Monthly Archives September 2011

Knowing when to say goodbye

Knowing when to put a pet to sleep is never easy. It’s particularly difficult when that pet is not a dog or cat but is a non-traditional species such as a ferret, bird, rabbit, rodent, reptile, or even something more unusual, like a sugar glider or hedgehog. While most cats and dogs live to snuggle with and please their owners, many exotic species, while affectionate, live more independently and don’t spend all of their time with their human family members, as cats and dogs often do. Thus, it’s often harder to tell when these animals are really ill.

As a bird and exotic animal veterinarian who is often confronted with advising exotic pet owners about when to put their animals to sleep, I usually tell them this: It’s not enough just to consider obvious factors, such as whether your pet is eating, moving around normally, or defecating in the usual spot, when you’re thinking about putting your pet to sleep. It’s when animals stop doing the usual things that make them unique pets – the “essence” of what makes them so special – then it is time to stop. When your ferret stops mischievously stealing your shoes, when your bunny stops thumping his foot in displeasure about not being fed, when your guinea pig stops fastidiously grooming, when your parrot can no longer scream loudly because you’ve left the room, or when your chameleon lizard can no longer climb branches to a favorite basking spot, it’s time to stop. It’s when your exotic pet stops doing all these little things, that’s when you know putting them to sleep is the right decision.

Perhaps the best illustration I can give of what I mean by “the essence” of the animal involves a barn owl named Willow. Willow lived at a wildlife rescue facility for many years after being hit by a car as a very young bird. Although her initial injuries healed well, and she was treated royally in the sanctuary for many years, she never gave up that wild bird part of her personality that she showed when her caretakers had to clean her large flight cage or move her from enclosure to enclosure. She resisted, and always tried to fly away and hide.  Eventually, when years later, Willow developed a serious respiratory infection that although treatable would require her to be housed in a small cage to be medicated 2 times a day, her caretakers opted to put her to sleep, because they felt that she could no longer act as the independent, feisty wild bird that she really was. Not an easy decision to make, but one based on unselfishness and respect for what made Willow truly Willow.


How do you choose a veterinary hospital for your exotic pet?

Every few weeks, my hospital receives a call from a desperate exotic pet owner somewhere far away seeking advice about their sick pet. Sometimes it’s about a reptile, sometimes about a bird or bunny. The caller might be from the Midwest, Canada, or even from another country. Unfortunately, in most cases, there is little we can recommend over the phone, and we advise the pet owner to take their animal to an exotic pet-savvy vet to be checked. While there are several great resources on-line directing people to terrific local vets who are comfortable treating exotic species, for some people in certain remote locations, exotic pet veterinarians can be hard to find. What are the most important things to look for when you are seeking out the care of an exotic pet vet? Here are 5 essential considerations:

1.       How many (snakes, birds, ferrets, rabbits, whatever species) has this vet ever treated?

While practice may not always make perfect, it certainly makes better. The more of any given species a veterinarian sees, the more likely that he or she is to recognize disease and be able to recommend appropriate treatment.

2.       Is the veterinary hospital set up to accommodate exotic pets?

While many cat and dog hospitals will see exotic pets, they often do so because they are the only game in town. You can really tell whether a veterinary hospital is set up to treat exotic pets if they have some of the basic equipment and supplies needed to do so, such as Gram’s stain for checking birds’ stool or a tank for safely enclosing a reptile. If they have no equipment specifically designed for treating and examining typically smaller exotic patients, it is likely they don’t treat many of them.

3.       Are the veterinary technicians comfortable handling exotic patients?

Knowing how to safely handle exotic pets is truly an art that takes years to master. No matter how good a veterinarian may be at the medical care of exotic pets, without great technical staff, that vet cannot perform great medical care. By just watching how veterinary technicians restrain and manipulate your exotic pet, you can get an idea about how often they actually handle exotic pets.

