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For Folks Who Think Cats Are Too Tame

December 16, 1996|ROY RIVENBURG

Flush the goldfish, kick out the cat, send the pooch to the pound--and consider adopting . . a hedgehog? Or maybe a ball python, a salamander or hermit crab.

These and eight other alternative household creatures slither to life in Betsy Sikora Siino's "You Want a What for a Pet?!" (Howell Book House). Barbara Woodhouse never had to deal with anything like this.

Hedgehogs:

Used as croquet balls in "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," these small, spiny mammals are known as "a gardener's best friend" because of their fondness for insects. Although considered a bit dim-witted, hedgehogs offer cute, low-maintenance companionship. Weirdest habit: Given to spraying themselves with saliva.

Ferrets:

Cousin to the skunk, the ferret resembles "a long, wiry sock puppet with a small head and animated expression. . . . Its flexibility and willowy movements may lead some to believe that [its] body cannot possibly contain a skeleton." The creatures are curious and playful but also quirky. They hide small objects, crawl into appliances, are dangerous around small children and give off an unpleasant odor. Also, if an unspayed female goes into heat and isn't impregnated, it may die. Legal alert: Ferrets are banned in California and Hawaii.

Ball Pythons:

These appendage-less reptiles "will never be as affectionate and responsive as a dog or cat"--and might even bite their owners on occasion--but they can still make decent pets. No barking, no need for walks, and little more than a weekly frozen rat for food. Shopping tip: "When held, the snake should provide the sensation of muscle in your hand, not of cooked spaghetti."

Chinchillas:

These refugees from the fur-coat industry are said to be quite sociable. But watch out for gnawed furniture, stinky urine and a loud warning sound emitted when the creature is startled. Oddest habit: Taking "baths" in a fine powder sold as "chinchilla dust."

Tortoises:

One of the few pets that can outlive its owner. Pluses: Personable (unless hibernating), needs no grooming, eats okra to dog food. Minuses: May bite or defecate when picked up. Surprise!

Salamanders:

A close relative of the newt, this species of amphibian is prone to stress, fungal infections and--if touched too often--lethal damage to its slimy skin. Other than that, it's great. Favorite food: crickets.

Miniature swine:

Think of the potbellied pig as a dog with tusks. Intelligent, friendly and trainable. But also easily spoiled and, weighing in at up to 90 pounds when full-grown, possibly overwhelming. "Give a potbellied pig the run of an expensively landscaped backyard . . . and that yard will soon look like a minefield." Strangest health hazard: pig sunburn.

The rest:

Iguanas ("the dinosaur's most popular descendant" requires specialized living quarters and might transmit salmonella), hermit crabs (the ultimate low-maintenance exotic pet), tarantulas (just don't tie a string around the spider's leg as a leash), rats (explore the joys of vermin as a pet) and frogs (no, not the Budweiser variety).

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