As an avian and exotic animal practitioner, I have found that one of the biggest contributors to disease in these pets is improper nutrition. Unfortunately, it can sometimes be difficult for owners to find reliable information on how to feed their pets, and they often rely on advertising and hearsay to decide what to feed. Here are some basic guidelines on how to feed your exotic friend. If you have any questions, don't be afraid to call your local avian and exotic animal veterinarian for advice.
Rabbits, guinea pigs, prairie dogs, and other little herbivores:
As owners, we feel that to provide the best care for our pet, we should buy them the best quality foods. However, marketing by major pet food companies can easily manipulate us in to thinking that the expensive diets, the “gourmet” blends, the brightly-colored and exciting foods are the answer. The problem is that our little herbivores' digestive tracts aren't designed to process a lot of fat and simple carbohydrates. The “gourmet” foods with the seeds and dried fruits and veggies can actually be detrimental to your rabbit's or guinea pig's dental and digestive health - imagine each sunflower seed as a little cheeseburger. Believe it or not, the simple inexpensive plain timothy pellet is the way to go! These creatures also need unlimited (yes, unlimited!) hay and some leafy green veggies as well (romaine, kale, collard greens, etc.). If you consider what wild rabbits eat, you could even forgo pellets entirely and feed nothing but leafy vegetables and unlimited hay. Despite the popular myth, rabbits should not be fed large quantities of carrots - they are high in simple carbohydrates and low in the ever-critical fiber; a small (one inch) amount of carrot is fine 2-3 times a week. Fruits can be given in very small quantities as a treat only. No more than 1 tsp 1-2 times per week. Remember that guinea pigs, like humans, cannot make their own Vitamin C, and will need supplementation.
These same rules apply to chinchillas. The smaller rodents (gerbils, rats, and mice) are a little more forgiving in terms of fiber and simple carbohydrates, but still should not be fed a large amount of fruit. For all these pets, sugary treats like yogurt drops and honey-covered seed bars should be avoided due to the heavy fat and sugar content. Fresh herbs will make much healthier and equally tasty treats!
Other mammals (sugar gliders, skunks, raccoons, etc):
The biggest problem seen with these mammals is malnutrition in the form of obesity. Malnutrition doesn't always mean undernutrition! It is not uncommon for the pet skunks and raccoons to come in looking like hairy watermelons with toothpick legs, eating nothing but canned dog food. Please remember that these species are omnivorous - they eat lots of veggies too! The “sugar” in sugar glider refers to the plant saps they eat, not fruits. There are few things sadder that a glider that can't glide because he's too heavy to do so! Before acquiring these pets, please consult your veterinarian or other reputable source for dietary recommendations. One other thing to remember is that these species also need a good calcium source in their diet - yogurt, calcium powder, or other low-fat dairy products - as they are prone to health issues secondary to low blood calcium levels.
What do you feed a bird? Bird seed, right? Wrong! Just like with the herbivorous mammals above, seeds are a high-fat low-nutrient food source. Most of us would not eat triple cheeseburgers and deep-fried Oreos every day for every meal, so why make your bird do basically the same thing? Sure, birds and humans can get by on them, but the cost is shortened life spans due to obesity, cardiovascular disease, and liver disease. As a healthier alternative, there are numerous nutritionally balanced pelleted diets available that are low-fat and fortified with the vitamins and minerals your bird needs to thrive. Many birds also enjoy fresh veggies and fruits, as well as plain cooked pasta and rice. It can sometime be difficult to convert the long-term seed junkie to a healthier diet (would you rather have a candy bar or bran flakes?), but with patience and persistence even the most stubborn bird can be made to accept pellets and veggies. One word of caution - while most easily-available fruits are okay, please do NOT offer your bird avocado, which has been shown to be fatally toxic to birds. Also, avoid chocolate, high-fat and high-sugar foods and alcohol.
This is a tough area to cover, as each species of reptile has its own preferred foods and therefore few generalizations can be made. The best advice I can give you is to carefully research the dietary requirements of the species you're considering BEFORE you acquire the animal. Don't rely on your uncle's neighbor's second cousin's recommendations - talk to your veterinarian, the breeders, or local herpetologist or zoo curators if a zoo is nearby, go to the library and find the newest books, and check out reliable websites (anapsid.org is a great resource). Also, bear in mind that som e species' dietary requirements change with age - bearded dragons are mostly insectivorous as juveniles, but mostly herbivorous as adults.
When feeding predatory species, consider the prey size - bigger isn't always better. Ideally, the prey item should be no larger than one-half to two-thirds the size of your pet's head. When dealing with rodents, live may be more fun to watch and more enticing to eat but prey that isn't immediately eaten may turn on the predator and attack! It is preferred to feed pre-killed rodents to avoid painful and sometimes costly rodent bite wounds. This is also a problem with crickets that aren't immediately eaten. They can bite and cause serious wounds on lizards.
Another important thing to remember is that improper husbandry conditions can contribute to a refusal to eat. Make sure you know the ideal temperature range and UV requirements for your species, and strive to maintain those conditions. If too cold, too hot, or not receiving enough UV radiation, many reptiles won't eat. Sometimes wild-caught pets have a difficult time adjusting to captivity and will not eat for long periods of time. This is another reason to do your homework before getting the pet - if you're a new reptile owner, than a wild-caught pet or a fussy eater like a ball python may not be for you.
Again, if there is ever a question about how to appropriately feed your avian or exotic pet, please contact your local avian and exotic experienced veterinarian. Nutrition plays a critical role in so many of the diseases we see, and is one of the factors that the owner can influence the most. Help us provide the best level of care for your friend by starting with a healthy diet!