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The Danger of 'Fad Pets'

By: Hsin-Yi Cohen BSc, MA, MSt - Updated: 2 Aug 2012 | comments*Discuss
Fad Pets Exotic Pets Pet Novelty

It happens every few years – a celebrity is seen with an unusual pet or an animal is whimsically portrayed by film or the media – and suddenly, a new ‘fad pet’ is born. While these exotic pets may seem cute or fascinating, for most people, trying to keep them more often than not ends in tears.

‘Fad pets’ are usually exotic, wild animals – often with special needs and totally unsuited to life in human urban developments. They are purchased simply for their looks or image and treated as an accessory or fun toy – then as they grow up or the novelty fades, they often end up abandoned, many in animal shelters but many far worse, simply released into the countryside to fend for themselves – where they struggle to survive, often dying slow, agonising deaths, or become a threat to local wildlife. At the same time, unscrupulous people keen to make a quick profit will breed such animals indiscriminately during the ‘craze’, producing more specimens to tempt the ignorant public – often inbred, sickly stock - thus feeding the vicious circle.

Celebrity Curse

Celebrities can be one of the worst culprits when it comes to irresponsible promotion of ‘fad pets’. One such celebrity, not content with a ferret hanging out of her handbag, traded it up for a kinkajou in 2005 – a small member of the racoon family that is native to Latin America. Like with many ‘fad pets’ – this was a bad idea because not only are they essentially a wild animal but they possess many traits that make them completely unsuitable as a domestic pet – for example, they are nocturnal and are known to come into bedrooms to attack people as they sleep in the middle of the night. They also cannot be house-trained as they are used to living in trees and just defecating and urinating anywhere.

This kinkajou managed to show a bit of her wild side by biting the celebrity, resulting in her being rushed to the emergency room for a tetanus injection. Ironically, this little incident actually saved kinkajou’s in general as it made people seriously re-asses their suitability as pets.

A British Porker

While ‘fad pets’ are much more common in the United States, the UK has not escaped this madness either. For example, “micro-pigs” were suddenly all the rage across Britain a few years ago with everyone desperate to own one of these miniature porkers. They were described as tea-cup sized, with the ability to be house-trained and the perfect, cute pet.

However, the RSPCA became very concerned for their welfare as more and more people bought them in total ignorance of what was required in looking after pigs. The selective breeding process required to achieve the small size, for example, used inbreeding which made the resulting pigs very prone to deformities. There were also worries about the pigs being kept exclusively indoors and left alone most of the time – when the natural environment for a happy, healthy pig is to be outside in social groups. Without being allowed to indulge in their normal behaviour, many pigs can become aggressive towards people and generally destructive – this was certainly seen by many owners who despaired of their muddy, dug-up gardens.

Many of the unscrupulous breeders also seriously misled people about what to expect – for example, many people were horrified to find that their cute little ‘tea-cup pig’ was rapidly outgrowing their dog as it matured!

A Prickly Problem

One of the latest fad pet crazes to hit the UK is the hedgehog – specifically the African pygmy hedgehog. They have even been mentioned in the Telegraph as “stealing the hearts of rich women…ousting designer dogs like Chihuahuas from their handbags”.

Unfortunately, like many fad pets before them, hedgehogs are just not ideal for the average domestic home. They are nocturnal creatures who can be very noisy at night, disturbing your sleep, as well as vocalising loudly when stressed. They have very specific dietary needs, such as requiring chitin in their diets which is usually obtained in the wild from the exoskeleton of insects. For a small animal, they actually need a very large enclosure to thrive and a high level of exercise. At the same time, they need to be kept at temperatures above 21 degrees Celsius/70 degrees Fahrenheit otherwise they will hibernate.

These hedgehogs bred to take advantage of the latest pet craze will also invariably suffer from a host of genetic diseases – aside from various forms of cancer, they are know to have a genetic neurological disorder called Wobby Hedgehog Syndrome.

A similar craze in America has already collapsed in tragedy with many rescue shelters now having to step in to pick up the pieces – and the UK is heading in the same direction. What is worse here is the threat to the local wildlife – at least in America, there is no resident hedgehog population but here in the UK, such a craze will lead to two problems: 1) unscrupulous people trying to capture and sell native hedgehogs as a pet and 2) ignorant owners releasing their exotic pets into the wild, where they may infect local hedgehogs, interbreed or have other negative impacts on the fragile native ecosystem.

Just Say No

Like most fads, a fad pet has little value other than the novelty one and a lot of negatives associated. With the wealth of different types of ‘acceptable’ pets available who can provide you with rewarding – and much easier - companionship, it seems foolish to open such a big can of worms for such a temporary thrill.

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