Popular exotic pets in focus

Exotic pets are becoming increasingly popular around the United States, with an estimated 18 million households providing homes for over 151 million such animals, according to data derived from U.S. Census Bureau figures.

On "The Early Show" Tuesday, resident veterinarian and CBS News correspondent Dr. Debbye Turner Bell highlighted seven of the most popular exotic pets and discussed their typical diets, life spans, price points and any concerns tentative owners should have about choosing an exotic breed.

Special note from Debbye

We are presenting these exotic pets as an opportunity to inform you of their background, needs, and characteristics. We are not endorsing any of these animals as appropriate pets. But, just like with any pet, you should be fully educated about the nature, needs, and tendencies of the animal. And you must be ready and able to provide fully for those needs. With any exotic pet, it is important to check the laws and regulations in your state, county, and municipality for bans, restrictions or permit requirements. Please think carefully before obtaining any of these animals as pets. And please get your pet from a reputable, responsible, licensed breeder. The Internet and most pet stores are not reliable ways to get such an animal.

The pets Deb showed

Sugar Glider

Sugar Gliders are in the marsupial family along with kangaroos, opossums, and koala bears. They are arboreal, which means tree-dwellers. Sugar Gliders are from Australia, Tasmania, New Guinea, and Indonesia. As their name implies, they have the ability to "glide" through the air using folds of skin between the front and hind legs. They can glide up to 150 feet. The tail sort of acts like a rudder. They can even catch food in mid-glide. Sugar Gliders are also known as Sugar Bears because of their penchant for sweets. They have sharp hook-like fingers and toes that help them hook onto surfaces. Sugar Gliders should eat a good quality pelleted food, plus a multi-vitamin. A knowledgeable veterinarian should help you devise a diet for your Sugar Glider. They should also be given a variety of fruits and vegetables. They should not be fed nuts and seeds. In the wild, Sugar Gliders are omnivores, eating fruit, insects, small birds, eggs, or rodents.

Sugar Gliders are nocturnal, so they are very playful and lively at night. In fact, they will make a loud barking noise if bored or lonely. It is important to provide lots of toys, and opportunities for activity and exercise. Sugar Gliders also need a place to "relax" that is enclosed and provides a feeling of protection for surrounding noise, light, and activity. They will become very attached to their owner. Sugar Gliders can live 12-15 years. Sugar Glider babies are called "joeys" and stay in mom's pouch for a little more than two months after birth.

Kinkajou

Kinkajous are from the forests of Central and South America. They spend most of their times in trees and are quite adept at climbing. In fact, they can turn their feet backwards, making it possible for them to descend as easily and quickly as they can ascend. Kinkajous have a prehensile tail, meaning they use their tail as an extra appendage. They often hang by their tail and can even climb up their own tail to get back on a branch. Kinkajous are related to raccoons, not monkeys.

Kinkajous are also knows as honey bears both because of their golden color and their affinity for sweets. Using their impressive 6 inch tongue, they can access honey in bee hives. They also enjoy feeding on the nectar of flowers. In the wild, they eat lots of fruit but also insects, eggs, and small reptiles. Kinkajous are nocturnal, and can be quite noisy and vocal at night. Kinkajous can live a long time, more than 20 years if kept properly.

Kinkajous are susceptible to cold climate, so a heat lamp is important for them if the temperature dips below 60 degrees F. They are nocturnal, so they are very active and noisy at night. When a kinkajou is alarmed, they can emit a scream that sounds like a woman screaming.

Kinkajous can bond very tightly to their owner, but if surprised or scared, they will bite. And it hurts! Paris Hilton famously owned a kinkajou named Baby Luv that bit her badly enough that she had to go to the emergency room. Most bites occur when a person arouses a kinkajou from sleep.

Chinchilla

Chinchillas are a member of the rodent family from South America where they live in the Andes Mountains. In the wild, they live in "herds" and have quite a number of natural predators. As defense against attackers, chinchillas can spray urine on a predator, or spontaneously release clumps of their fur. Speaking of fur, they are said to have the softest fur of all mammals, making them a prized target of fur-traders for human fashions. It takes 100-200 chinchillas to complete a full fur coat. Because of their great popularity to hunters, chinchillas are extinct in the wild. But scores of them exist both on chinchilla fur farms, and as pets. The fur is also extremely dense. As many as 50 hairs can grow from one hair follicle. Their hair is so dense, that skin parasites cannot survive on them. They would suffocate.

