Dangers of Exotic Pets

By Dr. Julio Correa, Extension Animal Scientist


Big cats, primates, small mammals, birds, and reptiles are available for sale from dealers across the United States (US). This means the public has easy access to inherently dangerous animals that are unsuitable as pets. Exotic animals do not make good companions and pose serious health risks if they become aggressive. In the last five years in the US, nine people have been killed by privately kept tigers, and each year, 90,000 people are treated for Salmonella infection contracted from reptiles such as small turtles and lizards.

People do not seem to fully understand the health and safety risks associated with owning an exotic animal. Wild and exotic animals are notorious vectors or reservoirs for diseases and parasites that can cause serious harm to humans of all ages. Furthermore, some exotic animals need a larger habitat than just a backyard or cage. Keeping exotic animals isolated in close quarters with no room to roam increases their stress levels and causes some animals to become agitated and dangerous.

The ownership of exotic wildlife as house pets presents a real danger to families, neighbors, communities, and the public-at-large. Following are examples of exotic animals that have posed harm to people as pets.

  • Monkeys are one of the most common exotic pets. Often bought as cute and cuddly babies, they become larger and more aggressive as they reach sexual maturity. The male chimpanzee tends to be the most aggressive. Of great notoriety was the mauling of Charla Nash on February 16, 2009, in Stamford, Connecticut. Nash was savagely attacked by a 14-year-old pet chimpanzee named Travis. Travis was owned by her friend and employer, Sandra Herold. The chimp broke most of the bones in Nash's face and ripped off her nose, lips, eyes, and hands. Travis was eventually shot by local authorities.
  • Felines such as lions, tigers, and cougars are also common pets. Again, these animals may look cute and cuddly when they are young, but they have the potential to seriously injure or kill people as they mature. The most notorious case was the attack of Roy Horn on October 3, 2003, at the MGM Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. A 7-year-old trained white tiger named Montecore attacked and carried Roy Horn off stage by the throat during Siegfried & Roy's long-standing show at the Mirage. Horn suffered massive blood loss and a stroke. Incidents involving large exotic cats often result in fatalities.
  • Reptiles, including baby turtles pose health hazards to humans. Ninety percent of all reptiles carry and shed Salmonella in their feces. People can become infected by ingesting Salmonella after handling a reptile or objects the reptile contaminated, and then failing to wash their hands properly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that children, people with a lowered immune system, and the elderly avoid all contact with reptiles and not own them as pets. Salmonellosis associated with exotic pets has been described as an important public health issue, affecting more people than any other single disease.
  • Other exotic animals that pose grave dangers to human health and safety include bears, wolves, prairie dogs, hedgehogs, hamsters, alligators, snakes, and other reptiles such as iguanas and lizards.

In addition to posing dangers to humans, exotic animals themselves suffer when privately kept. Exotic animals kept as household pets are forced into unnatural lives that include confinement in close quarters and surgical removal of teeth and/or claws. These circumstances, which are often deplorable, compromise the animals' physical and psychological welfare.

Although ALA. ADMIN CODE r. 220-2-.26 stipulates that "no person, firm, corporation, partnership, or association shall possess, sell, offer for sale, import, bring or cause to be brought or imported into the state of Alabama" certain live fish or animals, there are no state laws or rules governing private possession of exotic animals such as lions, tigers, or monkeys. Therefore, it is incumbent upon state and local government agencies and non-profit organizations like Extension to educate the general public about the health and safety risks associated with owning exotic animals, and the suffering of the animals themselves doomed to live in environments far different from the ones nature intended.

Animal Protection Institute. (2005). A life sentence: The sad and dangerous realities of exotic animals in private hands in the U.S. Animal Protection Institute. Retrieved July 21, 2010.

Farinato, R. (2009). The whims and dangers of the exotic pets market. The Humane Society of the United States. Retrieved July 21, 2010.

The Humane Society of the United States. (2003). Siegfried & Roy incident underscores the dangers of exotic pets. The Humane Society of the United States. Retrieved July 21, 2010.

The Oprah Winfrey Show. (2009). The will to live. Oprah.com. Retrieved July 21, 2010.

If you do not have the latest version of Adobe Acrobat and wish to view the
PDF publication on this site, click here to download:

Return to Metro News...