Think outside the Boxer

Dogs and cats make great pets—but they’re not the only ones

By Tails staff

Sometimes it’s easy to get into the mindset that cats and dogs are the only options for people and families seeking new companion animals. But we say, not by the hair on our chinny chinchilla! There are lots of great pets out there of the non-feline and canine variety that will add joy to your life whether you’re looking to go hog wild with a potbellied pig or you’re ready for life in the slow lane with a rescued turtle. Check out these pets to see if they’re right for you, but remember that many of these pets require special care, can be quite costly, and may be restricted in your area. Be sure to follow up with your nearest rescue group or vet for more information.

Potbellied Pig

Average life span: 15-18 years
Average annual cost of care: $240
Average size: 100-120 lbs, but size can vary depending on breed and care.
Space requirements: A potbellied pig requires a large backyard with a high, strong fence. Because pigs don’t perspire, they need shade, a weatherproof shed and something with water, like a kiddie pool, in which they can play.
Feeding requirements: As piglets, potbellied pigs eat
exotic pig-grower food, but as they grow older, they need feed for older standard pigs.
Ideal match: Because pigs are social animals, a guardian who can commit a significant amount of time—especially when the pig is first adopted—is incredibly important. Pigs need someone who can spend time training them and making them feel comfortable in their new surroundings. It is also necessary to check zoning in your area before adopting a potbellied pig. A busy person who lives alone or doesn’t have the time to socialize and play with his pig would not make an ideal parent.

Source: Eva Ingram of Belly Draggers Ranch (BellyDraggersRanch.com), a pot-bellied pig rescue in San Martin, California


Average life span: 8-10 years (but can live longer)
Average annual cost of care: $60-$120
Average size: 1-1.5 lbs. Body types range from the squirrel (long and slender) to the sumo wrestler (chunky).
Space requirements: Four square feet per chinchilla is a good estimate. In their natural habitats, chinchillas run through the rocks and live in rock tunnels like pikas and marmots, so they don’t need tons of space.
Feeding requirements: Good-quality feed and top quality hay.
Ideal match: Chinchillas can be quite temperamental, so it is best for them to live with a guardian who won’t get upset. Chins are also good matches for people who work during the day, as they like a quiet, stress-free environment during the daytime. They’re not good around sensitive sleepers. Chinchillas go to sleep around 11 p.m. and wake up around 4:30 a.m., and also rip and shred their boxes and bedding.

Source: Lani Ritchey of Chinchilla Rescue (ChinchillaRescue.org) in Menlo Park, California

Green Iguana

Average life span: 15-20 years
Average annual cost of care: $1,000
Average size: 4-6 feet
Space requirements: An adult iguana needs an area the size of a walk-in closet or small bedroom, with plenty of space to climb and stretch out, hot spots to bask, and cooler areas to thermo regulate. Free roaming around the house is not recommended.
Feeding requirements: Herbivorous. Their diets should be 90-95 percent mixed dark green veggies (romaine lettuce, kale, collard greens, etc.) and 5-10 percent fruit as a treat. It’s also important to spray veggies with vitamins.
Ideal match: Iguanas are amazing creatures, but not the best pets for most people. To dedicated guardians who have the space, patience, money, and lots of room in their heart, iguanas are wonderful creatures that will make you look at animals in a whole new way. They are best with guardians who are satisfied with a pet they may not be able to handle. Most iguanas are aggressive when approached; therefore, they are not good pets for children.

Source: Jesse Rothacker of Forgotten Friend Reptile Sanctuary (ForgottenFriend.org) in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania

Guinea Pigs

Average life span: 5-8 years
Average annual cost of care: $600
Average size: 2-3 pounds
Space requirements: A large cage. Guinea pigs, being social animals, do better in an active part of the house—not a child’s bedroom.
Feeding requirements: Guinea pigs are natural grass eaters. They love timothy hay and need it in their diet. Feed them quality timothy pellets (nothing with seeds), fresh veggies, and occasional fruit.
Ideal match: It depends on the personality. Shy or very active guinea pigs aren’t best for young children. They are not good starter pets for kids; they require just as much time and work as any other pet.

