Photograph by Gerry Ellis,Minden Pictures/Nat Geo Image Collection
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Red pandas ( Ailurus fulgens) are illegal to trade commercially and despite being adorable, they have sharp claws and can release a pungent odor from their anal gland.
Photograph by Gerry Ellis,Minden Pictures/Nat Geo Image Collection

Don’t be fooled by social media—wild animals make terrible pets

Exotic pets might seem appealing, but the reality is often smelly, difficult, and sometimes dangerous.

Would you like to have a red panda as a pet? Or a sloth? What about a slow loris, a type of cute primate?

Demand for wild pets is rising, spurred in part by internet videos that show how adorable they are. In some cases, owners post videos of wild animals in their care, coddling them as if they were domesticated.

There are, of course, animal welfare reasons not to keep wild creatures. None of them are domesticated; they evolved to live in their natural environments and not human habitations; and the exotic pet trade is known for cruel treatment and is often fed by poaching.

But there are more immediate and perhaps selfish reasons: These animals, despite being fluffy and adorable, do not make good pets.

Red pandas

Red pandas sport a lush, rust-colored coat, large fluffy ears, and a bushy ringed tail. But though they look cuddly, you wouldn’t want to snuggle one: When disturbed, they can release a pungent odor from their anal gland that’s acrid enough to ward off predators.

“You don’t want wild animals as pets, and you particularly would not want to have a red panda,” said Thane Maynard, director of the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. “They have cat-like claws that would tear up your furniture and maybe even you. And they mark their territory like many mammals do, so it would really be a smelly mess at your house.”

They also spend most of their time in trees in rainy, high-altitude forests in central China, Nepal, and northern Myanmar—conditions that are (obviously) difficult to replicate.

The animals are endangered throughout their range and their commercial trade is illegal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). (Read more: Red pandas rescued—are these animals the next black market pet?)

Sloths

These quiet, slow-moving mammals live in rainforests and mangroves across Central and South America. They spend most of their lives high in the treetops, coming down just once per week to defecate. Because of their propensity for relaxation, sloths are often presumed to be even-tempered, which isn’t always the case.

A sloth that feels threatened can, and will, use its sharp claws (and teeth) to defend itself. They are also not particularly social. Outside of mating and rearing young, sloths lead a solitary life.

Inside a Baby Sloth Orphanage and Rescue Center

“Sloths are fragile animals. Being touched [by humans] on a regular basis can cause them severe psychological damage,” says Cassandra Koenen, global head of exotic pets at the animal welfare nonprofit World Animal Protection. (Related: Sloths, manatee, other wildlife rescued from Amazon tourism trade.)

Sloths are also highly sensitive to temperature changes. To keep a sloth healthy, it must be kept in an environment that’s between 80 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit with 80 percent humidity.

Sugar gliders

Sugar gliders are one of the most popular exotic pets, in part because captive breeding has made them easy to find. It’s legal to own one in the United Kingdom and certain parts of the U.S. and Australia, but animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals continue to call for an international ban.

The animals, which are native to Australia and nearby islands, are highly social and live in large family groups. As their name implies, these animals can glide from tree to tree by extending a web of skin that stretches between front and forelimbs. But they sport sharp, scimitar-like claws that help them climb.

Even though these nails are less than an inch long, they can make the animal uncomfortable or even painful for humans to handle without gloves. People sometimes trim their claws but the procedure is tricky—one slight miscalculation could cost them a fingertip.

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A fennec fox ( Vulpes zerda) adult caught in the wild and kept in captivity in a Tunisian goat pen.

The animals are also nocturnal and known for loud vocalizations. And at only six inches in length, they can easily disappear or escape. (Read more: The perilous attraction of owning exotic pets.)

Fennec fox

Found in deserts across North Africa and the Middle East, the fennec fox is the world’s smallest fox, weighing on average just over two pounds. Their bodies are covered with a thick layer of cream-colored fur that deflects heat during the day and keeps them warm at night.

Fennec foxes are skilled excavators, living in underground burrows they share with others. Using their shovel-like paws, fennecs can carve out tunnels that extend up to 32 feet in length. When kept indoors, these foxes put their digging skills to work tearing up carpets and scratching floors. What's more, their urine smells like skunk spray, and they can emit an odious aroma from their anal gland if they feel threatened.

Despite decades of captive breeding, they are still not domesticated, and are difficult to train. They are thus likely to escape or make a smelly mess.

Slow loris

Slow lorises are nocturnal primates that the inhabit tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia. In the early 2000s, videos of slow lorises being tickled and fed rice balls took the internet by storm, causing a rise in demand for them as pets.

What many people don’t know is that the slow loris is the world’s only venomous primate.

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Slow lorises are openly sold at the Borito Market in Jakarta, Indonesia, despite being protected by law.

That’s right—slow lorises have venom glands nestled in the crooks of their arms. When slow lorises feels threatened, they will lick these glands to coat their needle-like teeth. Although reactions to this venom are typically mild, they can be life threatening for those prone to anaphylaxis.

