News & Politics

Hot Pets – Parrots to Puggles

Talking birds, flying squirrels, and other popular exotic pets

There are reasons some pet owners venture beyond cats and dogs.

"People like to impress their friends," says Jenny Culver, who reigns over a menagerie of exotics at the Arlington Career Center, which hosts classes in animal science.

Exotic pets can be fun or fads–those iguanas and potbellied pigs can end up in animal shelters. Here are pets of the moment and what to know before you get one.

"Designer" Geckos

Leopard geckos are popular because they're easy to take care of and they come in psychedelic or "designer" patterns.

"They're pretty mellow," Culver says.

A gecko's diet consists mainly of worms and insects like crickets, but they won't say no to a small mouse. Leopard geckos cost $30 to $90 and stay less than a foot long.

What you should know: You can't keep two males in the same cage or things will get ugly.

Sweet Sugar Gliders

These nocturnal flying squirrels–they're marsupials, not rodents–are suited for nocturnal humans. Think college students.

"They're hardly ever awake when their owners are," says Ruth Hanessian of Animal Exchange in Rockville.

If you catch them when they're up, sugar gliders are social creatures. Quality time with your squirrel can mean helping it practice gliding; some are better at it than others. Their diet? Mealworms and crickets.

Sugar gliders cost more than $100. They stay small–you can hold adults in your palm–but they need space. A cage should measure several feet each way.

What you should know: Sugar gliders need their nails trimmed regularly. They have sticky droppings. And they bark.

Smart Choice: African Grays

These super-smart birds surged in popularity in the wake of a study by University of Arizona associate professor Irene Pepperberg. Her African gray, "Alex," can count, distinguish shapes and colors, and respond to questions. "It's like having a human with feathers," says Bob McKim of the Bethesda Pet Shoppe.

Alice Petersen, owner of Arlington's Birds N' Things, warns against assuming too much about these birds, which cost up to $1,600. "Not all grays are as smart as Alex," she says. And don't expect your parrot to discuss Balzac the day you bring it home. Pepperberg has been training Alex for 25 years.

What you should know: Gray parrots live a long time–60 to 80 years.

It's Raining Tree Frogs

"People are on a rain-forest kick," says Jenny Culver, gathering a reluctant red-eyed tree frog from the wall of an aquarium.

White's tree frog is another popular breed; it has a chameleon-like ability to change from a pale blue to a rich green, sometimes with spots. Poison-arrow frogs are among the most colorful; many derive their toxicity from a diet in the wild and are not poisonous in captivity.

Tree frogs eat insects, particularly crickets. White's tree frogs cost around $20, while exotic breeds are more expensive.

What you should know: Tree frogs are delicate and need to be handled with care. They also need a warm environment.

Mixed Breeds, Not Mutts

Puggles, goldendoodles, Yorkipoos. As the names suggest, these are hybrids: pug + beagle = puggle; golden retriever + poodle = goldendoodle. And so on.

Breeders try to combine the best traits of both parents, particularly size and personality. Vets describe the dogs as generally sweet and well behaved.

Some vets warn that these designer dogs can also get the worst of each breed. Dr. Jann Rhea at the Dupont Veterinary Clinic says that owners should screen a dog for any diseases common to both breeds.

What you should know: These dogs are expensive, and breeders with available animals can be hard to find.

Dragons and Turtles and More

If reptiles are your thing, think bearded dragons and ball pythons: They're easy to care for and, like geckos, have interesting skin patterns. On the other hand, some vets warn against taking in an iguana, which can get mean and requires space–it can grow to five feet or more.

Turtles and tortoises are popular but can also be more than an owner bargained for. Some tortoises grow to be more than 80 pounds and live for more than a century.

Want less of a commitment? Hermit crabs are as low-maintenance as you can get. Some people like to paint the shells.

Owners are getting artsy with fish too–injecting fish with a dye to change their color. Some zebra danios have been bred to include a gene that makes them glow in the dark. Scientists came up with this idea to detect water pollution. Like all things flashy and unusual, it got trendy.