Improving the quality of life for Australia's unusual pet population

05 Jun 2017

Kongs, toys, scratching poles and climbing frames are all commonly found in households that have a dog or cat because they provide pets with safe and fun ways of exercising their bodies and their minds at home. But, what if you have an unusual pet like a rabbit, ferret or reptile? How can owners ensure they are meeting their physical and mental needs at home?

Dr. Brendan Carmel treats unusual pets on a regular basis at Warranwood Veterinary Centre in Victoria. At the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) Annual Conference tomorrow, he’ll be discussing ways of addressing and providing the right environment for unusual pets.

“Environmental enrichment is essential for all living creatures, and this applies to exotic pets such as rabbits, rodents, ferrets, birds, reptiles and amphibians and fish.

“Until recently there has been little research in environmental enrichment strategies for unusual pets, but this has changed over the last few years,” Dr. Carmel said.

According to Animal Medicines Australia’s Pet ownership in Australia 2016 Report, more than one in 10 households keep fish, over one in 10 households own at least one bird and three percent of households own a small mammal or reptile.

Dr. Carmel says that before choosing to get an unusual pet, it’s important that people are aware of their individual mental and physical needs.

“We need to ensure we are providing stimulating environments for unusual pets, much like we do for dogs and cats. Failure to provide a suitable home environment is likely to result in boredom which is never in the best interests of any animal.

“The best way to house an unusual pet will very much depend on whether they’re a prey animal, such as a rabbit, or a predator, such as a ferret. It’s important that owners of unusual pets speak to their veterinarian about what’s suitable for their pet,” Dr. Carmel said.

Below are some tips for creating an enriching home environment for an unusual pet.

Rabbits and Guinea Pigs

Their wild ancestors lived in tunnels so they don’t like open spaces. Providing shading over the central areas of a hutch will make them more comfortable. Hiding food to allow foraging is also ideal.


Provide tubes from cardboard, plastic pipes and consider making mazes to encourage exploration. Rodents like to chew items and construct beds so non-toxic items such as tissues and recycled newspaper litter are appropriate.


Environmental enrichment should centre on their high motivation to explore and forage, adequate resting and play opportunities.


Aviaries ideally would be large enough to allow flight and room for foraging, climbing, balance, exercise, and play, with multiple perches and places to hide. If there is no room for flight then they should be provided with daily exercise.

Reptiles and amphibians

These creatures are more advanced than many may think. They display sophisticated communication traits such as problem-solving and parental care. Specific environmental requirements should encourage natural behaviours such as climbing and burrowing.

The AVA Conference is being held at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, 4-9 June 2017. For more information visit

For further information and requests for interviews contact the AVA media office on 0439 628 898 or

The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) is the only national association representing veterinarians in Australia. Founded in 1921, the AVA today represents 9000 members working in all areas of animal science, health, and welfare.