In a 2016 study, researchers from Oxford Brookes University examined 100 online videos of pet lorises and in every one, the animal was either distressed, sick, or exposed to unnatural conditions.

All nine species of slow loris are listed as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and they are generally illegal to own. Poachers remove thousands of slow lorises from the wild each year, many of which are smuggled into the largest market for the animals, in Japan. (Related: Are Humans Pushing the Slow Loris to Extinction?)

Capybaras

Capybaras are the world’s largest rodents, reaching weights over 100 pounds and sporting thick, beaver-like teeth that can snap sticks with ease. These semi-aquatic animals, found in South America, have a reputation for being “chill,” spurred by viral photos of animals like birds, monkeys, and even goats sitting on top of seemingly indifferent capybaras.

But taking care of these animals is anything but chill. Like their guinea pigs cousins, they are social and need to live amongst their own kind to be happy. Capybaras live in herds of 10 to 20 individuals and adhere to a strict social hierarchy. And though they don’t often bite humans, they can, and their large teeth may cause serious injury.

Furthermore, they are skilled escape artists. In 1995, five capybaras escaped from a wildlife facility near Gainesville, Florida. They managed to evade the authorities, and as a result, dozens of their descendants roam the landscape today.

Tigers

It is perfectly legal to own a tiger in the United Kingdom and several U.S. states. But it’s not a great idea.

“There are so many reasons people should not have big cats,” says Maynard. “For one thing, they are exponentially more dangerous than other exotic pets. A red panda can scratch you. A tiger can flat-out kill you.”

Over the last century, tigers have killed more people through direct attack than any other mammal. At least five people have been mauled to death by captive tigers since 2007.

Maynard says people often acquire tigers as cubs and try to pawn them off on zoos when they become too big to handle. At six months old, most tiger cubs already weigh over 100 pounds. Sumatran tigers, the smallest subspecies, can grow to 265 pounds, while Siberian tigers can weigh up to three times as much.

Nevertheless, there are now more tigers living in captivity in the U.S. than exist in the wild (where they are endangered, with a total population of less than 4,000).

Lemurs

With expressive eyes and velvety-soft fur, it’s understandable why so many people see lemurs as cuddly. There are over a hundred different species of lemur spread out across Madagascar and its neighboring islands, but most people are only familiar with the ring-tailed lemur—the most popular species among exotic pet owners.

“Lemurs make terrible pets,” says Cathy Williams, curator at the Duke Lemur Center. “Once a baby lemur grows up, they are not cuddly at all. In fact they can be quite dangerous.”

When lemurs reach sexual maturity, usually between the ages two and three, they begin exhibiting aggressive behaviors such as chasing and biting.

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Ring-tailed lemurs are highly sought after as pets despite it being illegal to trade them commercially.

Lemurs have small, but exceptionally sharp canines that can easily puncture human flesh, Williams says. “I can’t tell you how many calls [the Duke Lemur Center] gets from people who say the cute baby lemur they got on the web has become aggressive and they don’t want it anymore.”

They also cannot be potty-trained, and coming into contact with their feces can expose humans to a wide variety of pathogens, including those associated with hookworms, whipworms, giardia, and salmonella. They also mark their territory with glandular secretions that Williams describes as “pungent.”

Prairie dogs

These highly social rodents sport have many endearing qualities. They have cashew-colored fur and are known to cuddle and even even kiss other members of their family group. In the wild, prairie dogs live in large colonies or "towns" that can can span hundreds of acres and contain over two dozen family groups.

They thus require a lot of attention and the company of other prairie dogs. They may become aggressive if neglected, according to the Ness Exotic Wellness Center, a veterinary practice in Illinois that specializes in exotic animals.

Of course, their subterranean habitat is difficult to emulate in a domestic setting. Most people keep prairie dogs in wire cages, which causes stress and doesn’t allow for digging. Although it’s legal to own a pet prairie dog throughout much of the Western world, it’s arguably impractical and unfair to the animals.

Asian small-clawed otters

Found throughout Southeast Asia, these cigar-colored carnivores are very charismatic. They’re highly social and live in large family groups. Over the past two decades, the demand for live small-clawed otters (and related species) has risen dramatically. In Japan, where otter ownership is most prevalent, pet otters can be found in cafes, on television, and in the homes of social media influencers. (Learn more: Wild otters are the latest exotic pet trend.)

And you don’t want to be on an otter’s bad side. Nicole Duplaix, who heads the IUCN Otter Specialist Group, recently told National Geographic that otters kept in captivity are destructive and can be aggressive when they don’t get what they want.

The IUCN Otter Specialist Group warns zookeepers that “even small otters can bite through rubber boots and gloves.” Furthermore, they mark their territory with deposits of urine, feces, and the oily secretions of their anal glands. In other words, they would not make good pets.