In human medicine, special medical problems typically require specialized medical care. For example, if you have a broken bone, you see an orthopedist who specializes in the care of broken bones. If you have an eye problem, you seek the care of an ophthalmologist who specializes in the care of eyes. If you have a skin problem, you look for help from a dermatologist who specializes in the care of skin. So, logically, if you own a special or unique species of exotic pet – such as a bird, rabbit, rodent, ferret, reptile, amphibian, hedgehog, sugar glider, or pot-bellied pig – you should seek care from a veterinarian specially trained in the treatment of these unique species. While general veterinarians may have good basic knowledge about these animals, just as general practitioner physicians have about humans, only veterinarians with advanced training (such as residency training and/or board-certification) truly have specialized knowledge about these non-traditional (non-cat and dog) pets.
Veterinarians vs. Physicians
Unlike physicians who are taught to care for only one species — humans — veterinarians are taught to care for many species, including cats, dogs, horses, cows, pigs, sheep, and goats. While veterinary schools typically concentrate on training veterinarians about these well-known animals, only a few schools teach about other, less commonly kept species, such as birds, bunnies, or reptiles. Even fewer schools train students in the care of very unusual pets, such as potbellied pigs, hedgehogs, and sugar gliders. Yet when veterinary students graduate, they are expected to know how to care for any type of pet that ends up at the animal hospital. In fact, young veterinarians may have little to no training in caring for any exotic pet species.
In addition, unlike physicians who routinely specialize in specific medical fields, such ophthalmology or dermatology, veterinarians are trained to be generalists, performing everything from surgery to dentistry to pathology. It’s difficult enough to know how to practice all these duties on just commonly kept pets, such as cats and dogs, no less on a dozen different species (see https://avianexoticsvet.com/preventive-care-check-ups/).
Specializing in Exotic Pet Care
While upon graduation, veterinarians theoretically are licensed to work with all exotic animals that are legal to own, unless they have advanced postgraduate training, such as completion of a residency and board-certification, they cannot call themselves bird, small mammal, reptile/amphibian, or zoo animal specialists. Board certification in the field of exotic animal veterinary medicine exists for avian medicine and surgery, exotic mammal medicine and surgery, reptile and amphibian medicine and surgery, and zoo animal medicine. Each of these specialized fields requires publication in peer-reviewed journals to qualify to take the specialty exam, along with passing the exam, and recertification of this specialty degree every 10 years. All these fields of exotic animal specialization require three to six years of training beyond graduation from veterinary school (see https://avianexoticsvet.com/staff/). It is an extremely long and difficult process, often that pays very little during the advanced training period; thus, very few veterinarians actually complete the process (for example, there are only about 125 board-certified bird specialists worldwide). Therefore, veterinarians must be truly committed to their chosen fields of exotic animal specialty medicine if they want to be called “specialists” in their field.
Finding an Exotic Animal Veterinarian
So, if you have a bird or other exotic pet, and you want the best care for your animal, how do you find a true specialist in the care of exotic animals? The American Board of Veterinary Practitioners and the American College of Zoological Medicine — the organizations that certify veterinary specialists in exotic pet fields — list specialists according to field and location on their websites. Exotic pet owners can visit these sites to see whether there is a board-certified veterinarian who treats the species of pet they own in their area.
In addition, the Association of Avian Veterinarians, the Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians, the Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians, and the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians, provide continuing education to general veterinarians who want to learn more about a certain species. Pet owners can also search these organizations’ websites to locate veterinarians near them with exotic pet training.
All veterinarians can be great at providing medical and surgical care for birds and exotic pets, but only veterinarians with advanced training and certification can truly provide specialty care. When we have our own medical problems, we seek out the most experience doctors to help ourselves get better. Why wouldn’t we do the same for our birds and exotic pets?