Asian Small-clawed Otter. Photo: David Lawson / WWF-UK

Asian Small-clawed Otter. Photo: David Lawson / WWF-UK


Published 3 March 2021


New research reveals Japanese attitudes towards exotic pets despite the potential risks

3 March 2021 Japan: Owning and interacting with exotic pets is increasingly popular in Japan, in spite of the risks involved, so research has been conducted to better understand the reasons behind this behaviour and in doing so, has shed light on a wave of strong support for strengthening regulation of the trade and handling of exotic pets.

Japan is one of the largest markets in the world for exotic pets and is the trendsetter of exotic animal cafés, which is spreading across Asia. A striking example is the recent rise in the demand for otters. A TRAFFIC’s survey in 2018 revealed, the Small-clawed Otter Aonyx cinereus rapidly gained popularity in Japan because of attention in mass media and social media since around 2012. This led to a rapid expansion of otter cafés and sales of otters to be kept as private pets, which was shown to be driving illegal trade of otters from Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand.

Partly as a consequence of this illegal trade, the decision was taken in 2019 at the 18th Conference of the Parties (CoP18) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to up-list the Small-clawed Otter from Appendix II to Appendix I in order to prohibit all international commercial trade.

Above and beyond otters, demand for exotic pets in Japan is wide-ranging and growing. There is increasing demand for multiple rare and protected species from a range of taxa. For example, more than 600 species of reptiles were observed in a market survey conducted by TRAFFIC in 2017, while the number of “owl cafés” has risen sharply.

It is increasingly recognised that use of exotic pets also encompasses other risks including infectious diseases, animal welfare, and ecosystem invasions.

Whilst regulations need to be strengthened and enforced more robustly, improving people’s understanding of the risks associated with owning or exotic pets is essential to build healthy and safe relationships between people and wildlife”

Tomomi Kitade, Director of TRAFFIC in Japan.

Research to better understand the scale and drivers of exotic pet use in Japan was conducted by WWF Japan in February 2021. This has provided initial insights into the motivations of consumers to interact with and to own exotic pets and provided some indications of how initiatives to reduce consumer demand should be designed in order to resonate with consumers to help reduce demand.

Results revealed that one in three people (33%) are interested in petting exotic animals, while one in six (17%) are interested in keeping them as pets. Interest in exotic pets was higher among younger age groups, with teenagers twice as likely to express interest than all respondents.

The most common reasons for wanting exotic pets pertained to notions of “kawaii (cute)” and “iyashi ” (healing) the same motivations for keeping more common pets like cats and dogs. In addition, 16% expressed rarity was an important factor in the desire for exotic pets.

There was low awareness of five key risks associated with exotic pets. A staggering 68% said they knew little or nothing about their potential to spread infectious diseases, animal welfare, impact on the endangered status of many species, illegality of the trade, and risks from invasive species.

After being informed of the issues, 95% expressed concern and supported the view that stronger regulations were needed. Around 60% of these respondents considered the issue of infectious diseases as the most important, followed by 18% who indicated that risks to endangered species were the most important.

Despite this apparent concern, 25% still expressed an interest in exotic animals as pets and 14% expressed an interest in owning exotic pets. This clearly highlights the need for initiatives which can change behaviours and not just raise awareness of the risks associated with exotic pets.

“The survey suggests that simply increasing the awareness of the risks associated with keeping exotic pets is insufficient to significantly reduce potential buyer’s intention to interact and own these animals. A deeper understanding of people’s underlying motivations is key to developing effective initiatives that can achieve a lasting change in their behaviour and protect species from decline,” added Kitade.

TRAFFIC has led the implementation of multiple initiatives incorporating behaviour change methodologies to reduce the demand for illegal wildlife products, including from elephants, rhinos, tigers, pangolins and rosewood. TRAFFIC is also engaged in many initiatives and fora internationally, and manages the Social and Behaviour Change Community of Practice ( TRAFFIC is working with WWF on the initiative to tackle consumer demand for exotic pets in Japan.