Welfare of exotic pets - evidence: scoping review

Scoping review conducted by Scotland's Rural College (SRUC) on the evidence of the welfare of exotic pets in Scotland.

Evidence on the Welfare of Exotic Pets in Scotland: Executive Summary

This is a scoping review on the welfare of exotic pets, requested by the Scottish Animal Welfare Commission, to provide independent evidence to inform recommendations on the keeping of exotic pets. The interim report on exotic pets in Scotland outlined concerns about the welfare of some non-domestic species which are in private ownership and highlighted a lack of information available on the number of animals which are traded and owned, the conditions in which they are bred and/or transported to the UK, and the suitability of captive environments in both commercial and private environments.

It has been suggested that the suitability of animals as pets depends on four main factors; they are easy to keep in terms of basic physiological, behavioural and ecological needs; do not present an overt risk of becoming invasive in the natural environment; do not pose a disproportionate risk to human health and they have reliable husbandry guidance available

This review focuses on species which are known or estimated to be for sale in Scotland, while excluding those species which are already banned due to CITES or Alien Invasive Species legislation, and very common exotic pets, such as rabbits, small rodents (except dwarf hamsters) and canaries.

This review presents evidence for animal welfare issues associated with captivity, in particular the attributes which make each animal species more or less “easy to keep” and the availability of reliable information on their keeping. Each section is summarised at the taxonomic level of “order”, focussing on the species of interest identified by SAWC. The review includes scientific papers where available, including experimental studies, case studies and reviews, surveys and conference abstracts. Other sources, including book chapters and guidance provided by professional organisations (e.g., RSPCA, EAZA), are included where appropriate.

The risk to human health presented by these species, in terms of hosting zoonotic disease, antibiotic-resistant pathogens and causing bite injuries, is described where such information is available. However, formal analysis of the risks associated with each species, in terms of clinical disease presenting to medical authorities, could be the subject of a separate study, as human health data are outside of the scope of this review.

The breadth of species included and their individual welfare issues (including variation in the quality of information available) is difficult to summarise. Evidence of the health and welfare of exotic pets living in Scotland is sparse in almost all cases. Owing to the nature of veterinary journals, many studies focus on novel or interesting clinical cases and do not give an idea of the health of the pet population overall. Furthermore, there is evidence that reptile owners have low engagement with vets, and this is likely to apply to many of the species in this review (as reflected in the lack of evidence and the lack of responses to a DEFRA call for evidence among pet primate owners).

However, the following factors relating to the needs of exotic pets are suggested as particular barriers to meeting their need for a suitable environment:

1. Need for natural light, UVB and warmth, in combination with sufficient exercise. Particularly for birds, large or dangerous species of mammals and reptiles the enclosure size required to allow for normal behaviours, such as flying, burrowing, leaping or climbing, mean that several sources of heat and light (see section on tegu lizards) are required, and this may be beyond the means and space available to most owners.

2. Understanding and managing the social needs of animals, especially those which commonly live in large and/ or dynamic groups. Even where evidence of suffering is not available for social animals kept in isolation, this can be expected based on broad evidence across species.

3. Complex or unknown dietary needs. Particularly at risk from dietary imbalances are those animals which consume plant exudates, either as an obligatory or facultative requirement, and those which require very high levels of protein (e.g., cephalopods) and for which formulated diets are still not well tailored to the species (e.g., ornamental marine fish).

4. Where evidence for optimum (or minimal) husbandry conditions is known, more evidence is required to know whether owners are meeting these standards. Previous investigations have found gaps in information given to owners (e.g., reptiles) by pet suppliers and veterinary case studies highlight insufficiencies in care.

5. Inbreeding and breeding for rare phenotypes is a risk to welfare, notably in the African pygmy hedgehog and pythons. The unregulated and informal breeding of pet animals should be investigated and recording of congenital conditions would help to reach decisions about how to reach more transparent and responsible industry breeding standards.

6. The welfare of captive-bred juvenile animals, including fishes, decapods and cephalopods, is a critical area for investigation. Rearing non-domestic animals to become “tame” is a high-risk strategy, and unintended consequences have life-long implications, e.g., in primates and birds of prey, where animals cannot be handled or trained (and therefore do not benefit at all from living around humans and may be fearful in captivity) and are unsuitable for rehoming.

7. Evidence of positive welfare, including the human-animal bond, is not often published, but is crucial to determine which animals make suitable pets. Animals that have are bred responsibly and domestically, well cared for, provided with an appropriate diet, expressing normal behaviours and experiencing positive welfare may not appear anywhere in the literature.

While the use of “positive lists” would help to guide owners as to which animals are more likely to succeed in captivity, compliance with existing animal welfare legislation is largely unknown. To address this in part, regular presentation to veterinary surgeons or other suitably qualified people, with sufficient knowledge of the species concerned, for routine health checks, along with record keeping (especially where dietary imbalances are common or where artificial environmental conditions must be maintained to ensure health) are sensible next steps by owners. Where animals present to vets for the first time with preventable and advanced malnutrition and other severe and difficult to resolve conditions, such as feather-damage, the prognosis for the animal having good welfare is poor and the relationship between owners and vets will be negative. Regular health checks should include discussions of reproductive health and breeding should be planned, which should consider the availability of appropriate homes, and the expertise of the owner. Regular veterinary checks would increase the capability and confidence of veterinarians, as well as allowing the scientific assessment of how well animals are being kept and potentially gathering of data from multiple veterinarians for wider epidemiological analysis.

Further research directed at some of the population level health and welfare issues apparent from this review would be valuable to inform future guidance or legislation.


Email: SAWC.Secretariat@gov.scot

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