— Man's new best friends don't bark or purr. They might have eight legs or no legs at all. Move over, Rover. Exotic pets are taking over.
Ferrets represent one of the fastest-growing segments of the pet industry, with Americans purchasing an estimated $300 million in food alone for these furry creatures. They're joined by miniature donkeys and potbellied pigs as some of the most popular members of the burgeoning exotic pet population.
While some pet owners are cuddling up to giant pythons, others find comfort in banana slugs, whiptail scorpions, bombardier beetles, tarantulas, and other creepy-crawlies that might be considered more pest than pet.
From Mauling Tigers to Hissing Roaches
The danger of exotic pets came into focus in the wake of the Oct. 3 mauling of entertainer Roy Horn of Siegfried & Roy in Las Vegas. Horn remains in critical condition following the attack by a 7-year-old white tiger named Montecore.
Earlier this month in New York, authorities had to evict a 425-pound tiger named Ming and a 5-foot-long alligator from a Manhattan apartment after resident Antoine Yates was hospitalized with animal bites. Animal rights experts fear there could be thousands of potentially dangerous animals secretly kept as pets.
Smaller animals might not hold the inherent dangers of a tiger. But some fear that nontraditional pets could be connected to the spread of disease. Earlier this year, a batch of prairie dogs in the Midwest was linked to an outbreak of the monkeypox virus, though fans of the burrowing rodents maintain their critters are safe.
Such concerns have grown internationally. As unlikely as it sounds, giant hissing cockroaches had become a popular pet in Thailand. At one point, the African insects — about twice the size of anything you'd find in a garbage can in Times Square — were selling for about $20.
But last year Thai officials banned pet roaches, fearing they were connected to health concerns. Officials even offered to give the insects traditional Buddhist funeral rites, out of respect for bereft pet owners.
"These really are charming creatures," Sue Hasenpusch of the Australian Insect Farm told Reuters. "They're not stinky at all and there really is nothing horrible about them except for the name cockroach."
When Pigs Fly … First Class Still, even when there are no apparent health concerns, the pet world is rife with discrimination — a vicious form of species-ism — and alternative pet owners seek equal rights with their dog and cat contemporaries.
Maria Tirotta Andrews made headlines last year when she and her 300-pound pet pig, "Charlotte," flew first class on a US Airways flight from Philadelphia to Seattle.
"I am a big animal-rights person. My pig has the right to be with me on an airplane," Andrews declared to reporters, displaying a doctor's note averring she suffers from a heart condition and that the pig helps relieve stress.
"I love this pig. She's my best friend," she told the Philadelphia Daily News in an interview titled, "The Pig and I."
Charlotte the pig slept most of the flight. Nevertheless, the airline promised that pigs will never again be able to go hog wild in first class.
Still, the pet world is going through radical transformation, especially if you measure beastly love by specialty products and pet toys. And there's something for just about every species. You'll find low-cal treats for overindulged prairie dogs and even "Cricket Chow." Here's a look at some products that caught my eye:
1. Python Health Insurance
You don't want to be sharing an apartment with a constipated 6-foot python.
"They're such lovely, affectionate animals. Mine would lick the tears from my eyes," says Laura, a woman from Illinois, who asked that her last name not be used because her landlord "would have a cow."
Miss Candyman, Laura's 4-year-old albino python, sleeps in her room, sometimes in her bed, providing a source of comfort and security, she says.
But even a giant, carnivorous snake can devour an unsavory rodent and end up with a reptilian tummy ache.
Thank goodness Laura can turn to Veterinary Pet Insurance in California, which confirmed that the snake is one of its clients. Vets gave Miss Candyman an anal injection of mineral water and soon she felt like a regular snake in the grass, or, in this case, the bedspread.
Snake health insurance costs Laura $15.37 a month, but that's worth it for an animal she considers part of the family. "The only way a snake like mine would bite would be if it were my fault," she says.
"Sure, if the snake wasn't fed for months and the human didn't wash and, therefore, smelled like a rat or mouse, then they'll bite you. Otherwise, it's just love." 2. Possum-Bonding Pouches
If you're playing mama to a little opossum, you may want to honor the little critter's marsupial roots with a Sandman "Bonding Pouch" — an animal carrier that lets you carry him around, just like his biological mother would.
Sugar gliders — miniature members of the opossum family — are one of the trendiest exotic pets. They're nocturnal, so you can count on them for company if you're having trouble getting to sleep. And, just like baby kangaroos, they love to ride around in their mom's pouch.
Manmade pouches from Sandman don't exactly serve a biological purpose. But they do keep sugar gliders happy. These knapsack-like bags, available for around $12, offer dark and cozy fun for your pet, and they're available in human-friendly fashions, from zebra prints to traditional plaids.
Talk about new domestic partnerships: Sandman even lets a man play marsupial mom, with a masculine line of bonding pouches that feature football patterns and sports themes.
3. Hoof Moisturizer for a Potbellied Pig
When your little piggy goes to the market, you don't want her to stand out like a stubbed toe. Pigs4ever.com offers hoof moisturizer and ultra-sheen shampoo — the latest in pampered porcine perfection.
When you rub this vitamin-enriched cream into your piggy's piggies, you're helping the hoof wall expand naturally — a bargain at $5.95 for a 2-ounce jar. The specially formulated shampoo ($9.95 a bottle), pulls oil out of a pig's naturally dry skin and won't burn those little pink eyes. It could be the next best thing to wallowing in the mud!
4. Bearded Dragons on a Leash
Maybe it seems like your iguana is always smiling. But he won't be if you leave him behind. Now, with a Repta-Leash from T-Rex, you can take all sorts of lizards out for a walk, from a tiny gecko to an adult bearded dragon, for prices that range from $8 to $12.
Repta-Leashes vary in size, depending on the girth of your slithering bundle of joy, and boast a lizard-friendly cinch. They also come in sturdy leather, which we assume is not of the alligator variety.
5. Ferret Formal Attire
I know how important it is for you and your pets to have matching clothing. Marshall Products now offers a full line of ferret bow ties, matching sweaters and hats. And there's no need to burrow in a hole when it rains, thanks to Marshall's ferret raincoats.
"The ferret business is huge," said Tom Willard of Performance Foods, a leading supplier of ferret food. Performance has special blends for newborns and low-cal meals for older, overweight ferrets — who might have the right girth for a miniature Santa suit, just perfect for a festive polecat.
6. Luxury Hen Spas
If you're ever hoping to take home one of those chic city chicks, you'll need a deluxe Henspa — the latest in egg-stravagant chicken farming. These high-tech $1,500 chicken coops are making a comeback with homeowners who want feathered friends — and fresh eggs.
"Martha Stewart is a big advocate of keeping a hen house in your home, and you'll find that there are historical roots to this that go back to European royalty," says Steven Keel of Eggonic Industries, the manufacturer of Henspas.
Even if you've got a small home, you probably have enough space for a few hens, says Keel, who recently sold an elaborate coop to a Boston-area homeowner living near Harvard Square.
Local ordinances are the biggest obstacle to the hen-hosting craze taking flight. But Keel says cities like St. Louis and Seattle let residents raise chickens.
With a Hen Spa, urban and suburban chicks live in the lap of luxury, with heated water bottles, automatic feeders and enclosed, varmint-proof exercise areas. Unlike chicken farmers of yesteryear, you can leave this high-tech coop for five days and the tenants won't have a flap.
You'll return home to see your lovely birds pecking around in your backyard, gobbling up worms and other pests while helping to prepare tomorrow's breakfast. Just think of them as members of the family who put food on the table and don't mind working for chicken feed.
Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at ABCNEWS.com. The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.