Here’s the real truth about cats and dogs – they’re just not as desirable as they used to be to a new generation of pet lovers. These days, exotic is the buzzword when it comes to having a pet – and from horses to guinea pigs, parakeets and white mice, Indians are increasingly choosing the more unusual option. And even when they do opt for a cat or dog, there’s usually a specific request, like a brown Labrador or a Persian cat (both of whom can be found in this story).
Says Ravi Kapoor, the owner of Puppy Pet Shop in Vasant Kunj, New Delhi, “People are becoming more experimental about the kind of pets they want.” Dr Pradeep Rana, small animal practitioner and the owner of Neeti Bagh Clinic in Delhi, agrees. “New animals that are becoming increasingly popular are hamsters, guinea pigs and mice. That’s because people can keep them in smaller places and flats,” he explains.
But even as animal breeders seek to introduce new varieties into the country, ultimately, for most pet owners, there’s only one reason to choose an animal, bird, fish or a more exotic creature, and that’s the companionship, love and affection they receive from their pets. Says Delhi resident Desh Sekhri, who has a dog and white mouse, “My home is more lively and I feel less alone when my pets are around. I feel calm when I am with them, especially when they react to me.”
It's clear from the moment you set eyes on the manicured lawns and well-maintained roads of Khushroo N Dhunjibhoy’s 350-acre Nanoli Stud Farm near Mumbai that this is no ordinary place. Indeed, the 250-plus horses in residence are impressive animals that can fire anyone’s Wild West fantasy.
Still, the real stunners here aren’t the magnificent thoroughbreds, but a six-month-old foal, who won’t have a name until she turns one. That’s our introduction to Belle’s Foal, who stands 24 inches off the ground. Next to her is her mother, eight-year-old Belle, not much taller at 32 inches. These miniature horses, or Falabellas, are one of the smallest and rarest breeds of horses in the world, barely eight hands in height at the withers. Since horses are traditionally measured in units of a hand (with one hand approximating to four inches), an eight-hand horse is only 32 inches, barely taller than a Great Dane or an Irish Setter.
Dhunjibhoy brought Belle to India in 1999 and says he was not the first to import a Falabella. But he is the first to attempt breeding this exotic pet, which is no bigger than a puppy when just born. “It is a partnership with Uday Kulkarni of Venttura Pet Products. We will breed the Falabellas and Kulkarni will handle marketing and sales,” explains Dhunjibhoy. The duo hasn’t fixed a price, although Dhunjibhoy does explain that it cost him Rs 4-5 lakh to import Belle.
Right now, one paddock holds one stallion, JR, and three mares, Belle, Belle Foal and Paris Hilton. Says Dhunjibhoy, “Falabellas are great lifestyle pets, especially if you have kids. My granddaughter Anosha would ride one when she was only six.” The Falabellas can be ridden bareback by children. He adds, “They are hardy horses and all they need is about two pounds of oats a day, some grass and regular grooming. Abroad, Falabellas are even kept as pets in flats.”
Uday Kulkarni sees Falabellas as the next big thing. “With so many people having second homes and farms, a Falabella will fit in well,” he says.
Birds of a feather
If your idea of a bird breeder is of someone who keeps them in tiny cages, then Mufaddal Tambewala will come as a surprise. Tambewala, who sells parakeets from the terrace of his building in Bhendi Bazaar, Mumbai, keeps his birds in 4x2x2 ft cages called flights, with a sliding partition so that the size can be increased from four to eight feet.
“You walk a pet dog, you flight your pet birds,” explains Tambewala. A flight of 4x 2 x 2 ft is good enough for the birds, he adds, but one must ensure that there are plenty of perches at different levels. And the birds require special care. “Give them a controlled diet and ensure that the cage is clean because stale food and bird droppings breed fungus that causes disease. Feed them a mix of different seeds and fruits – just what they would feed on in the wild. And put out a fresh bowl of water for them,” says Tambewala. A good pedigree certified pair of birds can cost anything between Rs 8,000 to Rs 40,000 a pair.
While all Indian species of birds are protected under the Wildlife Act, foreign exotic birds are exempt from this, explains Tambewala. “And if they mate, lay eggs and hatch, these are all legal too,” he adds. Tambewala, in fact, takes issue with activists who confiscate birds and release them in the wild. “These birds have been bred in captivity for generations and have lost their ability to survive on their own,” he says.
Tambewala also takes due precautions before parting with any of his pets. “I sell my birds only as a pair, and only to hobbyists because I want the birds to go to people who will care for them,” he explains.
Besides parakeets, one can also opt for budgies and cockatoos because these are sturdy and easy to keep. Experts advise buying in pairs so that the birds have company and recommend a visit to the aviary to check it out for cleanliness. “If you are buying birds for the first time, educate yourself about how to care for the little creatures,” says Tambewala, adding, “Find a good avian vet because these are not as easy to come by as vets for dogs and cats.”