Chinchillas take "dust baths" to absorb the oil and moisture in their fur. Pet owners should make chinchilla dust available to the animal at least a couple times a week for dust bathing. In the wild, they would roll in volcanic ash to remove excess oil.

Chinchillas are nocturnal, sleeping most of the day and active at night. Probably because of their prey status in the wild, chinchillas can be quite jumpy and fearful. So not all chinchillas enjoy being held. Chinchilla babies are called kits. Chinchillas can live up to 20 years.

American Alligator

American Alligators are in abundance in North America. Seemingly unchanged since pre-historic times, alligators are believed to have been around for more than 150 million years. They are found in the fresh waterways of the Southeastern United States. But sadly, are kept as pets in many places around the country. Amazingly, there are a number of states that have no laws against keeping an alligator as a pet. Hatchlings are 6-8 inches long, and seem as harmless. But adults can grow up to 15 feet in length and 1000 pounds. They can live quite a long time, up to 50 years. Wildlife officials in Florida and Louisiana get inundated with calls about loose or abandoned alligators. Most often, a person buys the alligator when it is small and "cute." But when it gets to be too big to handle, and too hungry to keep up with, many folks just let them loose outdoors. One official declared, "When an alligator eats your dog for lunch, they're not so cute anymore." Well said! Alligators have up to 80 teeth that wear down over time. It is believed that an adult alligator will go through 2000-3000 teeth over its lifetime. They have powerful jaws that can crack a turtle's shell and crush bones. Alligators swallow some small prey whole. There was a time when alligators were on the verge of extinction but thanks to vigilant conservation efforts, they made a remarkable comeback in the 70's and 80's. They are now abundant, even though they are prized by hunters for their skin and meat.

Flemish Giant Rabbit

Flemish Giant Rabbits are just like other domestic breeds of rabbit, only much larger. They can grow to be more than 20 pounds, although the average Flemish Giant is 15-17 pounds. They are from Europe and are one of the oldest breed of rabbits to come from Europe. Flemish Giants are very docile and will generally tolerate the poking and prodding from children. They are said to be easier to litter box train than cats. Flemish Giants should eat a good quality, commercial rabbit chow. Timothy hay is a good supplement to the pellet feed. And occasion treats of spinach, carrots, potatoes, apples, bananas, or papaya are fine.

They generally live 3-5 years. It is possible for them to get a condition called "wool block" which is similar to hairballs in cats. Because of the larger size and weight of Flemish Giants, they should not be house on the bare wires of a wire cage. The wire will damage their feet. A smooth, cleanable surface should be placed over the wire floor to prevent sore hocks. Flemish Giants coloring includes black, blue, fawn, light gray, sandy, steel gray, and white.

Fennec Fox

Fennec Foxes are a member of a canid (dog) family. But they are the size of a cat, approximately 3 or 4 pounds. They are the smallest of all the foxes. They have characteristic large ears that aid them in hearing, and also cooling their body. Fennec foxes can be found in the Sahara or other parts of North Africa. The Fennec Fox can tolerate the high heat of the desert because of the efficient cooling action of the large ears. Also, they have furry feet which protect their skin from the hot sand in the desert. Their hearing is so sensitive that Fennec Foxes can hear the movements of prey underground.

Fennec Foxes are nocturnal and in the wild eat plants, rodents, eggs, reptiles, and insects. They are highly adapted for the harsh life of desert-dwelling and can go for long periods of time without drinking water. Fennec Foxes are nocturnal so, they spend all day sleeping.

Fennec Foxes can be social and cuddly but if left alone too much, they can become disinterested in humans. Like domesticated dogs, they can be taught to fetch, sit, and respond to their name. It is not wise to have a Fennec Fox with other pet birds or rodents. They may misinterpret them as food. They can live between 10 to 12 years.

Hedgehog

Although hedgehogs have quills like porcupines, they are not related. Hedgehogs are related to the mole and shrew. They get their name for two reasons. They often forage for food amongst hedges and underbrush. And they are said to emit "grunts" that sounds loosely like a pig. Hedgehogs are from East Africa and are nocturnal. They are known to hibernate in cold climates.

Hedgehogs have poor eyesight and depend on their hearing and smell to find food. In the wild, they eat insects, worms, snails, even eggs, frogs, roots, and small reptiles. They can eat one third of their body weight in one night. (maybe another reason for "hog" in their name)

Hedgehogs have a unique defense strategy. When threatened, they can curl into a very tight ball, making it virtually impossible to reach their body. They become this sphere of quills, not appetizing to most predators. They live 4-7 years.

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