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With an Oink Oink Here, Alternative Pets Bring Farm Inside

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When Raleigh Hager takes her pet, Fergus, on a walk in her neighborhood, she gets some funny looks; a few people even stop to ask about him.

Fergus is about 3 months old, weighs about 10 pounds and has a very adorable nose. He's also a pig -- a micro mini pig.

Fergus is a part of a growing trend of miniaturized versions of farm animals making their way into urban environments. Miniature horses, donkeys, pigs and goats are now living in Austin backyards, and bunnies are becoming popular companions for condo and apartment dwellers.

Some owners are looking for an unusual pet. Others are allergic to cats and dogs but still crave companionship. Still others want miniature goats because of the milk they provide.

The city of Austin treats miniature livestock much differently than their full-size counterparts, and as a result, minis are allowed in many backyards. It's important to check your city's rules, your lease agreement and for any homeowner's association restrictions before considering an alternative pet.

Pigs

Raleigh, 11, talked her parents into getting Fergus after they lost a bet.

"When I wasn't all that good at wake surfing and I just found out about pigs, I asked if I get a place in the (Wake Surfing World Championships) can I have a (miniature) pig, not expecting me to be good enough to place," she said. "Then I got a lot better and I did place. So then, they have to keep their promise, and they gave me a pig and I was happy."

Fergus, who was purchased from Texas Tiny Pigs (www.texastinypigs.com), a breeder in Waco, sleeps in a pen in Raleigh's room and is trained to use a litter box. She still takes him on walks and even has a stroller for when his little legs get tired.

"Pigs are really smart," she said, adding that Fergus quickly figured out how to undo the latch on his pen, which is now padlocked.

Fergus is considered a micro mini pig, which usually top out around 15 inches tall at the shoulder and range from 10 pounds to 55 pounds as adults, according to information from his breeder in Waco. He's been a welcome addition to the family, said dad, JB, and mom, Erin. He's very clean and gets along well with their two dogs.

Price: Texas Tiny Pigs start around $600 and can be more than $1,000

Life expectancy: 15-20 years

Equipment: Pen with bedding and litter box

Diet: Pellet pig food, fruits and vegetables

Upsides: One of the most intelligent pets available; waste makes good fertilizer if on a vegetarian diet

Potential pitfalls: Do your research before buying. Some breeders advertise micro or teacup pigs that might grow to more than 100 pounds to 200 pounds as adults. Ask to see the adult parents and grandparents of any potential pets. Pigs should have an outdoor space to root around.

Goats

On a small farm just outside Austin, Cynthia Wickliffe tends a small herd of Nigerian dwarf goats and has sold many of them as pets to urban dwellers and as milk goats for those interested in a backyard food source.

"A Nigerian produces around half a gallon of milk a day," said the owner of Harlequin Dairy Goats (www.harlequingoats.com). "They have high-quality milk with a good amount of butter fat and protein."

Not bad for a goat that's smaller than most dog breeds. The Nigerian dwarf usually tops out at 60 pounds and is shorter than 23 inches at the shoulder.

Goats are often playful and make for affectionate pets. The milk they produce is rich and mild-tasting, with a slight sweetness. Wickliffe uses it to make cheeses and soaps in her kitchen. The milk can be consumed raw or easily pasteurized using a double boiler on a stove top.

While females are needed for anyone wanting milk, wethers, the castrated males, make great pets, too, and are often much cheaper.

"For someone that just wants a cute pet that will run and play and keep the lawn down, wethers are perfect," Wickliffe said.

Price: Wethers start around $50 and females around $200.

Life expectancy: 12-18 years

Equipment: A sturdy fence like chain link or a wood privacy fence is needed, something that the goat cannot fit their head through. It also should be able to keep dogs out. A small shelter is also needed from rain and sun; large igloo-shaped doghouses work well.

Diet: Pelletized goat food and hay

Upsides: Milk, fertilizer, short lawns. Goats are relatively quiet when compared to barking dogs.

Potential pitfalls: Goats are social creatures and need to be with another goat or a herd animal, like a miniature horse or donkey. Check with neighbors before purchasing (bribes of fresh milk might be needed). Always buy from a reputable breeder because goats can carry disease, some of which can pass to humans, Wickliffe said.

Horses and donkeys

Just outside Buda, Tony Greaves raises some of the smallest horses in the world. There's also a handful of tiny donkeys and one accidental tiny mule.

Greaves has been raising miniature horses for fifty years and runs Little America Miniature Horses (www.littleamericaminis.com). He started with horses that stood 36 inches at the shoulder. Through selective breeding, he's gotten some as small as 25 inches. His dream is a horse that is only 22 inches tall.

"Growing up, I always liked the smallest ones," he said.

Miniature horses make great pets, and many of the ones he sells to city-dwellers are used for therapy animals, going to visit hospitals, hospice care and troubled youth. Their gentle demeanors and fuzzy bodies make it hard to resist petting them.

"People love them as pets," Greaves said. "In fact, a lot of people end up getting another one because they like to see them playing together."

Miniature horses are easy to handle because of their size and make great pets for children and the elderly.

"Our motto is, it's the horse for everyone," Greaves said.

Price: Greaves's horses start around $500 and average about $3,000.

Life expectancy: 20-30 years

Equipment: Large backyard, shelter to keep out of the sun and rain, brushes and combs.

Diet: Horse feed and hay

Upsides: Fertilizer and short lawn

Potential pitfalls: Find a large animal veterinarian early because they can be hard to find.

Bunnies

For those urbanites with zero outdoor space and a dog or cat allergy, many are turning to house rabbits as companion animals.

Dr. Sherry Neyman is the president of the House Rabbit Resource Network (rabbitresource.org), a rescue group for rabbits that runs a shelter in Pflugerville.

Neyman is also a successful OB/GYN with a varied and busy schedule.

"For people like me that have an irregular schedule and work nights, they are pretty self-sufficient in a cage with food and water," she said. "Especially in pairs, they entertain themselves."

When she gets home in the evenings, Neyman lets her eight bunnies out of their spacious multilevel habitats and lets them hop about her home.

"They are a little more active at night, so when I come home, they are ready to hop around and be snuggled," she said.

Her home has been carefully bunny-proofed. Electrical cords have to be wrapped in protective sleeves because bunnies are well-known for chewing right through them. Furniture legs also might have to be wrapped to protect them.

The network has dozens of bunnies up for adoption and a full range of services, like a pairing service for single bunnies that need a friend. Although all their bunnies are spayed and neutered, they will still pair up for life.

Smaller rabbits are a little feistier, Neyman said, while larger breeds are more docile. All of them are luxuriously soft.

While bunnies do well in homes with cats, some dogs and small children can pose a risk for bunnies, which can be injured by rough play.

Rabbits are perfect for homes or apartments without a lot of space, because bunnies actually like close spaces and their litter boxes don't smell as bad as a cat's.

"You have to go very slowly with rabbits and let them come to you, but it's very rewarding," Neyman said.

Price: Adoption fees at the network are $85 for one rabbit or $110 for a bonded pair.

Life expectancy: 8-12 years

Equipment: A cage is recommended because most bunnies like a home base, although some are free range. Litter box and toys. A straw mat or chewing sticks are required to keep teeth from growing too long.

Diet: Fruit, vegetables and pellet rabbit food

Upsides: Their droppings make great garden fertilizer, and they are very quiet.

Potential pitfalls: Require regular vet care; may chew carpet and furniture.

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