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People and Exotic Pets: Medical Problems We Share

Age is not a disease. Veterinarians commonly say this in response to pet owners’ comments that animals are sick just because they’re old. While certainly age isn’t a disease, it’s clear that with aging comes disease. This is true for both people and pets — and for certain exotic pets, such as large parrots and many reptiles, who can live as long as many people, the parallels between disease in people and animals are clear.

Five Common Diseases That Affect People and Pets

Atherosclerosis: Atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, occurs when fat (cholesterol and triglycerides) is deposited inside blood vessel walls as plaque, making vessels stiff, rigid and unable to pump blood effectively. Deposits can become so large that they can either block the blood flow or rupture, causing clots. If blood vessels to the brain are blocked, this can cause a stroke. If blood vessels to heart muscle are blocked, this can cause a heart attack. These scenarios can occur in both people and pets.

Long-lived pet parrots, particularly Amazon and Quaker parrots, who may live 20 to 50 years, are prone to development of atherosclerosis. Like people with atherosclerosis, pet Amazons are commonly overweight, sedentary and often consume a high-fat (predominantly seed) diet. However, studies have shown that while parrots fed high-fat diets can develop atherosclerosis, not all seed-eating birds develop this condition. So it is likely that in birds, just as in people, genetic factors also play a role in the development of this disease.

Veterinarians generally diagnose atherosclerosis in birds from the presence of clinical signs (for example, weakness and sometimes fainting when birds with rigid blood vessels get stressed and can’t pump blood to their brains fast enough) as well as obvious lesions on X-rays. While humans may be treated with blood vessel catheterization to remove dangerous fatty plaques, obese birds, because of their small size and big anesthetic risk, are generally treated simply with low-fat diets, increased exercise and sometimes fat-lowering drugs. These treatments help lessen the likelihood that a parrot will suffer a stroke or heart attack from these fatty plaque deposits. Veterinarians recognize successful treatment of affected birds by disappearance of weakness and fainting and lower blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

Arthritis: This degenerative joint disorder, marked by joint inflammation and pain, is seen often in birds and guinea pigs. Since the incidence of arthritis increases with age and obesity, it is not surprising that this condition occurs in large parrots, who may live in captivity for more than 40 years and who often become obese from chronic lack of exercise and consumption of high-fat, all-seed diets. Poor nutrition and excess weight can strain joints and may predispose a bird to development of arthritis. Bird owners must recognize arthritis-related changes in their pets and make adjustments to cages (perch height, access to food bowls, etc.) to make getting around easier for them.

Like parrots, older guinea pigs commonly develop arthritis in their knees, particularly when their diet lacks vitamin C. Dietary vitamin C is crucial in all guinea pigs to help maintain healthy joint cartilage. Guinea pigs cannot make their own vitamin C, so they must receive vitamin C supplements. Guinea pig owners often mistakenly think that feeding vitamin C-enriched guinea pig pellets or vitamin C-rich vegetables and fruit will provide adequate vitamin C.

However, the average shelf life of vitamin C in pelleted food for guinea pigs is only three months from the time it is manufactured. Since it may take more than three months for pellets to go from the manufacturing plant to the pet stores to an owner’s home, by the time the pellets are consumed, the vitamin C content may be at less than adequate levels. To ensure guinea pigs are getting enough vitamin C, owners can administer vitamin C tablets daily under a veterinarian’s guidance. Proper nutrition for guinea pigs is essential in helping to decrease the occurrence of this debilitating disease.

Kidney failure: Regardless of species, animals who live long enough ultimately experience kidney function decline that may lead to failure as they age. The kidneys clear toxic byproducts of digestion from the bloodstream. As the body ages, kidney function slowly declines until the kidneys become unable to perform effectively, leading to buildup of toxins in the blood and, eventually, to death. Kidney failure is particularly common in older rabbits. As with people, rabbits with kidney failure often drink and urinate frequently and pass very dilute urine. Their appetite decreases, and they lose weight. In both people and pets, eating a balanced diet and staying hydrated may help delay the onset of this condition.

