Dr. Laurie Hess discusses why it's important to keep your exotic pet warm as the weather turns cold.
Storms and cold temperatures are never fun to deal with, but if you live any place where the seasons change, you will undoubtedly have to face inclement weather at some point this winter. How do you keep your bird or exotic pet healthy when the temperature plummets? Here are a few tips to help keep your bird or other exotic pet safe.
1. Provide heat!
Many birds and reptiles, in particular, need to be kept warm to remain healthy. Birds (especially larger parrots) can generally tolerate temperatures as low as the 50s, but once the thermometer drops below that, they may get fluffed up (expending all of their energy trying to trap warm air between their feathers and their bodies to keep warm) and stop eating. Pets burn extra calories trying to stay warm, so it is essential that they keep eating. Reptiles are “cold-blooded;" their body temperatures are determined by their environmental temperatures. If their environments get very cold, their body temperatures drop in turn. Their immune systems do not function well at suboptimal temperatures, and their digestive systems and metabolism also slows down - typically what occurs during hibernation or brumation. Reptiles can safely tolerate living at less-than-ideal temperatures for a few days, but over time, hibernating reptiles can get sick.
Other exotic pets may suffer in the cold, too. Hedgehogs, for example, can go into a state of sluggishness or torpor and stop eating when the temperature falls. Thus, if you own an exotic pet, and your home is cold because you have lost electric power, you should do all that you can to keep your pet warm by wrapping his or her cage with a blanket or towel to minimize air flow, moving the cage near a sunlit window (as long as there are no drafts blowing through it), and placing plastic bottles, bags, or even rubber gloves filled with warm water (if you have access to warm water) wrapped in towels directly underneath the reptile (or under the cage, if you have a bird or small mammal such as a rabbit or rodent that might chew on the plastic or rubber).
2. Offer water!
In bad storms, if you lose electric power or if your pipes freeze, you may also lose your water supply. Given the fact that many exotic pets have very high water requirements due to their small sizes and fast metabolism, these pets can become dehydrated quickly. Thus, if you are trying to keep your bird or other exotic pet healthy during a blackout or severe cold snap, be sure to provide fresh water daily, and monitor his or her water consumption carefully. Stressed exotic pets may pant and may lose moisture through their mouths as a result, plus they may not eat or drink normally and are consequently at high risk of dehydration. Dehydrated pets quickly become sick pets, so ensuring exotic pets drink water during cold weather is very important to try to prevent illness.
3. Prevent trauma!
Many birds and non-nocturnal exotic pets are not accustomed to being in the dark for prolonged periods and may become nervous and stressed if they are without light during a power outage. Birds may flail around in their cages, potentially hurting themselves, breaking feathers or injuring their wings. Worse, they may escape their cages into dark rooms where, if they are able to fly, they can smash into objects or fly out doors. Small mammals such as rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas may get scared, curl up, and hide in tight spaces, making them very hard to find in the dark. If you are trying to keep your exotic pet calm in the darkness, keep a small flashlight near your pet’s cage so that he or she can see you and familiar surroundings; this may keep him or her calmer and less likely to get injured.
4. Avoid fumes!
When faced with power outages, cold, and long periods of darkness, many of us are tempted to burn candles or to keep a propane stove running. However, if you have a bird or other exotic pet and are going to light candles or turn on the stove, you must take special precautions. Several exotic species (birds in particular) are exquisitely sensitive to any kind of fumes, so if you burn candles that emit smoke (or worse, have lead in the wick, which many do), you must keep these far away from these animals, or they are at risk of inhaling potentially toxic fumes and dying. The same is true for propane and other gases; if you can smell it, your pets could inhale it and collapse. So, don’t take chances; move your birds and exotics far away (ideally in a separate room) from the source of any potential fumes.
5. Feed! Feed! Feed!
Nervous birds and other exotic pets, like stressed people, may have a decreased appetite or may not want to eat at all. This is especially a problem when these pets are in cold temperatures, expending lots of extra calories trying to stay warm and alert and potentially sleeping less than normal. In these situations, small exotic pets with normally high metabolisms actually need additional calories to stay healthy. Thus, when exotic pets are exposed to the cold, it’s especially important to monitor their appetites to ensure that they are eating. Tempt your bird or other exotic pet to eat during inclement weather by offering his or her favorite foods frequently in small quantities. Exotic pets that eat less may need to be hand-fed or encouraged to eat, even through syringe-fed special formulas meant for particular species if necessary. It’s great to have these formulas on hand ahead of time in case of emergency. Ask your veterinarian to provide these items to you so you’ll have them ready in a pinch in case you need them.
Living through a hurricane or a prolonged power outage, as many of us in the Northeast have recently, is never easy. But, if you follow these tips and monitor your exotic pets closely, they will be more likely to come out of it just fine.
If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian – they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.