Proper care of your furry, feathered and scaly friends is essential in all seasons, but particularly in winter. Although the climate in Florida stays relatively warm even in winter, with daytime temperatures in the 70s, the evening and early morning temperatures can fall into the 50s and even 40s. Many exotic pets, such as reptiles, birds and even rabbits, are sensitive to sudden changes in temperature that can be dangerous and leave them susceptible to health problems and even death.
The popularity of exotic pets is on the rise, with 23 percent of pet owners having pets that are not cats and dogs. Many need their habitat and diet changed during winter to ensure they stay suitably warm, nourished and well-hydrated. Here are some helpful tips to keep your exotic pets healthy and happy throughout the chilly winter months in Florida.
Since reptiles are ectothermic, meaning they regulate their body temperature by moving to warmer or colder locations, the temperature of their body is the same as their environment. That makes proper reptile care extremely important, especially in cold temperatures. Throughout the winter, the temperature in your house may fluctuate, and you may have to adjust your pet reptile’s heat source, since a supplemental heat supply is essential for proper immune function, digestion and metabolism. Because each reptile species requires different temperatures to thrive, it’s critical to speak with your veterinarian about your particular pet.
Here are some helpful cold-weather reptile tips:
- Be sure to have a good digital thermometer or a temperature gun as part of your setup, to measure both the warm and cool parts of the cage, nighttime temperature and the water temperature of aquatic reptiles.
- If temperatures fall below the recommended range, use a heat lamp rather than a heating pad or hot rock. Since these lights can get very hot, be sure to continuously monitor the temperature, or plug them into a thermostat that can automatically turn them on or off according to the temperature.
- On warmer Florida winter days, it may be possible to bring your pet’s cage outside so they can soak up the required amount of ultraviolet light, essential for vitamin D production. In colder temperatures, shine an ultraviolet lamp directly into the cage for 10 to 12 hours daily.
- Do not promote your reptile to hibernate during the winter, as this can hinder their metabolism and immune function, leaving them susceptible to infections and diseases.
- Keep your reptile well-hydrated in dry winter air by providing a shallow bowl of warm water or misting them a few times a week.
- To transport your reptile safely in cold weather, use an insulated cooler with ventilation or a box or other carrier with the addition of something warm, such as hand warmers, a hot water bottle or a latex glove full of warm water.
While guinea pigs are furry, they only have a single layer that does not insulate them well. For this reason, they are sensitive to rapid changes in temperature and do best in temperatures between 59 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit. While it’s best to keep your guinea pigs indoors in cold temperatures, many live outside all year, especially in areas like Florida with a warm climate. However, since winter temperatures can get chilly, it’s crucial their enclosure is ready for the winter.
- Keep their environment warm, clean and dry with a thick layer of newspaper covered with a cozy layer of appropriate bedding — not wood shavings. Damp bedding can cause fungal and respiratory issues for your guinea pig.
- You may use heating pads to keep out the chill at night.
- Try using hutch covers with ventilation or carpet for insulation.
- Situate the enclosure in an area that protects it from wind and rain.
- Provide plenty of cozy hiding spots — a small carrier or box lined with a towel or fleece blanket works well — to keep warm.
When it gets too cold outside, you can also bring the hutch or cage into a shed with a window for natural light. Be careful there are no dangerous fumes present. When keeping your guinea pig indoors, it’s crucial they have a large enough cage of at least four feet by two feet for a pair, with the ideal size being five to six feet, so they have plenty of room to stay active.
When caring for guinea pigs, it’s vital to maintain a good diet of both dry and fresh food. Good winter foods to feed your guinea pig include:
- Quality dry or pellet feed
- Red and green cabbage
- Corn on the cob with leaves
- Banana with skin
- Brussels sprouts
- Continue to provide an adequate amount of hay at all times.
If you need to transport your guinea pigs in lower temperatures, use a carrier that protects them from sudden temperature changes.
Since most exotic bird species come from areas with warm or tropical climates, exposing them to temperatures below 65 degrees Fahrenheit, even for a short time, can be dangerous. Birds use their feathers to keep themselves warm, which allows them to tolerate gradual drops in temperature. However, sudden and extreme temperature fluctuations, such as drafts, can stress their immune system and make them susceptible to illness. Here are some tips for proper bird care throughout the year, and especially in the winter.
- Make sure your birds stay warm and cozy by keeping them away from drafty windows and doors and covering their cage at night.
- Be careful how you heat your home on chilly nights. Fireplaces can present a burn hazard for birds that are out of the cage, and toxic smoke from burning wood can quickly overwhelm them. Even space heaters can give off poisonous fumes that can be deadly to your bird.
- When transporting your pet bird in the winter, don’t shock them by suddenly moving them from a warm environment into a cold one. A heated vehicle is always better than other forms of transportation.
- For smaller birds, you can use a small transport cage or carrier wrapped in towels or a fleece that will block the cold air without inhibiting air flow. You can also use a small box with air holes and a warming item — see Reptiles. It’s crucial to keep the warming item wrapped in a towel or otherwise securely out of your bird’s reach, since they like to chew things, some of which can be dangerous for them. Also, be sure the warming item is not too hot, as the box will heat up quickly.
- For larger birds, you can use a transport cage and place an electric heating pad securely underneath. Wrap the cage in a blanket or towels to keep it warm and block the cold air.
You can continue to bathe your bird regularly in the winter, as proper humidity is essential to their health. Be sure to:
- Bathe your bird early in the day so they can dry completely.
