Move over, pandemic puppies—bearded dragons are the new lockdown pet.
In the past year, the demand for dogs has become so great that shelters are emptying out and breeders have built up the longest waitlists of their careers. The phenomenon isn't limited to canines: Purchases of pet reptiles, rodents and even shrimp have all spiked in popularity during quarantine.
PDX Repti-Feed & More, a live feed shop and reptile breeder in Southeast Portland, has been selling out of bearded dragons almost as soon as they hatch. The lizards have a complicated genealogy that makes it impossible to guarantee what a clutch will look like after it hatches. So most sellers, including PDX Repti-Feed, don't have waitlists. But if they did, "I'd probably have a waitlist a mile long," says co-owner Feleesha Haskin.
WW talked to local pet stores about other unconventional pets flying off shelves and out of aquariums during the pandemic—all of which require much less work than a puppy.
Curious and easygoing, bearded dragons are one of the most popular alt-pets of the pandemic.
Etsy is full of leashes, furniture and tiny intricate outfits for them: Kim Kardashian, arguably the most famous bearded dragon owner, dresses her reptile, Speed, in custom Skims.
"They are probably the dogs of reptiles," says PDX Repti-Feed's Feleesha Haskin, whose kids walk the family bearded dragon with a harness decked out with bat wings. "You can take them anywhere."
PDX Repti-Feed also sells geckos and chameleons. For the past year, though, Haskin says most inquiries she's gotten have been for beardies.
"They're probably one of the easiest starter reptiles," says Haskin. "As long you have the proper lighting and enclosure, there's not a lot that can go wrong.
Rats were growing in popularity even before the pandemic, because unlike most other pet rodents, rats actually enjoy your company.
Anya Blankenship, an employee at Critter Cabana in Wilsonville, says that if a customer comes in looking for a more conventionally cute rodent like a hamster, she'll often recommend a rat instead.
"Hamsters in the wild aren't social," says Blankenship. "They have no desire to bond. They'll tolerate you at best and are hostile at worst."
Rats, on the other hand, are highly social and form bonds with their owners. They can learn to do tricks and will even "groom" their human pals like they would another rat. That also means they require plenty of toys, activities and social interaction. Rats do best in pairs, and can become depressed on their own.
"There's no such thing as too much enrichment," says Blankenship. But the payoff is a pet rodent who actually loves you back: "They're just delightful little critters."
Even if you've never heard of a pixie frog before, all you need to do to understand their popularity is to look at a picture of one: They're one of the world's chonkiest frogs. It only makes sense that the photogenic amphibian would gain interest during a particularly online year.
"They open their head like Pac-Man," says Blankenship. "They're very, very cute, and they have pretty simplistic care."
Pixie frogs require a mostly insectivore diet and a warm environment. But if you're looking for a cuddle buddy, a pixie frog isn't a good fit.
"They're not much for handling," says Blankenship. "That's part of their charm, they're very simple creatures. They like mud to burrow in and not much else."
Docile, colorful and beady-eyed, ball pythons have long been one of the best-loved pet snake breeds. Now that everyone is stuck at home, that popularity has only increased. An employee at Tropical Hut estimates that during the pandemic, the pet store has been selling at least a dozen ball pythons a week:
"It's actually one of the easiest animals to care for. For the most part, they're happy just to hang out with you."
Ball pythons require an environment that's warm and humid. As cute and laid back as they may be, ball pythons are not for squeamish pet owners—you have to feed them live mice.
During the pandemic, snail content has become ubiquitous on social media, so much so that New York magazine dubbed the shelled gastropods "the Pandemic Pet." Along with making for whimsical photo-ops, snails are easy to care for. They don't need a particularly large enclosure, and the fact that they like to have things to crawl on and under is an excuse to get creative with your terrarium décor.
Where do you find them, though? Sites online sell snails, but such marketplaces operate in a legal gray area due to invasive species laws. Best to just go out and turn over some logs if you're looking for a slimy new friend.
After working seven years at World of Wet Pets in the Southwest Hills, Brea King is as surprised as you might be that Neocaridina shrimp have suddenly exploded in popularity.
Recently, the store has gone from selling only two types of Neocaridina shrimp to nine. It used to be a rare occurrence that someone would come in specifically looking for the colorful crustacean, but now, says King, "People are like, 'Do you have this type of shrimp, do you have this type of shrimp?'"
King attributes their popularity to their colorfulness. The tiny critters, which max out at only a few centimeters in length, come in glassy blues, deep reds and highlighter yellows. Plus, people have been stuck at home, and YouTube is full of Neocaridina how-tos.
Getting your own Neocaridina shrimp does require some prep work. You can't just drop them into any fish tank, and you have to monitor for nitrogen levels to make sure you're not introducing them to a toxic environment. Still, you don't have to be a chemist to get it right.
"I would say that a new hobbyist could take that on," says King, "as long as they're patient."