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Life Expectancies for 10 Popular Unique Pets

Image via iStock.com/Icealien

By Dr. Sandra Mitchell

Let’s say you would really like to adopt a pet chinchilla, but you don’t know whether you are getting into a two-year commitment or a 12-year commitment.

You can reasonably expect a dog or cat to at least reach the age of 10, under the right conditions, but what about the life expectancies of nontraditional and exotic pets?

Other pets besides dogs and cats have varying longevities, so it’s important to do your research before you adopt so you know how long you will be committed to care for them.

Here’s what you need to know about the life expectancies of 10 common yet unique pets, along with tips for maximizing your time with them.

1. Ferrets

Ferrets are wonderfully cool pets that are extremely active, intelligent and curious. Although often sold as “caged pets,” they should not be kept in cages full-time because they need a tremendous amount of time to exercise, explore and play.

However, they can manage to find trouble—so one key to maximizing their lifespan is making the house safe for them and being sure there are no holes, nooks or crannies where they can squeeze into and nothing that they can eat or swallow.

It is very important to feed a high-quality ferret food—cat foods are not recommended for ferrets because they generally contain too many carbs and too few fats for the best ferret nutrition.

A pet ferret will also need vaccines and regular veterinary care.

Under the right conditions, a healthy, well-cared for ferret will usually live 6-9 years.

2. Guinea Pigs

Guinea pigs are docile, sweet, social rodents who can be very vocal and interactive with their owners as they learn and adapt to your routines. Although they can do well spending much of the day in a large guinea pig cage, they also need plenty of time outside of their cage every day for socializing.

The biggest key to keeping a guinea pig healthy is feeding her an appropriate guinea pig food. Guinea pigs need unlimited grass hay (any except alfalfa hay); plenty of fresh, leafy green vegetables; and daily servings of vegetables that contain vitamin C, such as bell peppers.

Guinea pigs can develop a vitamin C deficiency if not supplemented, and vitamin C in the water or pelleted food often degrades before it is eaten by the pig. 

Believe it or not, the pelleted diets sold for guinea pigs should not be fed in unlimited amounts; roughly 2 tablespoons each day per guinea pig is plenty to provide the nutrition needed without making the pet pig obese or damaging the teeth.

Properly fed and cared for, guinea pigs will usually live 4-6 years.

3. Rabbits

Rabbits are great pets that give back every ounce of love you offer to them.

Although they can spend some time every day in a large rabbit cage, they do best in a large, enclosed rabbit playpen where there are plenty of rabbit toys to play with, boxes to climb on, and things to see and do. 

These activities help to keep the muscles and bones strong and prevent diseases later in life. Rabbits should ideally NOT be kept outside or in garages; not only does this limit their social interaction with the family (leading to a very boring life), but they are very sensitive to heat, and it is possible for them to overheat quickly if left outdoors unattended.  

The most important thing a pet parent can do to help keep their rabbit healthy over time is to feed her properly. Rabbits should be fed an unlimited amount of grass hay (any except alfalfa) as well as an unlimited amount of leafy green vegetables (romaine, kale, parsley, dandelion greens). 

If a wide enough variety of hay and greens are fed, rabbits do not even need commercial rabbit pellets to stay healthy. However, if you choose to offer them pellets, feed no more than 2 tablespoons of rabbit food per 5 pounds of rabbit.

It is easy for rabbits to overeat pellets, which leads to problems that include obesity and dental disease. A diet that’s high in fiber may also prevent many causes of gastrointestinal stasis, a common problem in pet rabbits. 

Life expectancies in the rabbit vary widely by breed, with smaller rabbits living to be about 12-14 years old and larger rabbits living to be about 4-6 years old.

4. Chinchillas

Chinchillas are one of the longest-living rodents, and many people do not realize that they are bringing a long-term commitment into the house when they adopt one!

Active, playful, inquisitive and wonderfully talented at making messes, these unique pets certainly liven up any household they join.

Feeding the chinchilla an unlimited portion of high-quality grass hay helps to prevent a large number of diseases. 

