Friday, February 13, 2015

What I wish people knew about exotic pets

   At Winrose we are lucky enough to treat a large number of different animal patients, including many  exotic pets. When I say exotic pets, I'm talking about animals that are kept in a household as a companion and are not native or indigenous to the area where the owners live. In North America, specifically the Canadian prairie, this includes most reptiles, many birds and even animals like guinea pigs.  In the veterinary world we often include animals that are native to the area, such as the corn snake, in the category of exotics because there is limited information on proper care and diet for these species. This makes them exotic to us medically despite them being native to our area of the country. 

   Having an increasing exposure to exotic pet patients for several months has been an enlightening experience. I have an appreciation for the beauty and variety of animals out there and sometimes enjoy seeing them in the exam room. Unfortunately we see far too many animals in extremely poor condition leading to very frustrating and sad appointments.  That is why I am writing this article. My hope is to spread some awareness among the public as to what it takes to properly care for an exotic animal. Does it really make sense to keep these animals as pets? Read on and decide for yourself. 

  A Guniea Pig is a common, yet exotic, pet

1) Exotic pets require as much (or more) work and care than a dog or cat
There seems to be a misconception out there that if you have a small pet, that can be kept in a cage or terrarium, it will not require a large amount of work and effort to maintain. These pets include but are not limited to: rodents like guinea pigs (native to South America), birds such as Cockatiels (native to Australia), and reptiles like Bearded Dragons (native to Australia).  The idea that a small pet is easy to maintain is absolutely false. These animals are not
Domesticated like a dog or cat and are very similar to wild animals. As such in order to be healthy they need a diet and environment that matches those of their wild counter parts.

 Now try to imagine how hard it would be to recreate an arid desert or  tropical rainforest conditions in your bedroom or living room in the Canadian winter. In order to do this you need to be ready to invest in a lot of equipment: Thermometers for both sides of your enclosure, hygrometers to measure the humidity, UV A & B light to be replaced every 3-6 months, hide boxes, substrates, vegetables and insects and calcium supplements. This is just a starting list for reptiles. Some reptiles are desert dwellers (Uromastyx) others need to be in water (turtles), and still others need high humidity.  Some are tree climbers and others like to stay on the ground or undercover. 
Birds require a whole different set of equipment and need a lot of attention and time from their owners. Many bird species in the wild live in large groups and have active and complex social lives. These birds will languish when kept in a house with little or no company. They also spend large amounts of their time in the wild foraging for food and can become bored and even psychotic when they are simply given access to unlimited amounts of food with no need for foraging. 
Even if you feel very committed to providing the correct husbandry for an exotic pet keep in mind that often we do not have adequate information about what these animals eat in the wild or what they spend most of their time doing. We don't have the research available to know what we need to provide for some species, for example Mountain Horn Dragons, yet they can be found at your local pet store.

Turtles need a very specific environment to thrive

2) In exotic pets most illness and disease is related to improper care & diet
This one ties in very strongly with the first point. In the majority of sick exotic pets we see, the illness is related to improper housing or inadequate diet. For example: respiratory infections in birds are often related to low levels of Vitamin A in the diet (feeding an all seed diet does NOT provide the proper nutrition for most birds).  Low levels of humidity in certain reptiles can lead to bad sheds and loss of toes.  Excess levels of humidity in desert animals can lead to skin infections.  Reptiles require calcium supplements in their diet daily and a UV A&B lamp to help to convert the calcium into its active form inside the body. These lamps must be changed frequently. Without proper calcium levels bones become soft and deformed and reptiles can suffer from seizures and are unable to walk. Guinea pigs require a specific amount of Vitamin C in their diet or they can develop infections and scurvy. These are just a few examples. The list of husbandry related illnesses goes on and on.
Though it may seem that the care needed is very straightforward we see far too many animals suffering from these conditions.  The pet store often does not provide the proper information for care.  You cannot rely on the person you acquired the pet from to give you the right information. If you have an exotic pet your best resource for reliable information is your local exotic veterinarian. Not all veterinarians see exotic pets so its important to call around and find a clinic that does. It is also important to realize that the veterinarians that see exotics are not necessarily specialists (meaning they haven't done 4 years of school studying exclusively exotic pets) but they have learned from years of experience seeing and treating these animals and have done extensive research on their own time.  To prevent illness you need to team up with a knowledgeable veterinarian. We also want you to know that often there isn't a medication that will fix the problem. The prescription is going to involve changing the diet or environment of the pet. 

3) Exotic pets naturally hide signs of illness
            This one actually isn't limited to exotic pets, it also applies to cats and dogs to some degree. The vast majority of exotic animals are what we refer to as "prey species".  This means in nature they have predators that hunt to feed on them. If an animal in the wild shows any sign of weakness they are the most likely to be killed by a predator. As a result these animals will hide any sign of weakness.  For this reason if your exotic pet is showing you even the slightest sign of illness or odd behavior it is probably very sick.  Do NOT wait to see if it gets better on its own.  Time is of the essence if you want to have a chance of treating your sick exotic pet. It's difficult for the veterinary team to have to deliver the news that the pet is too sick at this point to recover. If your exotic pet has been acting sick for several days you should have realistic expectations about the chances for recovery. The best thing you can do is bring your pet in at the very first sign of illness.

4) Please, please, please, get your exotic pet used to being handled

This is a very big one for pet birds and small mammals (but does not apply to pet reptiles). Budgies, cockatiels, parrots, rats, gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs and even rabbits should be handled daily. Why? One reason is that if they are not handled regularly it can be very difficult to do a full physical exam on them. They may bite and become dangerous for the staff or they can become extremely stressed from being handled during the exam if they are not accustomed to handling. In some cases, especially with birds, the stress of the exam combined with the underlying sickness is enough to kill the pet.  Regular gentle handling will reduce the overall stress of the veterinary visit.
The other reason handling is very important is that if we send a medication home to give the pet they will need to be held and handled in order to administer the medication. It will be much easier on you and your pet if the pet is held and handled frequently.

5) Breeders and Pet stores may not be selling you a healthy animal
This is a bit of common "buyer beware" wisdom.  Especially with reptiles and the more exotic species the pet store may not have provided proper care or diet. You might be purchasing an animal that already has a nutritional deficiency or is carrying a high load of parasites.  We work with several different local pet stores and though they certainly try to give the animals good care they can run into the same problem many owners do: a lack of information on proper diet and environment.  They also have to provide care for a large number of animals and many different species with limited staff. Breeders or other suppliers may not be better depending on the situation. Ask of a lot of questions from the person you are considering buying from. What are they feeding, how many animals are housed together, and have they been parasite checked are some good starting questions.  One final caution here is: consider where the animal comes from. Is it captive bred? Some reptiles such as some Chameleons and Mountain Horned Dragons are taken from the wild and exported to pet stores throughout the world. These animals tend to do very poorly in captivity and the ethics of having a wild-caught animal as a pet are questionable.

6) Think long and hard before getting an exotic pet

            Please do not get an exotic pet if any of the following applies to you:
-You don't want to or can't invest in the proper equipment
                                    -You don't have the means to pay for veterinary care
-You don't want to do extensive research on the proper diet and housing    and the social needs of the animal
-You don't have the time or energy to provide socialization for you pet bird
-You want an exotic pet because they are "cool", make good decoration, or are entertaining

            These are living animals and I believe they have the capacity to suffer when ill. I hope this article sheds some light on the challenges of owning an exotic pet. If you have an exotic pet we, as a veterinary team, want to partner with you to make sure your pet gets the best care possible. 

-Dr. Sproll at Winrose 

Thanks for reading!