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Great Pets That Aren’t Cats or Dogs

Unusual animals can also provide companionship for older adults


spinner image from left to right willow the rabbit then maxie the parrot then rocky the iguana
Robin Schwartz / Jimena Peck / Robin Schwartz

When people think about pets, it’s often furry kittens or puppies that come to mind. But there are lots of other animals that can provide camaraderie and companionship. Everything from fish and guinea pigs to chickens and lizards can make good pets and can fit into any limitations or preferences a pet owner might have around care and cost.

It’s true that cats and dogs are by far the most popular pets in America: 38 percent of households own canines and 25 percent include felines, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. But there are lots of other animals that may also fit the bill.

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Some owners may choose to have a menagerie, like Doug Mader, 66, a Florida-based veterinarian who has two dogs, two cats, two snakes, three tortoises, a frog and a big red bird as part of his family.

“It is a well-known fact that people need companionship,” Mader says, adding that a wide variety of animals can be excellent for fulfilling this role. Scientific studies have shown a range of benefits that come from pet ownership, particularly among older adults, he says. Those benefits include lower blood pressure, reduced depression and improved motor skills.

A 2021 study published in the journal Frontiers in Public Health found that during the height of the pandemic, older adults who owned a pet said the animal added meaning and purpose to life and helped them maintain a routine.

So whether you have a horse or a snake, a hamster or a tortoise, you’ll find benefits and joy in living with a pet. Here are eight examples of people who have nontraditional pets and why they love them.

spinner image joyce romero and her pet tortoise franklin
Joyce Romero says her pet tortoise Franklin hibernates from November to March.
José Mandojana

Joyce Romero, 66
Los Angeles
Pet: Franklin the tortoise

Twenty years ago, the Romero family got a tortoise named Franklin. Today, Joyce and her husband, Bob, are empty nesters and the tortoise remains an important part of their family.

“Every morning I make his salad with Romaine leaves, collard greens, kale and endive,” Romero says. She finds treats for Franklin on her walks with a neighbor, picking rose petals and dandelions. Franklin, who lives in the backyard in a garden box, typically digs under the ground and goes into hibernation from November to March. During the warmer months, he is very active and enjoys exploring their front yard, Romero says.

“Surprisingly, he is very fast and I need to pay close attention otherwise we will lose track of him,” she says. “I like to keep an address label on his shell when I take him out in case he wanders off.”

Tortoises, says Romero, are wonderful pets because they are relatively low maintenance. “My husband and I have always been animal lovers and also have two dogs and two cats,” she adds. “As we age, we enjoy our pets so much more.” The dogs and tortoise get the duo out for walks, which keeps them busy. “However, the tortoise gives us a vacation when he hibernates and we don’t have to make his salad every morning,” Romero jokes.

spinner image trae bodge and her rabbit willow
Willow the rabbit is trained to use a litter box, says Trae Bodge.
Robin Schwartz

Trae Bodge, 55
Montclair, New Jersey
Pet: Willow the rabbit

Bodge got a pet rabbit named Willow after the family guinea pig died of old age in 2020.

“We loved our guinea pig, but wanted our next pet to be a bit more interactive — more a member of the family — so we chose a rabbit,” she says. Willow brings her family constant joy. “Our favorite interactions with him are when he chases us — or mostly me — back and forth across the room and sometimes does funny little leaps in the air,” she shares. “After his run, he will jump up on our laps for a few raisins, which are his favorite snack.”

Willow is free roaming, doesn’t have a cage and is trained to use a litter box. He loves to spend hours under Bodge’s desk and keep her company while she works throughout the day.

spinner image steve replin and his african grey parrot maxie
Steve Replin says he enjoys Maxie the parrot’s company while he works from home. He says the 10-year-old bird is the love of his life.
Jimena Peck

Steve Replin, 75
Denver

Pet: Maxie the African grey parrot

Replin is not shy about saying his 10-year-old African grey parrot is “the love of my life.”

“He is just a bit feisty, but so am I, and we literally see eye to eye on most subjects,” he says, with a laugh. Maxie, he says, is almost like having a best friend around all the time. Replin works from home and credits the bird as keeping him from getting lonely without being in the presence of physical coworkers. “Maxie is more than willing to participate in the process of preparing great documents, and loves phone calls as well,” he says. The bird loves to cuddle with Steve’s wife and lets the duo know how much he misses them whenever they aren’t in the same room.

