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A day in the life of the Veterinary Center for Birds & Exotics

Ever wonder what goes on in an exotic animal hospital? If you are lucky enough to have a generally healthy pet that needs to come in only once a year for a check-up, plus perhaps a grooming appointment or two in between, you probably haven’t had the occasion to see what goes on at the Veterinary Center when it gets really busy, especially with emergencies, which is actually more often than not. So whether you’re currently a client at the Center or are thinking about becoming one, we thought we’d share with you what we do all day, so that you get a sense of how all the staff at the Center must work together, as the saying goes, like a well-oiled machine, to have the hospital run smoothly. Here’s how it works:

8am: One veterinary technician plus our front office manager opens the Center for the day. Phone lines are switched over from the overnight emergency answering service back to the hospital. The hospital’s emails are checked to make sure no one has requested an appointment for that morning. All emergency calls handled by the vet over the phone the previous night are called back to schedule appointments, if needed. All boarding pets are cleaned and fed. “Call backs” – or follow-up calls to clients seen days before – are placed. The technicians get ready to start that day’s appointments. The front office manager multi-tasks, as she juggles the onslaught of calls on multiple phone lines. While some pets are being picked up from boarding, others are being dropped off for boarding, and the techs set the incoming boarders up in their “vacation cages” so that they can adjust.

9am: Drs. Hess and Ravich arrive. They do rounds – they examine any hospitalized patients and review lab work that has come in from the previous day. Hospitalized pets are fed and medicated per the vets’ instructions. The vets and techs discuss any ongoing cases from previous days and come up with a generalized plan for the appointments scheduled to come in that day. They write up records from emergency calls they may have taken the night before.

10am-1pm: The marathon of appointments begins. One after the next, the technicians and Drs. Hess and Ravich treat whatever bird, bunny, ferret, reptile, rodent, hedgehog, sugar glider or other exotic creature that walks in the door, plus any emergencies that pop up in between. Even though the schedule may be harried, the staff is careful to give their full attention to each pet as if it were the only one they were seeing that day. Each technician and doctor has her own pets and knows the importance of focusing on the pet at hand, as if it were their own. Pauline, the office manager, keeps the vets and techs in line and as on time as possible.

1pm-3pm: The staff shovels down a quick lunch and starts the day’s procedures – x-rays, ultrasound exams, surgeries – whatever is needed.  One pet at a time, with complete focus on each individual pet, the techs and vets safely perform whatever procedure is necessary. Hospital discharge instructions are written for pets being released.  The remaining hospitalized pets are checked and medicated again, if necessary. The slew of informational calls that have accumulated since the hospital opened that morning are returned.  Inventory is counted so that prescriptions can be filled, and orders can be placed to restock food, medications, and supplies. 

3pm-5:30pm: Appointments start again. A new set of emergencies pop up, as owners start coming home from work to find that their pets are ill. The phone rings off the hook. Hospitalized pets are now being picked up to go home. New boarding pets are being dropped off. Remaining boarders’ cages are cleaned, and they are fed again. Hospitalized pets are fed and may be medicated again, if necessary.

5:30-7pm: The vets check remaining hospitalized patients again and come up with treatment plans for the next day. The office staff confirms the next day’s appointments. The techs clean and mop the hospital from top to bottom. Any “call-backs” not accomplished earlier are completed. New call-backs for pets and clients seen that day are put into the computer. Any paper records are scanned into the computer, as the Center’s system is paperless. The vets write follow-up letters to any referring vets who have referred in cases, and they complete any records they were not able to write earlier. The phone lines are turned back over to the emergency answering service at 7pm. The hospital is technically closed.

7:30pm and on… The vets are on call all night long. That means anyone (client or not) who calls the hospital reaches the answering service and can page the vet on call for a nominal fee if he/she feels that he/she has a life-threatening emergency  that must be dealt with immediately. Depending on which vet  is on call, either Dr. Hess or Dr. Ravich calls the client back to discuss the situation and calls the local affiliated 24-hour hospital to instruct the vets there on the pet’s care if it must be seen immediately. Emergency calls come in all night long and are returned within minutes. Sometimes there is one, sometimes a dozen. Each is taken seriously. In between, the vets try to get some sleep, because tomorrow is another day.

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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