to ensure trade is not detrimental to wild populations. It is illegal to import and export axolotls internationally if they are taken from the wild. In some US states, legally-sourced, captive-bred axolotl ownership is prohibited or requires a permit due to the risk that they could become an invasive species if released.

3. Public health

Whether it is the potential to spread zoonotic diseases or cause physical harm to people from biting, scratching, or venom, all pets pose some risk to human health. Knowing the source of an animal, disease risks specific to the species, their behaviors, and welfare requirements helps reduce the risks.

Axolotls don’t pose a major risk to people when it comes to our health. Like all exotic animals, they can still spread zoonotic diseases, but generally ones that are easily avoidable and treatable, such as salmonella. And they don’t have physical attributes that could harm a person.

4. Invasiveness

The exotic pet trade is one of the leading causes of the spread of invasive species, which is a significant driver of biodiversity loss and sometimes massive economic impacts from damage to agriculture and fisheries.

The introduction of invasive species into the axolotl's small native home range has also led to their decline in the wild. On the flip side, there is always the risk that if pet axolotls are released into a habitat similar to their native home, they could cause major ecological damage, like out-competing native salamanders.

Should you no longer be able to keep your pet, contact your local rescue center, responsible pet store, accredited zoo, veterinarian, or other trusted home to find someone that can take it in. Do not post your animal for sale online and never release them into the wild.

5. Welfare

Some exotic pets require a very specialized environment and care that most households can’t provide. Exotic pet needs and animal welfare considerations include diet and nutrition, housing and environment, veterinary care, social needs, mental stimulation, and exercise in order to provide them with a good quality of life.

If axolotls make you smile, don’t you want to make them happy too? They might always appear to be smiling, but axolotl dietary and water quality needs are very hard to meet in captivity and they are generally not recommended as pets for this reason. Additionally, axolotls and all amphibians should not be handled as it causes stress and can disturb their protective layer, which prevents bacteria from entering and impacting their health. If you are looking for a pet you can cuddle, and one that has lower maintenance needs and costs, this is not the one for you.

Exotic Pet Suitability Guide

So should you get that cute axolotl or another animal you saw online as a pet? For conservation, legality, and welfare reasons, there is a moderate risk associated with keeping an axolotl as a pet. You should learn more about whether you can safely keep the animal for its lifetime, including housing, proper food and veterinary care, and be sure it came from a legal source and is legal to keep in your jurisdiction.

Despite the ease of obtaining an exotic species, there is limited and often misdirected information available to intending pet owners on their choice of species. To help consumers in the US make informed decisions about pet ownership, WWF recently launched the Exotic Pet Suitability Guide with input from leading veterinarians, researchers, trade experts, and conservationists. This guide will be continually updated to reflect the latest science and to include additional species assessments. Check it out!

What makes a good exotic pet?

  • Considered to be domesticated and/or have been in the pet trade for decades
  • Responsibly bred in captivity
  • Not endangered with extinction in the wild, and those that aren’t regularly targeted by traffickers
  • Not protected by law
  • Not a known carrier of a serious zoonotic disease
  • Not known to be aggressive or venomous, don’t have large powerful jaws, or other physical attributes that are harmful to others
  • Not invasive to the region they would be housed in
  • How to care for the animal is well known, and the correct veterinary care, food and housing is readily available

 Exotic Pet Suitability Guide