Is it ethical to feed live food to exotic pets?
Live food items are often fed to exotic pet species whether they be birds, amphibians, reptiles or mammals. This raises issues of welfare, both of the animals fed live prey items and the prey itself. Concerns over live food welfare are particularly marked in the feeding of vertebrate prey items and evidence presented here shows the prolonged time taken for rodents to die, this fuelling these concerns. And yet the welfare of all exotic pets relies both on providing optimal nutrition and ensuring, as much as possible, that their natural behaviours can be expressed. Does that mean that predatory species must be fed live prey? This paper discusses this problem and seeks potential solutions.
Many of the “exotic” species that are kept as pets (companion animals) or for study, or which form part of a zoo or rescue centre, are wholly or partly carnivorous and therefore require food of animal origin. Many omnivores also feed in part on live or dead animals and some essentially herbivorous/graminivorous species, such as finches (Fringillidae), require invertebrate food when they are nestlings.
In this paper emphasis is on the provision of still living food, but brief mention will be made of dead animals. The discussion relates mainly to live food given to captive exotic animals but it must be remembered that free-living individuals also kill and eat live prey.
The use of live food
Food comprising live animals or their derivatives is widely considered to serve two main purposes. First, from a nutritive perspective, it contains important, sometimes essential, amino acids, vitamins and other nutrients; secondly, from a behavioural viewpoint it provides captive animals with stimulation, especially when it is presented to them in an imaginative way, providing a very important form of environmental enrichment. The subject of “live-feeding” of animals in zoos and private collections has become a specialist topic, with numerous papers in the literature about how best such diets should be chosen and presented. These include precautions to minimise damage to the prey species by attacks from the animals provided as live food.
The welfare benefits to the predator of feeding of live animal food is viewed by many to be well-substantiated; as noted above, it provides behavioural enrichment and represents a natural or near-natural method of providing essenial nutrition . There is, however, another important consideration, which is sometimes forgotten or ignored. This is the question of the wellbeing of the live food that is being offered. After all, the food consists of living animals which, regardless of their taxonomic status, may be subjected to and affected by stressors, including pain during the period before and during being eaten.
There are several stages at which the prey species may be subjected to stressors. The first of these is during production or collection. Live food is either bred in captivity or collected in the wild and in many cases such breeding or collection may involve stress for the animals involved. When offered as food, prior to being devoured the live food prey item is often in what for it is an unusual, an “alien” environment. It may, for example, be exposed to abnormally high temperatures or bright lights, rendering the individual, by definition, vulnerable to attack/prehension by the animal to which it is being fed. The key welfare issue for many animals provided as live food will be when they are being devoured. Some live food is killed almost instantaneously by the predator, using physical or chemical means from trauma to evenomation, both of these potentially rendering the prey immobile while losing consciousness. In such circumstances there may be little in risk of poor welfare. But often death takes much longer – for instance, a rodent constricted and thus killed by suffocation by a snake, or a...
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