The boom in so-called ‘exotic’ pets means more vets are treating animals other than dogs and cats and—equally important—educating owners about how best to look after them. By Kathy Graham
Fifty years ago, patients at veterinary clinics were mainly cats and dogs, and the occasional galah, cockatoo or budgie. These days, the caseload for many vets typically includes not just dogs, cats and birds but so-called exotics: fish, reptiles, amphibians, and an array of small mammals such as rabbits, guinea pigs, ferrets, rats and mice. The term ‘exotic’ though is one many veterinarians who specialise in treating such animals find wanting. “What I say to my clients is, ‘if you can pick it up and it doesn’t bark or meow, you’re probably going to end up at our place’,” says Dr Deborah Monks, from Brisbane Bird & Exotics Veterinary Service. “But yeah, there’s a lot of debate about what term is used. Various people use ‘pocket pets’ or ‘small furries’. Exotics tends to imply not Australian. But no one term is really good, so exotics is what most people land on.”
Exotic or otherwise, ownership of these critters is increasing “exponentially”, says Dr Alex Rosenwax at Sydney’s Bird & Exotics Veterinarian. In the 25 years he’s worked in exotics practice, he’s noticed, in particular, a big jump in rabbit and reptile numbers. “I’d say birds is pretty static, like dogs and cats because they’ve always been legal and kept. Reptiles only became legal in NSW in the last 15-20 years; they simply weren’t kept legally before.”
Reptiles, rabbits and their ilk also happen to be far more suited to our changed living arrangements. “They’re perceived as a lower maintenance pet than a cat or a dog,” adds Dr Monks. “Dogs need walking and everything else, so people are moving away from those and moving towards these smaller, more mobile animals. But I think there is a bit of an education lag in that in some people’s minds, these are lower maintenance, lower cost animals. But if you do it right, often that’s not the case.”
While there’s the usual gamut of traumas, reproductive issues and respiratory and infectious diseases to treat, both vets confirm the majority of cases they see are related to substandard husbandry and diet. “So, for example, people not looking after their reptiles properly, not being aware of the right temperatures and this then causing secondary infections,” says Dr Rosenwax. “In fish, it might be issues within the tank or pond.”
Dr Monks’ experience is similar. “I would say infections are the most common thing that we see in reptiles, that is people keeping them with an insufficient thermal gradient. Overall, we’re still working on the husbandry side of thing. Some days it feels like if the reptiles are not infected because they couldn’t get warm enough, then they’re burnt because they were trying to get warm and the heating was unsafe. But things are getting better.”
Guinea pigs make up about 13 per cent of the caseload at Dr Monks’ clinic, and most present with dental disease caused by poor diet. “This is insufficient tooth wear because the diet is poor in fibre or low in Vitamin C,” she says. “We’re also now seeing guinea pigs that have got osteomalacia due to insufficient UV light and Vitamin D in their diet.”
It doesn’t help either that exotics, especially the non-mammals among them, don’t actually look sick. “They’ve shown that fish can’t literally move their face at all, and birds only move their feathers,” notes Dr Rosenwax. Also, being prey species, many exotics have a reflex called masking. “They mask the signs of illness until they’re very sick,” he explains, the upshot being they often end up at the vet too late.
Dr Monks adds that animals presenting late in the disease course takes its toll on staff due to the “much higher morbidity and mortality rate than say a dog and cat practice. You see a tense husk of a creature that you should have seen weeks ago and that can be tough. But mostly we view those as an opportunity to educate and to improve the welfare of that animal and subsequent pets that the people have.”
Research by the animal welfare organisation World Animal Protection has found that over 47 per cent of first-time exotic pet buyers spend little to no time researching the animal they purchased. So it would definitely seem there’s a role for vets to fill in this regard. According to Drs Rosenwax and Monks, people are better informed than previously. “Yes, I think that people are more educated,” agrees Dr Monks. “I still think that husbandry-related issues are quite common, but it used to be the sole cause and now we are finding other causes as well.”
“I’m finding people are getting better at understanding what’s required,” says Dr Rosenwax. “Certainly, in birds 20 years ago, and in reptiles and rabbits two to five years ago, we used to see a lot of problems with ignorance. Now we’re seeing more difficulties with implementation.”
Notwithstanding the best intentions—and efforts—of owners to care for such pets properly, the question invariably arises both within—and outside of—veterinary circles: should many of these animals, birds included, even be pets in the first place? “I would always encourage and educate people to buy species that have been bred to live with humans,” says Dr Rosenwax. “And the one that aren’t domesticated often aren’t appropriate pets. We’ve got to be very careful with reptiles,” he concedes. “A lot of reptiles that are one or two generations out of the wild are not far enough away from their wild cousins that we can always be comfortable that they’re having anything but a captive life.”
Dr Monks says she and her colleagues frequently engage in animated discussions about the ethics of keeping these animals as pets. “Certainly, several of us have pet parrots and we ask ourselves, ‘no matter how hard we try, can we supply their needs?’ And I guess my position on that is if people are going to have them, I would prefer that they sourced them from the many rescues and re-homes.
“I think you need to keep engaging with people and educating them,” she continues, before citing the Eclectus parrot as one whose wild lifestyle is “absolutely impossible to replicate in captivity. It’s a species that we see over-represented with psychological issues. But people are going to have parrots anyway. So, I view my job as helping owners better understand their animal’s needs, so that everybody has a better life.”