Source: Rose Pooler of Critter Corral (CritterCorral.org) in Steger, Illinois

Companion Chickens

Average life span: 10-14 years
Average annual cost of care: $345 per bird. Coop construction could add $400 or more to initial investment.
Average size: 6 lbs.
Space requirements: An indoor sleeping area and winter pen—such as a heated garage, coop, or barn—that is about 6 by 12 by 6 feet. An outdoor backyard that is a minimum of 20 by 20 feet with 6-foot fencing and shelter from sun and rain. Chickens must have access to dirt for scratching and foliage for bugs, roosting, entertainment, and shelter. Enclosures of this size would be appropriate for three or four birds.
Feeding requirements: Scratch grains, fresh meadow (or garden) forage, fresh fruits, greens and vegetables, and a nutritionally balanced avian pellet diet.
Ideal match: People (age 8 and older) who like physical contact with animals, enjoy learning about animal behavior by observation and interaction, like to spend time outdoors, and appreciate comedy and drama. Chickens are highly intelligent, gentle, vivacious animals that form strong lifelong emotional bonds with each other as well as other species—they are even compatible with cats and dogs. People with disagreeable neighbors, unsupervised children, dust and feather allergies, manicured gardens, prey-driven dogs and cats, people who are never home, or suburban or city dwellers who have no time for daily socialization, cleaning, and care should seek out a different companion.

Source: Mary Britton Clouse, founder and president of Chicken Run Rescue (BrittonClouse.com/chickenrunrescue) in Minneapolis, Minnesota.


Average life span: This can vary quite a bit. Smaller species like Corn, King, and Garter snakes will average 8 to 15 years, while larger species like Boa Constrictors and Pythons can easily live up to 30.
Average annual cost of care: Smaller snakes average $100-$150 per year to feed, while larger species can cost $300-$400. Factor in the cost of supplies, electricity, and a yearly vet visit, and even the smallest species can cost upward of $300 per year to maintain.
Average size: Smaller snakes average 2-5 feet while large snakes average 6-15 feet.
Space requirements: A good rule of thumb is to have caging that is a minimum of the full length of the snake, by half the length of the snake. Less active species will do fine with less space, while more active species should be given extra room. A species tendency to climb should also be taken into consideration when deciding on the height of the cage.
Feeding requirements: Most common pet snakes are rodent eaters. Young snakes should be fed an appropriately sized meal of one to two prey items every four to five days. Adult snakes can be fed less often—weekly for smaller species and every two to three weeks for larger species like boa constrictors and large pythons. Any rodents offered as food items should be pre-killed and frozen and thawed, and can be purchased from most pet stores as such. There are a few exceptions in the diet department, namely garter and ribbon snakes, which will feed primarily on fish and insects.
Ideal match: Snakes are good for individuals who need a comparatively low-maintenance or display-only pet or have fur allergies. Snakes are not good for anyone looking to have a cool pet to show off. They’re also not good for anyone who is squeamish about having to feed prey, or for very young children, or anyone who is immuno-compromised.

Source: Stephanie Beiser of Mid-Michigan Reptile Rescue (MichiganReptileRescue.org) in Bay City, Michigan


Average life span: 50 years. Many turtles live two to three times that long.
Average annual cost of care: Water turtles, like Red Eared Sliders, may require expensive setups with professional-grade filtration systems. Other turtles can be kept outdoors with minimal cost of care.
Average size: Varies. Russian tortoises and box turtles max out at six inches whereas Sulcatta tortoises can reach 36 inches and 300 pounds.
Space requirements: This varies. Water turtles need outdoor ponds. Box turtles and other smaller land turtles still need an outdoor setup of 4 feet by 6 feet.
Feeding requirements: Some are vegetarian, some are omnivores. Research the type of turtle you are interested in to find out all the specific needs.
Ideal match: People best suited to turtles are those who have the time, space, and understanding of these needs, and are prepared to enjoy them. They are not like dogs and cats, and don’t do tricks. Children who love turtles are often greatly disappointed in reality.

Source: Bonnier Keller, Director of VA Reptile Rescue (VAReptileRescue.org) in Richmond, VA.

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