Handling and sexing of exotic species

Handling & Sexing of Exotic Pets


Goals of this lesson

  • Know how to handle exotic species
    • Small Mammals: differentiate prey and predator
    • Birds: Parrot, Chicken
    • Reptiles: turtle & tortoise, lizard, snake

Snake: identify the species (venimous or not)

  • Sex the different species


Small mammals: Ferret Mustela putorius furo, Rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus, Guineapig Cavia porcellus, Chinchilla Chinchilla lanigera, Rat Rattus norvegicus, Syrian hamster Mesocricetus auratus.

Birds: African Grey Parrot Psittacus erythacus, Cockatiel Nymphicus hollandicus, Chicken Gallus gallus domesticus

Reptiles: Corn snake Pantherophys guttatus, Bearded dragon Pogona vitticeps, Hermann's tortoise Testudo hermanni






  • Handling
    • Prefer hold the neck between your fingers
    • Avoid scruff the neck, except in ferrets
    • Handle with a towel rabbits and rodents

Fur slip: loss of a large quantity of hair following handling with stress. More common in chinchillas.

Tail slip: loss of tail after holding it. More common in gerbils.


  • Sexing
    • Longer anogenital distance in males
    • Scent glands more developed in entire and ageing males
    • Testicles and scrotum visible in ferrets, Myomorphs and rabbits
    • No scrotum in Hystricomorphs

Testicles are not well seen in young animals

Rodents and rabbits have large inguinal canal (testicles can be intra-abdominal, esp. when stressed)






Ferrets are usually nice and friendly

Have quite frank movement

Restraint by scruff of the neck: reliable and well tolerated in ferrets

Permits to test socialization

Mandatory for clinical exam

Can scare the owner: explain!

Note that all the fingers are holding the skin of the neck


  • Scruff by the neck will permit:
    • Socialization test
    • Yawning
    • Teeth examination
    • Abdominal palpation
    • Auscultation
    • Nail clipping
    • Ear cleaning
    • Ultrasound
    • Med administration


  • Daily treatment
    • Mix with food/treats
    • No constraints if possible
    • Disgusting med or unusual
    • Ptyalism+++


  • Sexing

Sexual dimorphism

Male 1200g (700 to 2500g)

Female 600g (450 to 1200g)

  • Easy sexing

Male: Penile bone, longer anogenital distance

  • Puberty around 5 to 9 months

Depending on date of birth and photoperiod

Male: December of birth’s year

Female: Feb/march following birth’s year


  • Heat

Agressivity, urinary marking, strong body odour, vulvar swelling







Never release. Always keep in touch with the rabbit

If left unchecked, will jump or break his back

Always hold front limbs (scapula) and hindlimbs (pelvis)


Rabbits’ handling with a towel

Rear inspection: Don’t hesitate to have help to realize some acts



Penis exteriorisation, testicles visualization (not possible if stressed)

Part the vulva to identify it

Ageing entire females: pseudogestation, mammary swelling and important dewlap

  • Puberty depending on breed and sex

Male : 6-7 months

Female : 4-6 months







Quiet, won’t jump

Vocalize a lot

Always hold front limbs (scapula)

Don’t scruff the neck


Female vulva : Y


Scent glands = marking glands, More prominent in males



  • Very active
  • Can jump from the table
  • Always hold front limbs (scapula)
  • Don’t scruff the neck
  • Handle with a towel

Fur slip!

Longer anogenital distance in male




Prefer holding the anterior part of the body, firmly

Scruff by the neck

  • Not well tolerated
  • Not with owners
  • Only if agressive or strict restraint is needed
    • Bite
    • Stress for the rat
    • Maintain slightly the tail



Longer anogenital distance in males

Testicles are easy to seen after sexual maturity




Possible (but not advised) to take the mouse at the basis of the tail

  • Scruff by the neck
    • Not appreciated but efficient
    • Hold the skin of the neck between forefinger and thumb.
    • Get stuck the tail at its basis with your ring finger against your palm




Longer anogenital distance in males

Testicles are easy to seen after sexual maturity



Recognize agressive or defensive behavior



  • Prefer holding the anterior part of the body, firmly
  • Avoid scruffing the neck when possible




Longer anogenital distance in males

Testicles are easy to seen after sexual maturity

Seromucous vaginal discharge in female during estrus


Scent glands = marking glands, more prominent in males


Dwarf hamsters


Avoid scruffing by the neck, prefer holding the neck between your fingers



Longer anogenital distance in males

Testicles are easy to seen after sexual maturity

Ventral scent glands is more pronounced in males




Avoid scruffing by the neck, prefer holding the neck between your fingers

Tail slip!



