Getting To Know Your Exotic Pet

by Brittany Yates

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What’s an “exotics” veterinarian, you ask? Don’t worry, it’s not anything mysterious or foreign. It actually refers to veterinarians that specialize in pets that are outside the usual dogs and cats, such as birds, reptiles, fish, small mammals (guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits), even invertebrates (tarantulas, millipedes, hermit crabs). Some exotic veterinarians will also see certain farm or large animals, such as pot-bellied pigs and chickens. These animals have always been popular pets, but the quality of their care and understanding of their needs hasn’t always been comparable to that of dogs and cats.

Sometimes, exotic pets are attractive to pet owners because they are small, less demanding than a dog or cat, and less expensive, and, for some, because they have a shorter life expectancy. When I was younger, I had every pet imaginable but never truly understood the requirements of the various species, let alone husbandry needs or the value of regular veterinary visits. Fast forward to today: I am now considered a local exotics veterinarian here in the Coachella Valley. I fell into this role partly because I have exotic pets and am always learning about them, but more so because I want all pets to receive the same quality and standard of care.

Exotic pets are all around us in local pet stores, and they are so cute and small that many people buy them impulsively. As a veterinarian, please take my advice and do your research on these animals before you purchase them. The number one reason I see exotics in my practice is that their health has deteriorated, because their new owners did not do their research, relying solely on advice from the pet store representative or a generic pamphlet they were handed. People and clients laugh at me when I say I’m constantly reading and learning about my own Dr. Doolittle menagerie of exotic pets, but it’s true.

When I use the word husbandry, I am referring to the special care and needs these animals require, such as diet, enclosure/habitats, temperature and humidity, etc. Let me tell you, there are no cookie-cutter setups for these creatures, and they always have to be treated as individuals. Outside of researching their husbandry needs, it is also important to know the longevity and common ailments/illnesses these animals may contract. If guinea pigs don’t receive vitamin C supplemented in fresh fruits and vegetables (no, not in their water!), they can suffer from a condition called scurvy. Caused by a deficiency in vitamin C, if left untreated, the disease is potentially fatal. If rabbits and tortoises have too much calcium in their diets, they are at risk for bladder stones. If reptiles don’t have the correct UVB bulb spanning across their entire terrarium, they can suffer from different forms of metabolic bone disease.

Before or immediately after you purchase one of these pets, seek out an exotics veterinarian near you. Schedule an initial wellness exam, so your veterinarian can not only check the health of your new pet but also review its husbandry needs. It is also important to discuss whether your pet should be spayed or neutered. Did you know the main reason female rabbits are relinquished is aggressive behavior? This is often due to her not being spayed and potentially suffering from cystic ovaries. Your veterinarian will also discuss the potential diseases your new pet is at risk for. With newly acquired birds, it is always important to have them sexed, which is determined through a blood test. Do not wait to see if your bird eventually lays an egg—many bird species are at risk for being egg-bound, a potentially life-threatening condition that is completely preventable.

After your initial wellness exam, it is important to see your veterinarian for routine check-ups, once or twice a year, at the advice of your vet. Some species require yearly fecal tests, blood tests, and radiographs to screen for disease. Contrary to popular belief, these animals— like all animals and humans—generally don’t die from “old age.” There is always a disease process occurring in the body that leads to death. Because many of these animals are “prey” animals, they hide their illnesses, and it is often too late for us to save them when they are rushed into our office in an emergency. Did you know parrots who eat seeds their whole life are at high risk of chronic heart disease and atherosclerosis, which can lead to an acute death? Small mammals that are not fed a diet of predominantly hay are at risk for cheek teeth overgrowth and abscesses that can even invade their jaw bones.

These are just a few of the most common issues with these pets that I see in clinics. Please take the time to do your research on these fabulous and unique pets before you impulsively buy one. Just because they are smaller doesn’t mean they have fewer needs or won’t be as costly. Regular veterinary check-ups are essential. Make sure your veterinarian is comfortable with seeing exotic pets, and if they aren’t, get a referral to some-one who is and always be prepared for emergencies.

VCA Desert Animal Hospital located at 4299 E. Ramon Road, Palm Springs, CA 92264. Visit vcadesert.com760-656-6222.

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