Do you know what the most popular pet in the United States and the world is? Is it a cat or a dog? Nope, it’s freshwater fish! That is followed by cats, dogs and birds in that order. Why freshwater fish? Well, most people don’t own just one fish.

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According to Live Science (and others), 2013, the most popular pets in the world:

  • 142 million freshwater fish
  • 88.3 million cats
  • 74.8 million dogs
  • 16 million birds
  • 24.3 million small animals
  • 13.8 million horses
  • 13.4 million reptiles
  • 9.6 million saltwater fish

Today’s column will focus on some of the unusual and unlikely exotic pets which are legal to own in most states. However, before rushing out to purchase one of these exotics, check with your local city, county and state laws regarding ownership.

Resembling both dog and cat, the fennec fox is a very cool, small pet to own. It is the smallest of the fox family, and is naturally found in the Sahara Desert and northern Africa. Its most distinctive feature is its unusually large ears, which also serve to dissipate heat. These little guys are cute, but quite shy, and can be biters.

Spider enthusiasts seem to love owning tarantulas, another exotic pet. The Mexican red knee tarantula is a very large, interestingly colored spider that can live for 

up to 30 years and is relatively easy to care for. Tarantulas are virtually noiseless, and do not require much space and are inexpensive to feed. These pets are becoming

more popular. Who remembers the movie “Arachnophobia”?

The cute little marsupial, sugar glider, is native to Australia, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. They have become popular as exotic pets because they are very social and bond easily with humans. It is best to get two or more sugar gliders if you cannot be home a lot to keep them company.

The striped skunk can now be legally owned in 17 states, including Florida. These pets can be surprisingly docile and loving, especially once their scent glands have been removed. However, there has been some debate over this procedure, as it strips the skunk of its natural defense.

A very intelligent pet, the chimpanzee, is known for its enormous strength. A chimpanzee can become violent and destructive if disciplined. It is legal to keep a chimp in the US, but it is difficult to take good care of them — a full grown chimp possesses five to six times the strength of a human. They are expensive to feed, and for a host of other reasons, do not make good pets.

A llama requires plenty of room to run and graze, but they can make a great pet if provided with the care and environment they need. Llamas are friendly, social, calm and easily trained. Not for the faint of heart, llamas need grooming and shearing, as well as toenail trimming. A great use for llamas? They produce lots of fiber which can be made into yarn. They also are a great guard/sentry for sheep and other livestock, and can fend off a single coyote or dog, and their alarm sounds will alert owners.

Hedgehogs can make terrific little companions, and their popularity is on the rise. Hedgehogs are prickly, with sharp spines that protect them from predators. When nervous or frightened, a hedgehog will curl into a ball, another defense mechanism. It is nearly impossible to unfurl a curled hedgehog. They do make sounds: grunts, squeals, snorting and snuffling. They may also whistle or purr when happy. Hedgehogs can be adorable, loving pets if handled often.

The kinkajou, also known as the honey bear, is native to south and central America. It spends most of its time in the trees, and is a nocturnal creature. These cute animals are usually playful and docile, but they can be agitated when woken up during the day. These exotics look like monkeys, but are actually related to raccoons. The heiress Paris Hilton adopted a kinkajou in 2005.

What about birds as exotics? Nicknamed the gentle giant is the hyacinth macaw, one of the largest parrots in the world. It can reach a length of 3.3 feet. Due to their size, they need room to spread their wings and something to maintain their beaks. Highly intelligent and sociable birds, macaws thrive on human interaction and commonly form a strong bond with their owners. With proper care, large macaws can live 40 or more years.

Other birds that can be great pets include budgerigars (also known as parakeets). This is the most popular bird in the United States, and is easy to tame and care for. They have pleasing voices, and may live to be 10 to 12 years of age with proper care.

Sort of an entry level parrot is the cockatiel. A cockatiel is a happy, friendly bird that is adaptable and resistant to change. They grow to about 12 inches in length, and can live from 12-15 years. Their smaller size means these birds are quieter than their larger parrot relatives, although they, too, can be noisy.

The reticulated python is the world’s longest snake, recorded at 32 feet, 350 pounds. This snake is popular with expert reptile keepers. This species has been considered hard to handle due to its ill temperament. There are two documented cases of reticulated pythons consuming humans, both in Indonesia. Both snakes were 23 feet in length and were killed, revealing the bodies inside. This species is not for everyone, especially not me!

Gone are the days when the word pig would conjure up an animal slopping around in the mud on a farm. Today, pigs are kept as pets inside peoples’ homes. Pot-bellied pigs, also known as Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs, can be great pets under the right circumstances. Pigs are very social, intelligent unique animals and can live up to 20 years. They can be trained to walk on leashes, which is good because they require a lot of exercise and a balanced diet to keep them from becoming overweight.

There are many more pets considered to be exotic, some of which can be seen on Dr. K’s Exotic Animal ER on Nat Geo Wild cable channel. There are special considerations to take into account when adopting an exotic pet. Research is key. Take your time, talk to your local veterinarian about the pet you will choose and whether your veterinarian will be able to care for your exotic.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has an Exotic Pet Amnesty Program that “promotes responsible pet ownership and helps prevent nonnative animals from being released into the wild by providing exotic pet owners who can no longer keep their pets with a legal and responsible alternative to releasing them.” People can surrender their exotic pets at one-day-only Exotic Pet Amnesty Day events or year-round by calling the Exotic Species Hotline at 888-Ive-Got1 (483-4681). Most exotic pets, including ones held illegally, are accepted without penalty.

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