Longer anogenital distance in males

Testicles are easy to seen after sexual maturity

Ventral scent glands is more pronounced in males




  • Anogenital distance
    • Longer in males
    • Scrotum is pigmented ad easy to see in active males





  • Handling
    • Hold the neck between with your fingers
    • Protect you from beak (parrots) & claws (raptors)
  • Sexing
    • Sexual dimorphism is not reliable depending on species and breeds
      • Psittacines: Males are often brighter, more colored and melodious song. Except Eclectus parrot!
      • Galliformes: ornement on head (cock)
      • Raptors: Females are bigger.




Needs human contact

Can be very tamed



Be careful, the metal speculum can hurt


  • Wing clipping
    • Prevent the bird to take off but will hover
    • Start slightly. Cut more if needed
    • Never cut only one wing
    • Cut symmetrically both wings, six to eight feathers
    • Don’t cut pin feather (pulp will bleed +++)


  • How to do without wing clipping ?
    • Free flight
    • Harness
    • No leash attached to the ankle!



  • Most species of birds are dimorphic, except psittacines that are usually monomorphic:
    • Before sexual maturity, young cock are usually similar to hen
    • Other than Psittacines, males are generally heavier and larger. Head size, bill breadth, lenght and depth are greater in males.
    • Males are often more aggressive and territorial
  • Sexual dimorphism of Psittacines
    • Psittacines are usually monomorphic except, for ex:
    • Eclectus parrot
    • Red & purple female ; green male
    • Budgie
    • Blue cere in sexually mature male of wild-type
    • Cockatiel
    • Orange cheek in male
    • Bared tail in female

–      Species

–      Male

–      Female

–      Cockatiel

–      No barring

–      More melodious songs

–      Barred tail & feather underside

–      Eclectus

–      Green, orange beak

–      Red and purple, black beak

–      African Grey Parrot

–      Red vent and rump feathers

–      Grey tips on red feather or mostly grey

–      Cockattoo

–      Brown to black iris

–      Reddish iris

–      Not always reliable, especially in Moluccan, Rose-breasted, Bare-eyed, Goffin and immature cockatoos.

–      Budgie

–      Cere lavender to dark-blue

–      Cere pink-brown to light blue

–      Wild-type (green) male budgerigars have blue cere. Not so obvious in other types

–      Lovebird

–      (not reliable)

–      Distance btw pelvic bones narrower

–      Larger distance btw pelvic bones in postovipositional females






Usually, 30% heavier than male


Phallus on the wall of the cloaca

Clitoris can be mistaken with phallus in immature cocks & chicks


Heavier and longer beak


Prominent papilla of the ductus deferens during cloacal exam


Distance between the pelvic bone is not reliable



  • Sexing by endoscopy
    • Mistakes in young birds because of undifferentiated gonads
    • Allows direct inspection of abdominal structures, gonads
      • Experienced practitioner!
    • Requires general anesthesia and is quite invasive


  • Sexing by DNA analysis
    • The most reliable of nonivasive sexing procedure
    • Source of chromosomes can be blood on EDTA (small volume is needed), feather pulp from growing feather.
    • Choice of a reliable laboratory!







  • Hold firmly snakes and lizards behind the jaw
  • They are very tonic and muscular
  • Tortoises and turtles: when you grab the head, don’t let it escape
  • Grab them quickly but firmly


  • Not reliable in juveniles!
  • Enlarged base of the tail
  • Lizards: Secondary sexual characteristics in adult Leopard gecko (paired bulge ventral proximal tail) and iguanas (femoral pores, dorsal spine and dewlap). Juveniles can not be sexed.
  • Snakes: Sexing probe is preferred. In colubrids, manual eversion of the hemipenes can be used by experienced breeder. Larger cloacal spurs in males boas and pythons.
  • Chelonians: Secondary sexual characteristics with larger & longer tail and concave plastron in males. Vent is more distal in male.



