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.
Why Caring for Exotic Pets Is Difficult
1. Each Species Is Unique
There’s an old saying in veterinary school that cats are not small dogs, so don’t treat them as such. In olden days, vets would apply what they knew about dogs to cats. Many times, this would lead to inadequate or inappropriate treatment.
Today, we know better. This lesson applies to exotics tenfold. Exotics veterinarians know we cannot extrapolate from one species to another. Canaries are not small parrots. Chinchillas are not little rabbits. A degu is not a big gerbil!
Simply put, seeing a large array of exotics demands research time, consults, interest, experience, case load and skill.
Not only does the veterinarian need to know how to handle your Amazon parrot or your sugar glider, but she needs qualified technicians to assist. Taking blood from an iguana, positioning a parakeet for an X-ray or trying to look inside the beak of a screaming Macaw requires experience, patience, and a gifted and qualified helper.
3. Environment and Stress
Many exotics are not as domesticated as our dogs and cats. They don’t like strange environments, and they react badly to stress.
4. Specialized Equipment
Exotics are generally less tolerant of anesthesia than cats and dogs. Proper-sized tubes, IV catheters, etc. are just the beginning. An exotics vet has to minimize stress on the patient and carefully monitor surgical time. These little critters can lose body heat if not properly maintained and cannot tolerate long surgical procedures under anesthesia. An exotics vet must be confident, cautious, but efficient.
Surgery and dental instruments and units must be specialized for exotic pets. The vet must be able to work in tiny spaces with small-scale instruments and suture. Special dental instruments must be purchased for rabbits, and so on.
Proper housing of exotics pets is essential to keeping up body temperatures and minimizing stress. Incubators, oxygen cages and heat sources must be designed to fit the needs of a parakeet or a rat. The requirements are different.
Many people with exotics do not know as much as they should when they acquire their ball python or eclectus parrot. An exotic pet housed wrong, fed a nutritionally deficient diet or not monitored properly is a recipe for disaster.
Because exotics hide illness as a survival mechanism, people often present these poor creatures to a veterinarian when they are too far gone.
People who think they are good Samaritans may adopt an exotic pet who needs a home and not be prepared. Rescuing an animal from a shelter is a noble endeavor, but don’t adopt before you do your homework.
Perhaps the saddest scenario involves folks who buy exotic pets for the novelty factor. An African grey is not an ornament that hangs in a cage. An iguana is not a conversation piece in a cold dorm room.
6. Treatment Failure
I have found that the most difficult part of exotics practice is lack of success. Sadly, as mentioned above, many of these pets are too far gone when we first lay eyes on them.
Exotics vets try to save the lost causes, sometimes we win, sometimes we don’t.
And then there is the perennial problem of exotics pets and what their veterinary care may cost. Treating exotics is often more expensive and requires specialized training, skill, equipment and a qualified staff.
If you know what your special friend needs to stay happy and healthy, caring for an exotic pet can be enriching and rewarding. When these well-cared for buddies need additional help, they are a happy challenge to treat.