“Being loved by a bird, or any pet for that matter, is heartwarming,” says Replin. “As I am his caretaker and his well-being is directly our responsibility, it makes one focus on something outside of themselves.”

spinner image aimee grove and her pet horse luc
Aimee Grove says spending time with her pet horse Luc in the barn is therapeutic for her.
Balazs Gardi

Aimee Grove, 54
San Francisco
Pet: Luc the horse

Grove rode horses as a child and picked the hobby back up as an adult. Then, she saved up for five years to buy her first horse.

“He’s more Labrador retriever than horse in personality — snuggly, sweet, very food motivated, loves naps and also people and dogs,” she says. Grove describes Luc as “a mellow dude who takes care of me in every way — jumping around courses, at horse shows or just hanging around the barn.” Grove is an anxious, type A personality and says Luc’s mellow personality is soothing for her.

“Some people who ride think of a horse or their horses as a mount for their sport,” says Grove. “In my case, Luc is 1,000 percent a pet first and foremost, but he’s also a trusted companion and partner.”

Luc loves to snuggle, puts his head in Grove’s arms and leans up against her, searching for cookies but never nibbling or being naughty. Being with him, she says, is like her own oasis in a crazy world where she works 60 to 70 hours per week and juggles the stresses of raising a teenager.

“Everything else melts away when I’m at the barn with Luc,” she explains. “He’s my therapy, my savior, my Prozac. Even my husband realizes he’s worth every penny to make for a happy wife, happy life!”

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spinner image susan karlin and her pet snails
After returning home from caring for her father, Susan Karlin says she transferred her caregiving energy into caring for a snail that had climbed into her apartment.
Wray Sinclair

Susan Karlin, 60
Los Angeles
Pets: Snails

​In 2018, a garden snail, soon to be known as Flash, climbed onto the second story walkway of Susan Karlin’s apartment building. “I naturally assumed he was lost and hungry,” she recalls.

Karlin had just returned home after living with her ailing father for five months, helping him to grieve the recent loss of her mother. “Since I was still in caretaking mode, I just transferred all that attention and pampering to Flash,” she says.

She gave him lettuce, created a terrarium home for him and introduced him on her Facebook page. “Everybody loved him and he quickly achieved mini celebrity status among my friends,” says Karlin. A year later, she found another snail, which she named Dazzle, who soon delivered baby snails.

Karlin currently has around 20 pet snails, all descendants of Dazzle. “Over time, people just began to associate me with snails,” she says. “They’d ask me how Flash was doing when they saw me, and sent me flowers and condolence cards when he died.”

Snails are fascinating to watch, says Karlin, a science journalist. “They’re born with shells that slowly harden, and young snails are translucent, so you can see their hearts beating and food moving through their bodies,” she says. “I’d take notes and research information on their behaviors and ailments, do little photo shoots, and test out different foods.” She discovered snails love cucumber.

Karlin finds the snails’ presence to be calming, noting that the first year after her mother died, caring for them became a form of therapy for her. “Now, they just make me smile,” she proclaims.

spinner image tim sullivan and his iguana rocky
Tim Sullivan has kept reptiles since he was 5, and now owns Rocky, an iguana (pictured), and Citrus, a bearded dragon.
Robin Schwartz

Tim Sullivan, 50 
Metuchen, New Jersey
Pets: Citrus the bearded dragon and Rocky the iguana

​Sullivan is affectionately known to his friends as “the reptile guy.” Among his menagerie of snakes and lizard pets are Citrus, a 9-year-old bearded dragon, and Rocky, an iguana the size of a pig who lives in his basement. “I’ve been keeping reptiles since I was 5, and I’ve never lost the passion for the hobby,” he says.

Sullivan’s affinity for reptiles has been a great way to bond with his three children and teach them about responsibility, ecology, repetition and rewards, among other life lessons. “Each of the kids thought it was the coolest thing and that I was a cool dad until they reach an age when they don’t,” he jokes.

Having reptiles, says Sullivan, are very different from having pets like dogs or cats. “They are creatures of familiarity and habit,” he explains. “They do recognize you and you must learn to earn their trust.”