- Allow the bird to dry in a warm bathroom before transporting them to a cooler environment.
- Use a hairdryer on the low setting if your bird will tolerate it.
You can also use an electronic humidifier to keep the heated air adequately humidified.
While rabbits can tolerate cold weather better than hot weather, it’s still essential to ensure their winter conditions are appropriate to protect them from the ill effects of exposure and decreased body temperature. Cold temperatures affect smaller breeds more than larger ones, since they can’t hold in heat as well, and most rabbits need a heated environment to stay healthy through the winter. A healthy rabbit with a thick coat of fur will remain comfortable and warm throughout the colder winter temperatures. Proper rabbit care is essential throughout the year, but winter rabbit care is especially vital for keeping your pets healthy.
Many rabbits can live outside during the winter in Florida, since the daytime temperature stays mild. However, you must still properly prepare their enclosure for the cool winter nights.
- Hutches should be up off the ground, away from water and cooler ground temperatures.
- The hutch should be south-facing to allow warmer air in, with the sides boarded and the north side blocked.
- If keeping your rabbit in an indoor space, be sure there are no toxic fumes.
- Line a portion of the hutch with straw, which has excellent insulating properties, and change it regularly.
- Be sure the rabbit has plenty of ventilation and fresh air.
During the winter months, your rabbit will also need more calories to help them maintain their body heat. You can do this by adding a little more food to their bowl or a small bit of corn or alfalfa hay to their diet. Adding more foods to your rabbit’s diet does not mean overfeeding them, as that can lead to many health problems. Large amounts of corn aren’t good for your rabbit and can cause problems such as diarrhea, dehydration and gastrointestinal upset. Rabbits must also have a constant supply of fresh and clean water.
While you can safely transport rabbits in lower temperatures, remember they don’t tolerate sudden fluctuations in temperature or drafts well.
Like other reptiles, snakes are cold-blooded and not able to maintain a stable body temperature. They must rely on the environment around them to regulate temperatures for them. Snakes can easily get hypothermia, which is a decrease in body temperature that causes them to become less active. When a snake becomes hypothermic, it stops moving and may also stop eating and drinking, causing dehydration and weight loss. Improper body temperature can make snakes susceptible to infections and diseases. They need diligent monitoring of the temperature inside their habitat to be sure cooler temperatures don’t affect their body functions.
Some cold weather snake tips include:
- Provide an external heat source in your snake’s habitat during the winter months when the indoor and outdoor temperatures get cooler. They may need a tank heater, heat lamp or a heating pad secured under their tank. While some snakes burrow at night to stay warm, others may require a heat mat or heat strips. Ceramic bulbs will emit heat, but no light, and are ideal for use during the night. Whatever heat source you use, make sure it will not burn your snake.
- Keep your snake hydrated, as they need proper humidity to stay healthy and shed their skin properly. As with other reptiles, you can keep your snake hydrated by lightly misting them or providing a shallow bowl of water in which they can crawl. You can even add wet paper towels or sphagnum moss to their habitat, as long as you change it each day.
- Keep their enclosure away from drafts.
- Don’t put the tank on the floor, since it can cause heat loss.
- Discourage hibernation.
For tips on safely transporting your snake in winter, see the Reptiles section above.
Ferrets are a species that prefers cooler temperatures and doesn’t tolerate the heat very well. If you need to keep your indoor space heated, consider keeping your ferrets in a cooler area. An indoor temperature of about 60 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal for healthy ferrets that have a thick winter coat. Be sure to give them plenty of fluffy towels or soft blankets to cuddle up in.
Do ferrets hibernate? Ferrets usually go through seasonal changes such as weight gain and changes in the thickness and appearance of their fur. Since each ferret is different, the amount of weight they gain and seasonal changes they exhibit depend on many factors, such as the climate in which they live and the light levels to which they get exposed.
Other factors that affect your ferret’s activity level in the winter may include winter weight gain or sluggishness from an overly warm environment. They are perfectly fine to go outside in colder weather with a harness or leash, although you shouldn’t expose them to wet or windy conditions. Ferrets will show you they are cold by shivering, sitting still or trying to climb on you for body heat.
Here are some cold weather ferret tips to keep your furry friends happy and healthy:
- Be careful when heating your home. Since ferrets are naturally very curious about everything, burns from fireplaces and space heaters in winter pose a winter hazard for them.
- Ferrets are prone to dry skin in a heated environment, which can crack and make them susceptible to infections. You can help their dry feet by rubbing a tiny bit of petroleum jelly on their paw pads.
- Adjusting your ferret’s diet in the winter by adding essential fatty acids can also help with dry skin.
- Since ferrets are susceptible to human cold and flu viruses, don’t handle your ferret if you are sick. Using a humidifier can help ferrets feel more comfortable in a heated home and also make them less vulnerable to developing respiratory illnesses.
Preparing Your Exotic Pet For The Cold Weather
Whether it’s getting their environment ready for cooler temperatures or ensuring they stay warm when the Florida nights get chilly, proper winter care of your exotic pet is essential for their health and well-being. Contact University Animal Clinic online if you have any questions about your exotic pet, or call us at 941-355-7707. We offer exotic pet care services and can recommend the proper changes to their care during winter, from optimal habitat temperature to what they should be eating. Our accredited AAHA practice shares a passion for preventive care, and our compassionate staff is dedicated to the care of all pets. We also offer wellness plans to keep your furry, feathered and scaly friends happy and healthy throughout the seasons.