If you always felt that fish didn’t make suitable pets, a visit to Meeta Rao’s store at Bandra in Mumbai will quickly change your mind. Rao has just set up an eight-foot fish tank for an Alligator Gar that a client has just sent in. “The fish outgrew its original tank and since the owner did not have enough space for it, he’s sent it to me,” explains Rao, adding, “He comes here frequently to see this handsome specimen.” This freshwater fish, worth around Rs 40,000, can grow up to 10 feet long and has a long snout and alligator-like teeth.
But it’s not the only exotic species floating around the garage-turned-shop. There’s also the Flowerhorn, a colourful fish with a bump on its head that can cost Rs 150 for an Indian specimen and Rs 25,000 for a fully-grown imported one. There’s the Ramora, the Fox Face, Yellow Tang, Korean Angel and the Clown Fish – all of which, unlike the regular denizens of fish tanks, are salt water creatures and require a marine water aquarium. Rao explains that while most people who keep fish as pets usually opt for common fresh water fish like tetra, angel fish, koi carp, guppies, gourami and suckers, serious fish lovers soon graduate to marine water species.
A marine water aquarium, she adds, is created by using synthetic salts to give the water its salinity and needs constant monitoring (and maintenance) of pH and nitrogen levels. Such aquariums also require a higher water to fish ratio, which means you can have fewer fish in the aquarium as opposed to a fresh water tank.
Says Rao, “A fully loaded marine aquarium can set you back by Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000 for a minimum size of 4x2x2 feet, as opposed to a 4x1x1 ft fresh water tank which would cost Rs 10,000.”
Worth a guinea
Classical vocalist G Elangovan’s two guinea pigs, Chintu and Mintu, came into the house four years ago as pets for his son Govindan. “He wasn’t stuck on getting any one particular pet,” explains Elangovan, “so we began to research different animals. We couldn’t have got a dog because we travel a lot and don’t have a big house. But we were clear that we wanted a pet that’s affectionate, responds to us and is easy to keep in a small house. That’s when we zeroed in on a guinea pig.”
And the Elangovans haven’t regretted that decision since. “Govind loves his pets and wouldn’t exchange them for a dog now,” says Elangovan. “They are also very lively – they wake up if we make too much noise in the night. And when I come back from the market, they start jumping and making strange sounds. They also get very excited when the fridge door opens.”
The family also feels their pets have a calming presence. “When I am stressed, I start playing with them,” says Elangovan, adding, “Also, unlike mice or rabbits, they snuggle in our laps. They respond and give love back, and bring a smile to our faces.” For Govindan, an only child, Chintu and Mintu are also great company. “Sometimes, when I can’t study alone, I make Chintu sit on my table,” he says.
The guinea pigs don’t need much upkeep. “We feed them vegetables five to six times a day – cucumber, tomato, radishes, even lettuce,” explains Elangovan, adding, “And although they are very clean, we give them a wash every two months with lukewarm water.”
Perhaps the only downside to having guinea pigs is their frequent droppings, admit the Elangovans. Also, because no one among their friends and family know how to care of Chintu and Mintu, the family doesn’t go on long vacations. “We’ve gone out for a maximum of three days,” explains Elangovan. “We leave lots of vegetables for them, build an open wooden playhouse and leave them there. The first time we left them, they were quite paralysed. Now too when they are left alone, they eat less. They miss us terribly.”
When Desh Gaurav Sekhri decided to get a dog as a pet, he didn’t just walk into a pet store to pick one up. “I researched different breeds for months,” he says, explaining that he finally chose Criollo because she is “smaller than regular golden and black Labradors, and so is suitable for a small house.”
“Criollo is a brown chocolate Labrador, a rare variety,” explains Sekhri. “I had to place an order for her and the cost of a dog like this is between Rs 20,000 to Rs 30,000. I wanted a rare breed because there is less chance of inbreeding and therefore, a smaller chance of the dog falling prey to diseases.”
While Sekhri’s first pet was only a little exotic, his second was more so. “I wanted another pet who was low-maintenance and would get along with Criollo. I didn’t want another dog (too much work) or a cat – they’re not affectionate,” explains Sekhri. “My research informed me that white mice are the most interactive pets from the rodent family, and are intelligent and cleaner than guinea pigs and rabbits.”
Star is 10 months old, and “very affectionate and lively,” says his owner. “I initially had two mice, as they should ideally be kept in pairs, but one died,” explains Sekhri, adding, “Star recognises my hand and me, and I know a person whose mouse knows what time he gets up. Since I live alone, having Star and Criollo makes up for the absence of people. The house feels lively.”
Far from being cooped up, Star “is let out at night,” explains Sekhri, adding, “I also carry her around the house.” Star prefers to eat her food on his shoulder, explains Sekhri, adding, “She has to be fed two meals a day.”
Cats in a flat
Kanchana Rao’s love affair with Persian cats began when her son joined a piano class. When she once accompanied him to his lesson, Rao realised that Aditya was more excited about playing with the teacher’s cat than learning his chords. Says the 39-year-old, “My dog had died not too long ago, so when I saw Aditya with the cat, I decided to get one, or even two.”