Gout: Gout, a painful condition caused by buildup of uric acid (a byproduct of digestion) in the blood, afflicts people, birds and reptiles. In all species, uric acid is a crystalline substance normally excreted in varying amounts by the kidneys. In people, it dissolves in blood and leaves the body in urine; in birds and reptiles, it is excreted as a solid waste product so that these animals can retain water. When kidneys don’t function properly to excrete uric acid, it precipitates in blood and deposits in joints, causing painful arthritis, and in kidneys and other vital organs, leading to organ failure, kidney stones and death.

In birds and reptiles, gout is associated with lack of dietary vitamin A, excessive dietary vitamin D, severe dehydration, administration of potentially kidney-toxic antibiotics and certain viral and bacterial kidney infections. Treatment includes increased fluid consumption to improve hydration, diet changes, administration of drugs to control pain and to decrease uric acid production and simultaneous treatment of other diseases. Nutritional requirements for exotics are complex, so any dietary supplementation should be done under the supervision of a veterinarian.

Cataracts: Cataracts — a change in the lenses of the eyes from clear to opaque — occur when lens proteins degrade. Cataracts also may develop as a result of excessive exposure to ultraviolet light, genetic predisposition, eye trauma, administration of certain medications or the presence of other diseases. Over time, the lenses become more opaque and are less able to transmit light, ultimately leading to loss of vision. People and pets with significant visual impairment may have surgery to remove cataracts. While cataract removal is simple in most people, many exotic pets have very small eyes, making cataract surgery difficult.

Veterinary Attention Is the Best Prevention

While these diseases are interesting because they are ones we may share with our exotics, they also point out the need for regular, routine veterinary care. Exotic pets, like all pets, should see a veterinarian at least annually, if not more frequently, to help prevent these diseases from occurring. People and pets may suffer from similar medical conditions, but treatment of exotic pets is often more challenging because of patient size, increased risk and expense and therefore should only be attempted under the guidance of a veterinarian well-versed in the specific biology of these unique and fascinating species.

Why birds and exotic pets need to see the veterinarian

“He’s never been sick before, so I’ve never had to bring him to a vet.”

This is the answer I commonly hear from bird and exotic pet owners when I ask them whether their animals have ever been treated by a veterinarian. Actually, all exotic pets, regardless of species, should have regular veterinary checkups.

Why Annual Wellness Exams Matter

Environment: Many exotic pets have specific requirements regarding heat, light, temperature and cage bedding. There are so many products for birds and exotics that it’s hard to know what’s best. A veterinarian educated in exotic pet care will review your pet’s cage setup to help ensure that you are providing an appropriate environment for your pet’s specific species and keeping up-to-date on the latest product recommendations.

Nutrition: Birds and exotic pets have very specific nutritional requirements, and offering proper nutrition is key to preventing illness. Feeding an exotic pet involves more than just opening a can or a bag of kibble. A knowledgeable exotic animal vet can teach you specifically what your exotic pet needs to eat to stay healthy.

Vaccinations: In many states where exotic species such as ferrets, potbellied or mini-pigs, kinkajous and fennec foxes can be kept legally as pets, these animals require annual vaccinations to prevent illness. If you own one of these types of animals, by taking him for a yearly checkup, you’re ensuring that your pet is current on vaccinations against often deadly diseases.

Behavior: Unlike cat and dog behavior, which generally remains constant throughout the year, the behavior of many birds and exotic pets can change in response to variations in daylight cycle and temperature. A veterinarian who treats birds and exotics can provide you with a better understanding of normal versus abnormal behavior for your type of exotic pet so that you’ll know when to be concerned.

Preventive care: Preventing disease is better for your pet (and for your pocketbook) than treating it once it occurs. A veterinarian well-versed in bird/exotic pet care can teach you about diseases commonly seen in your pet’s species, so that you’ll know what signs to look for before these conditions progress.

Parasites: Just like cats and dogs, certain birds and exotic pets can carry intestinal parasites that potentially can be transmittable to people. By having your pet’s stool sample checked annually by a veterinarian, you’ll be eliminating parasites that could steal valuable nutrients from your animal’s diet and infect your family.

Nail trims: If you’ve ever tried to trim the nails of a wiggly guinea pig, a slippery lizard or a flapping bird, you know how hard it can be, particularly if you’re by yourself. In fact, many bird and exotic pet owners are unable to trim their pets’ nails and often just let them overgrow. Overgrown nails are unpleasant for both the owner, who may get scratched inadvertently, and the pet, who may catch his nails on the owner’s clothing and bleed. Veterinarians familiar with birds and exotic species are generally very comfortable trimming birds’ and other exotic animals’ nails, making grooming these pets simple and safe.

