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Unusual Pets and Creepy Crawlies!

Jennifer Mcguiggan
March 1, 2009

How to care for pet spiders, insects and other unusual pets.

Does your child prefer creepy crawly creatures over something cute and cuddly? Do things that make other people's skin crawl just melt your heart? If so, maybe you'd like a different kind of pet. How about insects and roaches and spiders - oh my! Here are some quick tips about three popular choices and how to care for them.

Stick Insects
Also known as walking sticks or stick bugs, these insects get their name from being experts at camouflage and looking just like a stick or a leaf. There are thousands of species of stick insects around the world, but one of the most popular and easiest to care for is the Indian Stick Insect (species: Carausius morosus), also known as the Laboratory Stick Insect because it's often kept in labs.

How to Handle
Once fully grown, many stick insects can be handled relatively easily. Always handle a stick insect by its abdomen, never its legs, which are fragile and can easily snap off. Avoid the large spiny varieties of stick bugs, as they can pinch you with their thorny legs or bite you.

House your stick bug in a terrarium that gives it plenty of room to walk around and to hang from twigs and leaves. Since many stick bugs are tropical insects, most need a warm, humid environment. Check on space and environmental requirements for your particular species, since each type of stick bug has particular needs.

Stick insects are vegetarians and eat various types of leaves. Many eat the leaves of bramble (blackberry) plants, but it's important to find out about the right greenery for your particular stick bug.

Safety Tips

  • Don't take bugs out of nature. If you'd like to give a stick bug a home, find a pet store that sells them and can advise you on the proper care for that particular species.
  • Stay away from the American Walking Stick (Anisomorpha bupestroides) and the Pink Winged stick insect (Sipyloidea sipylus), as they can spray a nasty defensive chemical. In the case of the American Walking Stick, the spray can cause temporary blindness.

Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches
These big bugs can grow to be three inches long and one inch wide, and yes, they really do make a hissing sound to communicate with each other. They can live for several years, so don't think a cockroach is a short-term commitment.

How to Handle
Although these bugs look scary, they're gentle giants. They won't bite and have no wings, so they can't fly away. However, there are some important safety issues to consider before getting a cockroach, so keep reading.

Most types of cockroaches need a warm environment, and all should be kept in an escape-proof terrarium. Since Madagascar hissing cockroaches are a leaf litter species, cover the bottom of the tank with wood shavings to mimic the ground cover they're used to in nature. Cockroaches like places to hide out, so place a few empty cardboard tubes in their tank.

Cockroaches are well known for their indiscriminate appetites and apparent willingness to eat almost anything. But a good diet includes a mixture of dried grain and fresh fruits and vegetables. If your cockroach doesn't eat all of the perishable food you give it, remove the leftover food before it gets moldy. Give your pet bug a shallow dish filled with cotton wool or a sponge soaked in water. Change the cotton or sponge when it gets soiled.

Safety Tips

  • While Madagascar hissing cockroaches are easy to handle, they may present an unseen danger. Researchers at Ohio State University have identified 14 different types of mold on and around Madagascar hissing cockroaches, including several molds associated with allergies and others that can cause secondary infections if they enter the lungs or an open wound.
  • Joshua Benoit, lead author of the study and a doctoral candidate in entomology at Ohio State University, has said, "This is mainly a point of public awareness. We are not criticizing their use. We are just saying that if you handle these cockroaches, you should wash your hands when you're done."
  • Benoit also advises, "It's also best to maintain the cage. It's not a pet you can ignore. Without regular cleaning, feces will build up, and the old exoskeletons they shed will build up. And that's where a lot of the problems happen." Talk to the pet store where you buy your cockroach to learn how to properly clean its cage.
  • Since not everyone with a sensitivity to mold may be aware of this condition, it's important to think twice before getting a cockroach as a pet. And if you do have one, practice good hygiene habits. If you do get one, and someone in your family develops breathing problems, consider allergy testing for mold.

Perhaps no creepy-crawly has a worse reputation than this big hairy spider. Tarantulas make an interesting pet if you're looking for one that requires a look-but-don't-touch approach.

How to Handle
Tarantulas are not a pet to be handled, mostly for the spiders' own safety, but also for your own. You risk stressing or hurting a tarantula by handling it, especially since they have sensitive and fragile abdomens. (More safety tips for you are below.)

Since they don't need much space, a small aquarium is good for most tarantulas. But each species of tarantula has particular living condition requirements. While arboreal tarantulas (those that live in trees) need a tall cage with branches to climb on, burrowing tarantulas need appropriate substrates (ground cover) and hiding places. Vermiculite (a common ingredient in potting soil and available at garden stores) works well as ground cover. Good hiding places include half of a clay flower pot placed on its side or half of a hollow clay log, available from a pet store. Also be sure you know how warm and humid your spider needs its home to be. And keep a tight lid on things, because you definitely don't want your tarantula to escape!

Spiders eat bugs, so get used to buying crickets or other appropriate insects at the pet store. Don't feed your tarantula bugs that you catch yourself, as these may be contaminated with pesticides and can harm your spider. Supply water in an extremely shallow dish with small pebbles on the bottom so your tarantula won't drown.

Safety Tips

  • Most tarantulas would rather retreat than attack, but they will bite if they feel threatened. And like all spiders, their bite is venomous. While the toxicity of most tarantula bites is like a bee sting, some people are highly allergic to the venom and a bite could prove to be very painful or even fatal. Plus, some species of tarantulas have more potent venom than others, so find out the details of a particular type of tarantula before choosing it as a pet.
  • Tarantulas have tiny hairs on their abdomens that can cause itching and irritation to humans. This is another reason to avoid handling a pet tarantula. Don't get your face too close to a tarantula either, as they can rub off these hairs and "shoot" them when they feel threatened.
  • Avoid touching your face or eyes and be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after reaching into a tarantula's cage to feed it or to clean the cage. Those tiny itch-causing hairs may be loose in the spider's home and could stick to your hands. Even if you wear disposable gloves to reach into the cage, it's a good idea to wash your hands afterwards.
  • Because of these potential dangers, it's best for responsible adults or older kids to care for tarantulas.
  • Some tarantulas are very fast, so be careful when taking the top off of a tarantula's house for feeding or cleaning to make sure the tarantula doesn't escape or get on your hand or arm.
  • If a tarantula bites you, treat it like a bee sting: wash the area and apply ice or a cotton ball containing meat tenderizer mixed with water. However, if you exhibit any signs of an allergic reaction (hives, nausea, trouble breathing), call 911 and go to the emergency room immediately.
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