Winterizing Your Exotic Pet

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Now that cold weather is coming, there are some steps all exotic pet owners should take to help ensure exotic pets stay happy and healthy throughout the winter:

Reptiles“cold-blooded” animals whose body temperatures adjust to surrounding environmental temperatures.

When temperatures in our homes drop during winter, these pets need extra heat to keep their body temperatures constant and for proper digestion, immune system function, and metabolism. So, while your reptile may not need additional heat from an over-the-tank heat bulb or an under-the-tank heating pad during summer, during winter, these added heat sources may be necessary. Thermometers or temperature “guns” aimed at different sections of the cage help determine how much added heat is necessary. Regardless of the heat source – bulb or heating pad – you add, it ideally should be plugged in to a thermostat that can be pre-set to turn on and off to maintain the temperature within a set range. This helps limit the risk of burning the pet (as well as of setting an electrical fire).

In addition to ensuring that your reptile has a warm environment, nearly all reptiles require ultraviolet (UV) light to produce vitamin D in their skin that enables them to absorb calcium from their food. Since glass filters out essential UV rays, to ensure proper UV exposure, direct UV light must be provided with a UV bulb designed specifically for reptiles that shines over the cage ideally for 10-12 hours/day and that is changed every 6-12 months.

Finally, with cold weather comes dry air. Most reptiles rely on environmental humidity to stay hydrated and to shed their skin properly. Without adequate humidity, reptiles become dehydrated and sick and may retain large pieces of skin when they try to shed. So, during cold weather, if the air in your home gets very dry, you should mist your reptile (or soak him in a shallow bowl of warm water) several times each week.

Birds – much more able to withstand temperature changes than you’d expect.

Birds usually tolerate temperature changes well, and owners’ big concern about exposing their birds to drafts is usually unfounded. As long as birds can adjust gradually to temperature changes, they generally do fine. They’re generally comfortable at temperatures at which we are comfortable. Birds’ bodies may have difficulty adapting to rapid temperature changes, so your bird’s cage should be moved away from drafty windows and doors if the outside temperature drops quickly. If it’s hard to keep the temperature above high 60s°F, you may want to cover the cage at night, or hang sleeping tent made for birds in the cage to help keep the pet warm. Also,

If you use space heaters to provide extra heat, be sure that they don’t have Teflon or other non-stick coating in them, as when these coatings are heated, they release invisible odorless gases that can kill birds instantly if they breathe them in.

If your home is heated by forced hot air, you should move your bird’s cage away from heating ducts, as they can accumulate dust that can blow out all at once when the heat is first turned on. Aspergillus – the most common fungus to infect birds’ respiratory tracts – often is found in dust, and birds’ respiratory tracts are exceptionally sensitive to inhaled organisms like this fungus This fungus forms spores that can persist for years in dust and that sprout into a deadly mold-like infection in the lungs if birds inhale it. Thus, you might want to turn on your heat for the first time with your bird outside of the room and have your heating ducts cleaned before you do.

Birds need humidity for healthy skin and feathers. In winter, the air is dry, and parrots’ skin may become flaky and feathers become dull. Birds may even pick at their skin if it becomes very dry and itchy. While parrots should have access to water to bathe in if they chose to all year long, it’s critical that they bathe during winter when the air gets very dry. Some birds enjoy being misted with a plant mister, while others like to go into the shower with their owners. Owners are often overly concerned that birds will get cold if they get wet during winter. In fact, feathers are waterproof, and as long as birds are kept in a warm room after the shower, they should be fine.

Outdoor birds, such as pet chickens, turkeys, pheasants, peafowl, ducks, and swans also need to be protected in winter. These birds need shelter from cold weather, a heated indoor space, extra bedding in which to burrow to stay warm, UV light inside if it’s too cold to go out, and access to water that won’t freeze over.

 Small mammals (rabbits, rodents, ferrets, and sugar gliders) need winterizing care, too.

Many small mammals kept as pets, such as bunnies, guinea pigs, ferrets, and chinchillas, tolerate cool temperatures well. In fact, some of these pets can live outside in enclosed hutches during winter as long as they have heat, shelter from harsh weather, and extra bedding into which they can burrow to keep warm. They must have fresh food and water (that doesn’t freeze) daily. However, when temperatures drop below freezing, these animals should be brought inside, or they may suffer frostbite.

Indoor small pets also should be given extra bedding to keep warm. Sugar gliders – small flying squirrel-like animals that are actually marsupials in the kangaroo family, not squirrels in the rodent family – need additional heat during winter to maintain their body temperature because they are so small and lose body heat quickly. The rooms in which they are housed should be kept at higher temperatures rather than providing them with “hot rocks” or heating pads in their cages, as many sugar gliders will sit on these objects for long periods and get burned.

Each winter, millions of people take steps to protect their cars and homes from the cold. Given how valuable our pets are, why wouldn’t we “winterize” them, as well, with few simple measures to protect their health and well-being?


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