Getting veterinary care for exotic pets





If you keep a cat, dog, rabbit or other commonly owned furry pet, then finding a vet that knows how to treat them and keep them healthy or provide help in an emergency is usually very simple. Most areas of the UK have at least a couple of veterinary surgeries within the local area, and so finding a vet is normally easy enough, as is moving to a different practice if you are unhappy with the service that you receive or if you move house.

However, if you are one of the increasing number of people who owns or is thinking of getting an exotic pet, getting veterinary care and expert advice for them can be much more of a challenge! It is a commonly held misconception that vets are trained and qualified to treat an almost finite selection of animals, including reptiles, exotic birds and other rare and non-native species, although this is not actually the case. During the training and studying period required to qualify as a veterinary surgeon, vets in the UK are taught and examined in the care of a relatively small range of species when taken as a world view. This takes into account the commonly kept companion and working animals that are normal within the UK, and makes only passing reference to more unique, rare and unusual animals that are less common and popular.



What constitutes an exotic pet?



Strictly speaking, even rabbits are classed as an exotic pet in veterinary terms, although the rise in popularity of rabbits as pets, a more thorough understanding of their needs and wellbeing and campaigns to raise the standard of rabbit care over the last 20 years in the UK have gone a long way towards changing this. These days, rabbits are probably the third most commonly treated animals seen in companion animal practices (after cats and dogs) and veterinary care for rabbits is now very straightforward to find.
These days, the term ‘exotic pets’ is used more loosely, and is more likely to refer to animals such as:




  • Parrots and other large birds

  • Tortoises

  • Terrapins and Turtles

  • Exotic fish

  • Lizards of most varieties

  • Snakes such as corn snakes, rat snakes and other constricting pets snakes

  • Small birds including lovebirds and cockatiels

  • Exotic small mammals such as the African Pygmy Hedgehog

  • Arachnids such as tarantulas

  • Chinchillas and degus

  • Any other animal that can be kept as a pet within the home but that is not native to or commonly kept as a pet within the UK.



Why are exotic pets hard to treat?



Not enough is widely known about many of the animals listed above for vets to have built up the necessary experience and knowledge of them to be able to treat them effectively. Also, most veterinary practices are not equipped to treat unusual animals, and may not have the types of medications and treatments that they require. Vets are not trained in detail for the care and treatment of unusual animals, and will rarely see them in veterinary practice. Some regular companion-animal vets will be willing to treat a range of exotic pets, and may do so in consultation with specialist exotic vet practices, and other authorities such as zoo curators and experienced keepers. But the chances of your average vet being experienced and willing to treat all of the exotic pets listed above in complex cases are slim. Obviously, most vets will see a small but significant enough amount of patients like tortoises and birds to be able to assess their health and provide basic treatments, but even these not- so- uncommon exotic pets may need specialist treatment that your regular local vets cannot provide.



Finding a vet that is qualified to treat your pet



You may have to travel some distance to find a vet that is experienced in the treatment of your own exotic pet, and it is important to find one before the need for treatment arises. Some vets working in regular companion animal practices will have a special interest in one or more species of exotics, so it is always worth asking your own local veterinary surgery in the first instance if this is the case, of if they can recommend another vet who can help.

Even if your local vets do not consider themselves to be particularly experienced in the care of exotic animals, they may be willing to undergo the learning process to enable them to treat your pet if the need arises. While all animals are of course different, many of the skills involved in being a vet are transferable to any animal- such as performing surgery, monitoring health, administering medications and following care protocols and guided treatment schedules.

It is not uncommon for vets to treat a pet under the guidance and advice of a specialist referral vet some geographical distance away from the practice and animal in question, and the two vets will work remotely to address the problem, decide upon a treatment protocol, and administer care.

So there are a range of options out there, although they can prove costly and you may need to shop around to find the right fit for your pet.

One important exception to note is the treatment of any venomous or poisonous animal, such as tarantulas and other spiders. Most public vets will not be willing to treat a possibly venomous animal, or may even be prevented from doing so by their practice’s treatment policies or business insurance.



Getting advice from other pet owners and experts



Often, the best course of action for the owner of an exotic pet needing help to understand their care and health is to talk to other experienced owners and experts in the field. Breeders, owners and other laypeople who deal with a particular type of animal on a regular basis are often more likely to have a thorough understanding of their health and wellness, common conditions that can afflict them, and what to do about it than a vet that has never seen such an animal before.

Most exotic pets kept in the UK have a range of breed societies and forums that are aimed to share knowledge and help other owners, and these can prove a valuable resource of information.

Also, another place at which you can usually find experienced keepers of other exotic animals is in the obvious location- the zoo. Zoo keepers generally specialise in one specific type of animal, and are highly knowledgeable in their care and wellbeing. Also, almost every zoo employs an in-house team of veterinary staff including vets and veterinary nurses, all of whom will be hand picked and highly trained and experienced in dealing with the treatment of the types of animals that they might have to provide care for.

If you find that you are running into difficulties getting advice or treatment for your exotic pet, try calling a zoo that keeps the same type of animal. They may be able to advise you directly, recommend a vet who can help, or even arrange for your animal to be treated by their exotic animal specialists in-house. Good luck!








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