‘Compare The Meerkat’: Exotic Mammal Pets in Practice

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Presenters: Sean McCormack BSc (Hons) MVB MRCVS

The well-known marketing campaign ‘compare the meerkat.com’ has a lot to answer for when it comes to the frivolous purchase of single meerkats by the general public. After all they look very cute as youngsters and are a tempting gift for the demanding child whose birthday is looming. However, as most people involved in the veterinary profession are aware, cute little bundles can turn into difficult and antisocial creatures if reared in the wrong environment.

This is most definitely the case for the single meerkat which, in the wild, would usually live in large sociable groups and if reared in a solitary setting usually develop into aggressive adults which can no longer be handled by the owner. This is why Sean McCormack who led last week’s webinar discussing exotic mammal pets in practice advises against meerkats ever being purchased as singles. Having two would be better but ideally this species really should be reared in large sociable groups.

After listening to Sean’s thought provoking webinar last week, I explained to my husband the impact a strap line like ‘compare the meekat.com’ might have on the popularity of owning exotic pets and the consequences this could have on their welfare. My husband’s instant reaction was utter shock, being completely unable to comprehend how it could be legal to own a pet like the meerkat. Surely making the ownership of certain exotic pets illegal would solve all concerns surrounding the welfare of these types of animals. I would have agreed had I not participated in last week’s webinar which argued that huge welfare issues already exist surrounding our common domestic pets such as the cat, dog and rabbit, so why should exotic pets be considered any differently?

If we are going to ban an animal such as the African pygmy hedgehog on the back of its welfare then maybe we should be banning the ownership of the rabbit given some of the appalling conditions this species have to endure. Sean explained that some exotic owners can offer amazing care to their pet alongside others who really have no idea and leave their animal in poor conditions which is of course true for all pet owners regardless of the species involved. The risk of banning certain species could lead to the ‘underground’ purchase of illegal animals which could compromise their welfare even further. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to consider licensing of specific species to ensure they are kept in optimal conditions.

Sean explains that it’s imperative vets remain at the forefront of maintaining welfare standards in exotic mammals so we can educate owners and offer the best care available for these pets. However if most of you are like me and find recognising or even naming some of these species challenging, then Sean’s webinar offers an overview of the most popular species encountered today and a snap shot of some of their most common conditions. For example, the African pygmy hedgehog was high on the list of popular exotic mammals five-ten years ago but has dropped off in popularity in recent years. This species now suffers a lot with neurological issues probably as a result of inbreeding within a very small population of pygmy hedgehogs within the UK.

Other common conditions include obesity (probably as they are not free roaming enough) and neoplasia which often presents as oral tumours. Another more ‘trendy’ exotic mammal now increasing in popularity is the skunk. I know what you thinking; why?? Sean explained that skunks actually make for quite docile pets when tame and are very similar in care to the ferret. The big question in this species is what can be done to minimise the risk of them expressing their scent glands which apparently leaves a dreadful smell and can travel for miles. Sean advises that within a safe environment skunks are very unlikely to express their glands as they generally only spray in fearful situations.

Racoons also used to be ‘in demand’ pets due to their apparent cuteness as youngsters. Unfortunately in adulthood they can become aggressive and bite, and this has led to some owners releasing them into the wild as they are unable to handle or re home them. Racoons make for good escape artists and can also make their way into the wild when housed within inadequate enclosures. This has become a real issue in parts of Europe, including Germany and France, as this introduction of a non-native mammal into the wild can be detrimental to the natural environment. For this reason European regulations formed in 2015 state it is now illegal to sell or purchase racoons.

In all honesty this subject matter is not an area I have given much thought to over the years having never really been faced with many exotic pets. Keeping exotic pets is however an increasing trend with one pet food manufacturer guesstimating that in 2014 there were around 14 million exotic pets including fish present within the UK.

This is big business and the welfare of these animals needs to be championed by the veterinary profession even if that means practising vets at least having some basic knowledge about the husbandry of species we may encounter and their most commonly occurring conditions. This webinar is perfect for delivering the type of information required by first opinion vets and also offers some thought provoking questions about animal welfare which need to be debated and considered by all in the veterinary profession.

The Stethoscope (MRCVS)

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