Male chinchillas are prone to a problem called “fur ring,” which can develop around their penis, preventing them from being able to urinate. Anyone owning a male chinchilla should check him regularly to avoid having this happen.

Believe it or not, chinchillas can easily live 10-12 years—or even longer.

5. Hedgehogs

The hedgehog is an adorable creature with a huge personality and absolute likes and dislikes. Because hedgehogs are primarily nocturnal, you do need to be willing to stay up late to enjoy your pet hog to the fullest.

They need surprisingly large cages for such little tykes and should be allowed to hunt insects (crickets, dubia roaches, earthworms) for at least part of their diet.

They also need to have a heat source available in cooler temperatures—they should always have an area near 90°F available to them, should they choose to use it.

Unfortunately, hedgehogs are fairly short lived at only 18-24 months.

6. Hamsters

Hamsters are heavily nocturnal and will often be grumpy if awakened outside of their normal “active periods,” which means they are not generally the best pets for children.

When they are awake, however, they are tremendously fun to watch and are incredibly industrious creatures. Hamsters are great escape artists—managing to chew their way out of many different types of hamster cages—and this has caused the demise of many pet hamsters.

Another source of injury is running wheels that have “slats” instead of a solid surface to run on. It is not uncommon for a hamster to accidentally slip a leg through the slats and break their leg.

Well-cared-for hamsters can live for 12-18 months.

7. Bearded Dragons

Bearded dragons are becoming popular exotic pets. They have specific husbandry requirements with lighting, temperature, humidity and diet, which are needed to keep them healthy.

I would recommend consulting a reptile-knowledgeable veterinarian for guidance before purchasing a pet bearded dragon to make sure you have all of the basics in place to keep your dragon healthy.

Unfortunately, most of the dragons we see kept as pets die at a relatively young age—less than 5 years—but under the right conditions, they can live to about a ripe old age of 12!

8. Ducks

Ducks are becoming a wonderful—but noisy!—alternative or addition to chickens for many backyard flocks. Ducks are more social than chickens and have differing husbandry needs, so I do not recommend keeping them together. 

Ducks need a constant source of water available—not only for drinking, but also for bathing. They can choke on their food easily if they are not able to get large mouthfuls of water readily. 

Their nutritional needs are also different from chickens, and so they should be fed a diet designed for waterfowl and not chicken food. In my area, I need to special order this online, meaning I need to plan ahead to be sure I never run out!

Although ducks are unusual pets that are much more work than chickens, they are also incredibly bonded to their keeper, considering them part of the “flock.” Well-provided-for ducks can live for 12-15 years.

9. Rats

Rats are amazingly friendly and unique small pets with a personality much larger than their body size! They are extremely social and do best if kept in small groups.

Rats are prone to a number of diseases if overfed and allowed to become obese, so I strongly recommend limiting the amount of calories offered. I also recommend keeping track of what you feed your rat in case your rat is “stashing” food to eat later. If he is, and you see an empty bowl, you might fill it back up, causing your rat to continue to gain weight despite a strict diet.

Another common problem, especially with female rats, is related to their hormones. We see a tremendous number of mammary gland tumors develop in female rats that have not been spayed—and I recommend spaying at a young age to prevent these problems. 

When rats have been neutered or spayed and are fed a proper diet, we can expect them to live about 2-3 years.

10. Leopard Geckos

Leopard geckos are another type of exotic pet that is becoming more popular. Although primarily nocturnal, these lizards can be very friendly, and they are often fascinating to watch. 

They have specific housing requirements, including an area that is near 100°F and 100 percent humidity, and that takes some work and planning to accomplish. They also need a wide variety of food items such as dubia roaches, phoenix worms and small crickets, many of which are not easily available in local pet stores. 

Keeping any reptile properly requires some research into their needs and some effort to be sure you can meet them adequately. 

That being said, leopard geckos can have a life expectancy of 15-20 years.

As you can see, these unusual pets have a wide range of life expectancies, with many being long-term commitments similar to—or even greater than—a dog or cat!  So with proper care, you can look forward to many, many happy years together with your unique, exotic pet animal!