He enjoys doing things like preparing fresh foods for his pets — noting that Rocky will “fly across the room for a banana” and Citrus loves mealworms — chatting with other reptile enthusiasts on social media and frequenting reptile fairs to keep up with the latest in the reptilian world.

spinner image amy salinas holding a tarantula
Amy Salinas says she used to have an immense fear of spiders but now cares for 1,000 tarantulas.
David Nevala​​

Amy Salinas, 51
Hartland, Wisconsin
Pets: Tarantulas

Remember the movie Arachnophobia? Amy Salinas had that — an immense fear of spiders. She decided to challenge that phobia.

“I started keeping tarantulas in 2016, with the help of my son, to overcome my fear of spiders,” she says. “It took an entire two years before I was no longer afraid of them!”

Over time, Salinas became so interested in spiders that she began breeding and selling them. “I currently do all the care and breeding on my own,” she says, noting that in her home she currently has 1,000 tarantulas. “I love them for how unique and unpredictable they are. I love how they give me time to reflect and zen while caring for them even if they can’t love you back.”

Salinas, who was diagnosed with severe ADHD, says tarantulas have been an integral part of teaching her to focus. And she enjoys every minute she spends in their presence. “There is so much unknown about tarantulas, so keeping them is a constant learning journey, which also keeps an ADHD brain happy,” she says.

spinner image lisa steele and her pet chickens
Lisa Steele says she likes to spend time outside with her pet chickens. While they look around for worms, she sits with a book and a beverage.
Greta Rybus

Lisa Steele, 58
Dixmont, Maine
Pets: Chickens

“My grandparents had chickens and I raised them as a kid, but they were ‘just’ chickens,” Steele says. “So it was very surprising to me when I got them as an adult in 2009, how much different the experience was.”

Being the adult in charge of the chickens’ care — naming them as chicks, feeding them, and making sure they were warm enough, eating properly and developing correctly — was something Steele found she enjoyed. That includes getting to know the chickens.

“Their various personalities came out,” says Steele. “We have divas, puppy dogs, mean girls, you name it!”

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Steele, author of The Fresh Eggs Daily Cookbook: Over 100 Fabulous Recipes to Use Eggs in Unexpected Ways, loves spending time outside as the chickens mill around looking for bugs and worms. “I’ll sit outside with a book and cold drink and just be in the moment, watching the chickens sprawled out in the sun or chasing after each other,” she says.

For Steele, raising chickens has become much more than just their eggs. “You give them food and water, you pet them, you talk with them. Unlike our dog and cat, the chickens provide us breakfast. It’s very cliche, but they truly are pets with benefits,” she says.

What to consider before saying yes to a pet

Thinking of adding a new pet to your home? Here are some steps to take first.

  • Ask your doctor. “Before anyone wants to bring a pet into their life, they should consult both a veterinarian and their personal medical doctor to make sure there are no health risks,” Mader says. These risks, he says, can be anywhere from simple allergies to potential contagious diseases to possible trauma, like a bite from a big bird.

Also, people who are on certain medications that can compromise the immune system, such as chemotherapy or steroids, are especially susceptible to certain animal diseases like salmonellosis, which are often seen in pet reptiles, Mader adds.

If you have these conditions, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a pet, but it’s important to consult your veterinarian to learn how to properly house and keep pets so that there is no potential health risk.

  • Consider a pet’s life span. Anyone looking to bring a pet into their life should consider the pet and its potential longevity, Mader says. His bird Simon, for instance, is only 30. “I am 66. Simon will outlive me. I need to make sure that I have provisions to care for Simon when I cross the rainbow bridge,” he says.

  • Investigate what goes into a pet’s care. Dogs require regular veterinary checkups, daily walks and grooming, and their poop needs to be picked up. Lizards may need to eat live crickets, and you may need to feed mice to snakes. Some pets require special heating lamps and habitats that give them access to fresh fruits, vegetables and constant water. In addition, you’ll have to think about how often a pet needs its habitat changed and cleaned.

  • Make sure you have pet care options in place. Do you travel? You’ll want to consider how to arrange for care for your pets. Some pet stores will board birds for a daily fee. A fish or hamster can be dropped off at a neighbor’s house, and a dog can be checked into a boarding facility or may be able to accompany you on the road. Before bringing home a pet, it’s important to make sure that you have a pet sitting option in mind or access to one in the future.

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