Today, her five cats, all named after Star Wars characters, are a dominant feature of her apartment. “They sleep most of the time; then there is a sudden burst of energy when they play with anything and even give you a high five. Then they get exhausted and drift off to sleep again,” says Rao.
She adds that the cats are all distinct personalities. “They have no fixed meal times, so I just leave food and water around and they help themselves when they want. Also, they do not like an audience when they are going about their business in the litter box.”
Rao adds that while Persians do not meow, her five manage to communicate pretty well. “Within their group they can be quite political and often gang up against one or the other,” she explains. “They are also very conscious of their looks. When I had to shear one, I got all five sheared so that they all looked the same.”
The truth about cats
The popular notion of cats is that they are cold, demanding and unaffectionate pets. But G Padmashree, a Bangalore-based breeder of Persian cats, disagrees. “Cats are the best pets, not demanding – you do not have to take a cat out for a walk,” explains Padmashree, adding, “Also, contrary to what people think, they are very affectionate.”
Of the 40 to 45 species of cats, Indians are slowly turning to the more exotic varieties of Persian and Siamese cats. “If these cats are provided with a safe environment, good nutrition and medical attention, they can live up to 30 years,” says Padmashree. However, unlike strays, these cats have no survival instincts as they are bred only to be pets. “They can be completely lost if they are left out on the street,” explains Padmashree, adding that another characteristic of Persian cats is that they never meow.
Persian and Siamese cats also have special dietary needs – not milk but appropriate cat food that can cost up to Rs 1,000 for 2 kg. A Persian cat can cost Rs 8,000, but a really good one could go for upto Rs 25,000 to Rs 30,000. And if you are importing one, be prepared to pay the equivalent of US $3,000.
Upasna Kamineni is a certified animal lover. “I’ve loved animals ever since I was a child,” she says, admitting only to disliking small cats. Today, the 23-year-old vice president, Apollo Philanthropy, shares her life with her dog Pinko and an assortment of donkeys and horses at a huge farm in Hyderabad. “I have six lame donkeys and three rescued Tanga horses – one of them is blind,” explains Kamineni, adding, “I just can’t see animals suffering – it breaks my heart.”
Kamineni also admits to needing her pets “more than they need me”. “I just love them,” she says, adding, “They are perfect stress-busters and I share all my problems with them. Pinko knows when I’m upset and is always around to give me all the support and love I need.”
One of Kamineni’s horses, Starlight, is also extremely possessive. “She doesn’t let the others come close,” laughs Kamineni. “My donkeys are also are very smart and adorable – they are named after the days of the week. Thursday is pregnant and I can’t wait for her baby to be born.”
One advantage of living on a farm, explains Kamineni, is that the animals have “lots of space to run around”. “The vet checks on them every month, and my staff looks after them round the clock,” explains Kamineni, adding, “In fact, before my grandmother comes to visit them, all the animals are given a good scrub.”
Before you set out to choose an exotic pet, be aware of some very important factors. The first is that certain varieties of animals, birds and reptiles are actually illegal to own as pets. Says Jose Louies of the Wildlife Trust of India, “According to The Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, it is illegal to keep as pets any animal or bird that is found in the wild.” He adds, “So while Indian species are protected in the country, they are not protected anywhere else. It’s a similar case with birds from other countries, like macaws and cockatoos. They are protected in the country of their origin but not in India. That’s why it is not illegal to keep them as pets here.”
Secondly, some species are not suited for our climate, so keeping them as pets is just cruel. Bijoy Poddar, owner of Poddar Kennel in Delhi, says, “People are now becoming aware of many breeds and varieties of dogs and other pets through TV, the Internet and movies. So I sometimes get requests for pets that are unsuited to India. A person once called me to request a Siberian Husky, which isn’t suited to the Delhi climate.” Also, when choosing a pet, make sure you get one from a responsible breeder. Says Preeti S Kumar of Scooby Scrub, a pet grooming parlour, “Because there is so much competition, some breeders don’t even let the dog rest for six months before they mate her again. The conditions in which pets are kept at shops is another matter of concern.”
For the birds
Kishan Alva is very clear about why he has five exotic birds – Fire, Bobby, Percy, Mickey and Porlu – for pets. “They are very intelligent and love me and my family unconditionally,” explains Alva, adding, “They recognise me and do not let any stranger to touch them. Every day, when I pull up in my car, they create a ruckus. That’s their way of showing how happy they are.”
It’s also very easy to keep birds in a flat as they don’t need as much space as dogs, says Alva, who works as a regional manager with Confident Dental Equipments. He explains that all his birds are very emotional and sensitive, and go off their food when the family goes on holiday. “If I pet one, the others make a fuss,” says Alva. “When I scold them for making noise, they extend their necks to give me a kiss. Porlu even says ‘I love you’.”
The Alvas respond to this love by taking the utmost care of their pets. They need water at all times and are fed a mixture of different seeds and fruits. His wife says, “Kishan sometimes buys fruits just for the birds. He doesn’t always do that for us.”