4.       Are the veterinarians and/or the veterinary staff members of any exotic pet professional organizations?

There are several professional exotic animal groups, such as the Association of Avian Veterinarians, the Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians, or the Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians. These organizations provide continuing education to veterinary professionals, and typically, individuals who want to remain up to date in exotic pet care knowledge will join one or more of these groups to stay current.

5.       Does the veterinary hospital provide care for exotic pet emergencies?

This is something most exotic pet owners don’t think about until they are faced with an emergency, themselves. While a few animal hospitals have vets on call and technicians who remain in the hospital overnight to care for critical cases, the majority of small hospitals are not open 24/7 but have arrangements with local emergency clinics to care for their patients overnight and on emergency. However, while local emergency clinics are generally happy to take in dog and cat emergencies, they are not always equipped to handle exotic pet emergencies. When choosing an animal hospital to care for your unique exotic pet, be sure to ask the veterinary staff how they would help you in case you have an after-hours emergency.

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Why should I choose an exotic pet?

By: Dr. Laurie Hess

As an exotic animal veterinarian, I am constantly asked why anyone would want an exotic pet (bird, rabbit, guinea pig, chinchilla, ferret, lizard, turtle, snake, hedgehog, sugar glider, or other unique creature) over a dog or cat. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with cats and dogs. I have several cats and dogs of my own, in addition to my exotic family members. It’s just that there are so many reasons to have an exotic pet that it’s hard to limit my answers to just a few. But here are a few simple reasons for choosing an exotic pet:

1. There are so many varied species that owning an exotic animal can be an incredible learning experience.

Exotic pets are fascinating. With their unique behaviors and incredible social interactions with each other and with us, they really can teach us all sorts of new information. But this is a Catch-22. Before you embark upon the journey into exotic pet ownership, be sure to learn enough about the social, nutritional, and environmental needs of the exotic pet species you are considering so that you don’t end up with a pet whose needs are more than you bargained for.

2. Many exotic species don’t take up much space.

For many city dwellers that live in cramped, tiny apartments, a pet such as a dog or cat that requires a lot of space just isn’t an option. A small mammal (such as a hamster, gerbil, guinea pig, chinchilla, or rat) or even a reptile or small bird that can live in a fairly small cage, might be a more feasible choice.  Ask anyone who owns one of these smaller exotic species, and they’ll tell you that these pets can provide the same love and companionship that a larger dog or cat can offer.

3. Some people are allergic to hairy pets.

Although many people would love to have a dog or cat as a pet, they often cannot because they or their family members have allergies to the dander that hairy pets carry on their fur.  These seemingly unfortunate people can still have a loving pet, however, if they choose a reptile (such as a lizard, turtle, tortoise, or snake) that has neither hair nor dander on its skin.  If they are not allergic to feathers, they might also choose a bird. So don’t despair if you’re allergic to hair!

4. Most exotic pets don’t need to be walked.

For many busy pet owners who work long hours, owning a dog that needs to be walked every few hours is not an option because they can’t get home to do it and don’t have the finances to pay a dog walker. The good news is that most exotic pets don’t need to be walked. While they do need time out of their cages to be socialized and to have a good quality of life, most birds, small mammals, and reptiles can adapt to our busy human schedules when it comes to “time out of cage.” In general, as long as we make some time to interact with them on a daily basis, the time we make available for most exotic pets can be flexible.

5. Some people only want pets that will live a long time.

People comment all the time that they could never own a pet because they’d get so attached to the pet that they couldn’t bear losing it. Of course, no pet – exotic or otherwise – lives forever. However, certain species, such as larger birds and some reptiles, can live for 20-40 years in captivity. Certainly, these animals must be taken care of properly: fed appropriate diets, housed according to species’ needs, and receive regular medical check-ups to live to their genetic potential. But for many people who have grieved over the loss of a relatively shorter lived pet such as a dog, cat, or small mammal or tiny bird, the prospect of having a potentially very long lived pet can be very appealing. Once again, this is a double-edged sword in that before you rush out to buy or adopt that reptile or large bird, you should seriously consider whether you have the lifestyle, finances, and future provisions available to support a pet that might outlive you!