No, I’m not talking about a referee, I’m talking about a real zebra. Pittsburgh State football player Joe Windscheffel will miss the entire upcoming season after being attacked by a zebra on a farm in Kansas. In a related story, Kansas State University Professor Gary West remarked about various problems associated with people owning exotic pets. Some are pretty clear, such as the risks posed by 500 lbs tigers or 20 ft pythons (or unruley zebras). Others are more insidious, such as the risks of transmitting various zoonotic diseases.

Exotic pets are an important source of zoonotic diseases. Some of these diseases, like Salmonella, are very common and well-understood. Others come out of nowhere and can cause major problems, such as the monkeypox outbreak in the US a few years ago that was caused by prairie dogs and African rodents. One problem with exotic pets is that we know little about the disease risks associated with them, and therefore we don’t know what precautions should be taken or how to test them for the most important pathogens. While exotic pets can be interesting, they certainly pose an increased risk of disease compared to dogs, cats and other domestic animals for which we have a good idea of the risks involved and how to manage them. That’s not to say that all exotic pets will cause disease and no dogs will – that’s definitely not true. However, people having contact with exotic pets must accept an increased risk of disease exposure.

The CDC recommends that children under five years of age, elderly individuals, people with compromised immune systems and pregnant women not have contact with exotic pets. While these are the high risk groups, infections can occur in anyone. If you really want an exotic pet:

  • Stop, think, and read as much as you can before making the decision. Find out about the animal, how to care for it and what risks might be involved.
  • Make sure you can provide appropriate care. Many exotic pets die because of poor management because they’re owners can’t or don’t know how to care for them properly.
  • Find a captive bred animal, as these animals likely pose less risk of harbouring exotic diseases.  It’s also a much more humane way to get a pet than to buy a wild caught animal (especially when you consider that many animals die during capture and transit).
  • Make sure there are no high-risk people living in or visiting the household. Saying they will be in the house but won’t have contact with the pet is not adequate, because infections from indirect contact can occur.
  • Remember that if you do things right, your pet should live for a while (e.g. years). If you think you might want to have kids in a couple of years, do you really want to get an exotic pet that will need to be re-homed at that time?
  • Make sure your physician knows you have an exotic pet. Various diseases that would not be an issue for the general population might need to be considered if you get sick.

Image source: University of Bergamo