Teeth cleanings: Just like dogs, cats and people, certain exotic pets, including ferrets, hedgehogs and some reptiles (bearded dragons), should have their teeth cleaned regularly to prevent buildup of dental tartar and gingivitis. With an annual trip to the vet for dental cleaning, you’re helping to protect your exotic pet’s dental health and potentially prolong his life.

Vacation: Bird and exotic pet owners often have difficulty finding care for their animals when they go out of town. Many hospitals that treat birds or other exotic animals also offer care when owners go away, providing a safe place to board exotic pets, so that you can have peace of mind when you travel.

Emergencies: When birds and exotic pets get sick, there’s no time to waste. Other than reptiles, most exotic pets have such rapid metabolisms that they can’t go more than a day without food, or they become very ill. However, finding a vet willing to treat birds or other exotic animals (especially during the night or on weekends) can be very difficult. Establishing a relationship with an exotics-savvy vet before you have an emergency can be life-saving for your pet.

If you own a bird or other exotic pet, annual checkups are extremely important for these animals. But how do you get your exotic pet to the vet without you or your animals suffering a great deal of stress? Stay tuned! In my next article, I will cover safe handling, training and transportation tips to help make getting to the exotic pet vet as stress-free as possible.

Holiday travel is here: boarding birds and exotic pets when you’re away

It’s holiday time, and you have planned an exotic, or perhaps not so exotic, getaway for you and your family. Tickets are booked, hotel plans are made, then you are stuck with the question – what do I do with my beloved exotic pet? Some owners bring in a pet sitter who will come once or twice a day to visit, feed and clean their pet in their home. While there are benefits to having someone come to your house when you’re away, a lot can happen to your pet during the hours the sitter is not there. Another option is to bring your
pet to the sitter’s house, a pet shop, or a boarding facility. In these places, the pet is then monitored more closely; however, the risk of exposure to potentially infectious disease is greater. Most pet stores and boarding facilities do not require a certificate of health from a veterinarian before pets board, increasing the chances that a sick pet might come in and expose all of the boarders, especially if pets are housed in close quarters as they are in many of these facilities. Unfortunately, we at the Veterinary Center end up treating many pets each year that become ill because of inappropriate care by pet sitters when the owners are away or of exposure to other pets carrying disease at pet stores and boarding facilities.

All boarding pets at the Veterinary Center, however, are required to have blood and stool tests before accepting them into our state of the art boarding facility. Boarding pets at the Center do not have any contact with each other, because all of the cages are separated from each other by solid walls that slide up to the sides of the cages, thereby enabling us to adjust the boarding space to accommodate to the size of the cage the animals are in. By preventing boarders from seeing their neighbors, we further minimize spread of disease-causing germs through the air and lessen the stress each pet feels by not seeing a strange neighbor next door. During their stay, our staff provides care, love, and attention. Cages are changed twice a day, pets get out of their cages to exercise, and we weigh pets daily to ensure they are eating well. While we are happy to feed whatever food you bring in with your pet to help him feel more at home, we try to provide the healthiest diet possible when your pet stays with us. If he hasn’t been on the most nutritious diet at home, with your permission and in the controlled environment of the hospital where we can monitor your pet’s appetite and stool production closely, we use the boarding stay to transition your animal over to a healthier meal plan that you can continue when he goes home. While we see the boarding pets ever day in the hospital, Dr. Hess keeps an eye on them at night, after hours, on her computer screen at home, via closed circuit infrared cameras that even work when the lights in the room are off. Also, when not being entertained by our veterinary technicians, the animals enjoy watching cartoons on the flat screen TV positioned just for them. There are even speakers in the ceiling to provide music if they need some quiet time, and the lights in the room are on a timer to go off at night before bedtime. Best yet, the hospital is alarmed and monitored via motion detectors to ensure your pet is safe, there is a generator in case of a power outage, and Dr. Hess lives just 5 minutes away in case of emergency.

So, while you’re away on vacation, why not let your pet vacation with us? Call the Veterinary Center today to schedule your pet’s stay with us, so that with your little loved one in our care, there is no need to worry the next time you go on a short or long, exotic, or not so exotic holiday.