Unusual Pets: Corn Snake, African Hedgehog, Northern Blue-Tongue Skink


Whoever said dogs and cats should have a monopoly on our affections and the chance to share our homes? For those who like to be different, here are three ideas for unconventional pets — all of which are also good choices for people with allergies. (Then again, so are fish!)


If there’s a snake that’s downright domestic, this is it. Breeders maintain that they breed these 5-foot-long reptiles for temperament, as well as for their designer colors, such as blood red, tangerine, butter and caramel, snow, and Creamsicle. In fact, these gentle snakes tolerate — and some might argue — even enjoy being handled.

Herpetologist R.D. Bartlett, who’s written 45 books on reptiles and amphibians, including “Corn Snakes” (Barron’s Educational Series, 1999), says “They’re large enough to impress friends, but don’t have the needs of massive snakes.”

Home is a 35- to 55-gallon tank, but do offer a hiding place (a shoebox will suffice). Cage temperature should range from 72 to 85 degrees. Corn snakes don’t require daily baths or an ultraviolet light, but a heat lamp and/or under glass heating pad (which adheres to the tank) is important.

Corn snakes eat frozen thawed rodents (available at many pet stores and online) once every 10 to 14 days, but adults can go longer without a meal. While these snakes occur naturally in the U.S., captive-born animals are far better pets, and likely healthier, living 15 years. Corn snakes typically run $50 to $150, though those with rare color morphs can cost more.

No snake is a recommended pet for young children.


African hedgehogs are mostly active overnight, pitter-pattering around their enclosures, and going round and round on their wheels. They’re not the greatest pets for light sleepers. Otherwise, hedgehogs are quiet — though not silent, sometimes sounding like they’re muttering under their breath.

These small animals (about the size of a baseball), have quills, long noses and short claws. Most are brownish or greyish. They run $90 to $250, but those in fancy colors can be more.

The substrate in a hedgehog’s cage can be shredded newspaper, manufactured newspaper cat litter, or polar fleece (from a fabric store) because it can be washed and re-used.

The bulk of the diet should be food manufactured for hedgehogs, supplemented with live and/or freeze-dried insects and cut up chicken or turkey. Hedgehogs can live 10 years.

If your hedgehog foams from the mouth, it just means he or she is happy to see you.

These pets are great pet for older kids who can be taught to handle them appropriately (always over a table or while sitting down so they can’t be dropped). Small children might get scared if the quills (which are really modified hair) stand up. Hedgehogs do not throw their quills.


“I love my skinks,” coos Melanie Vande Griend, of Marshfield, MO. “They’re personable and interactive, at least for a lizard. I mean, you don’t expect them to fetch a newspaper, but they recognize me and enjoy being handled.”

Melanie’s husband, veterinarian Scott, was turned on to the 2- to 2-1/2-foot lizards several years ago by a newspaper column touting them as an alternative to the wildly popular but exceedingly difficult-to-maintain green iguanas.

“Cute as little pet store lizards, iguanas grow to be 5 to 6 feet, and love to climb, so they actually need a room of their own,” he says. “And many develop an attitude, making them downright dangerous.” Iguanas also have very specific requirements for temperature, humidity lighting and diet. Northern blue-tongue skinks are easier to maintain.

A single blue-tongue (they’re solitary) does fine in a 30- to 55-gallon tank. Unlike iguanas, they don’t require baths. A good size water bowl offers humidity, and they can get wet if they desire. An ordinary light bulb, heat lamp and under glass heating pad are sufficient to keep the pets comfortable.

For chow, these skinks they enjoy moist dog food combined with mixed vegetables. It’s important to further vary the diet, offering small tidbits from your meals: fruit, chicken, even Gefilte Fish or some salmon. As adults, they dine three to five days a week.

These lizards are named for their bright blue tongues (they look like they’ve just had a blueberry Slurpee), which they wave like a flag when threatened.

Blue-tongues can live 20 years or more, and generally cost $100 to $300.

Specialty pet stores that carry exotics and reputable breeders (check online) are your best choices for all of these pets. Some pet superstores carry them, too.

©Steve Dale, LLC; Tribune Content Agency