Handling: Rarely agressive (except iguanas and monitors)

Respect anatomy and natural movement of the species

  • Don’t hold the tail!
    • Tail = fat storage (leopard gecko)
    • Spontaneous tail docking = predator distraction (decoy). Infectious risks.


  • Hold the head behind or on the jaw
  • Keep the forelimbs along the thorax and the hindlimbs backward
  • Catalepy, vagal reflex from ocular globe compression



  • Secondary sexual characteristics
    • Femoral pores more developed in males (bearded dragon, leopard gecko, green iguana…)
      • Pores excrete waxy substance used for marking territory
    • Noticeable bilateral bulges in the ventral proximal tail
    • Ornemental characteristics
      • Usually, males have larger head, bigger crests, brighter colors or erectable dewlaps
      • Male green iguana: dorsal spines, larger dewlap, larger operculum scales, femoral pores, bilateral hemipenis bulges
      • Male chameleon: elaborate head ornementation (crest, plate, horns)
        • Ex: Chameleo jacksoni has three large rostral horns (absent in females)
      • Posterior segment of the kidney is sexually dimorphic in Leopard gecko, some iguanas and skinks
        • Not to be confused with renal pathology


  • Cloacal probing
  • Hydrostatic eversion of the hemipenes
    • To consider in monitors, tegu; large skinks, bearded lizards and Gila monsters.
  • Eversion of the hemipenes
    • Under General Anesthesia
  • Ultrasound
    • Hemipenes and ovaries can be visualised
  • Radiography
    • Some Varanus spp possess mineralized bacula within their hemipenes







  • Turtles
    • Very reactive, use their bites to check the mouth
    • Be careful with bites!
  • Tortoises
    • Maximize the distance examination
    • Upside down
    • « Scratching » the hind legs
    • Expect…
    • Alfaxalone…
  • How to proceed if the turtle/tortoise is too frightened… Pull slowly the head, holding the skin or the jaw with a clamp. Push the hindlimbs, scratch the hindlimbs, Wait…General anesthesia.



= Chelonians

  • Males
    • Larger and longer tail
    • Vent is more distal from cloaca
    • Plastron is usually concave
    • Forelimbs claws are longer in aquatic males turtles






  • In France, venomous snakes owning is restricted by law
  • Always identify the species you are treating!


Hold the head behind the jaw

Obtain help from the owner

One human per meter in larger species

Recognize an agressive snake



Dimorphism is rare

  • Boid snakes: spurs located laterally to the vent

Boa constrictor: some female have occasionally spurs

Python regius:  non reliable. Spur size variable and present in females.



  • Cloacal probing
    • Use a smooth, long and blunt instrument
    • Snake properly and firmly restrained
    • Insert gently the lubricated probe laterally into the cloaca and directed caudally
    • Depth introduced depends on the species and the sex
    • Female: almost impossible to insert the probe, except if diverticula (esp. Python curtus). Use not too small diameters.
    • Male: Really longer, usually twice the depth of female


  • Manual eversion of the hemipenes
    • Also called « popping »
    • Neonatal colubrids. Almost impossible in heavier species, except if anesthetised.
    • Not reliable of non experienced people
    • Firmly push one thumb proximally up the tail base toward the cloaca. Injuries of hemipenes or vertebral column is possible.
    • Females:small reddish openings laterally are oviductal papillae (Lampro)
    • Males: obvious everted hemipenes


  • Hydrostatic eversion of the hemipenes
    • Inject sterile isotonic saline solution through the skin, into the tail, just distal to the cloaca in the assumed position of the hemipenes until either sufficient eversion or resistance
    • Injuries of the hemipenes, swelling, everting of the cloaca (this will allow easy evaluation of the oviductal papillae)
    • Use it in neonatal snakes (non colubrids) and large lizard species
    • ! Everted blind diverticula can be confused with hemipenes !


  • Other techniques
    • Tail’s length
      • Male have a longer tail than female
      • Useful only in adult snakes and using comparison between both males and females
    • Ultrasound
      • Ovaries can be visualized in sexually mature females
      • Hemipenes can be seen in larger snakes





Special informations about frogs : Wear gloves

  • Their thin skin is very sensitive to toxins (nicotin from smokers, handcream)

Wash your hand after handling