A taste for exotic pets

exotic pets

Smaller living spaces and higher disposable incomes are helping drive a boom in the exotic pet industry. So what’s it like running a practice that exclusively treats exotic animals? Tracey Porter investigates

A glance at his online store tells potential clients all they need to know about the type of client Western Australian veterinarian Dr James Haberfield likes to assist. For it is there, alongside the usual assortment of domestic pet products, you will also find for sale a play pen for ferrets, a heatpad cover for woodland critters, guinea-pig milk replacer and industrial strength veterinary disinfectant.

One of only a small number of veterinarians in Australia with exotic pet credentials, Dr Haberfield is used to people raising their eyebrows when they hear about the variety of injured, maimed or sick animals that make their way through his doors.

Dr Haberfield, who runs his clinic, The Unusual Pet Vets, out of Murdoch University, where he studied, says he has always been passionate about reptiles, and got his first lizard aged seven. Since then, he has kept most reptiles that can be legally owned in Australia.

“I am lucky as my dad is also interested in reptiles, so has always been very supportive of building new cages and looking after them, which makes it all possible. From my interest in reptiles I developed an interest in birds and eventually small mammals—rabbits, rodents and ferrets. So, for me working with exotics is a dream come true.”

Dr David Vella, of Sydney Exotics and Rabbit Vets, is another whose practice attracts more rabbits, rodents, ferrets, reptiles, amphibians, fish and the occasional invertebrate than would usually be expected of a city-based vet. Dr Vella started seeing exotic patients exclusively in 2005 and since then has treated spiders, giant cockroaches, sharks, crayfish and sea horses.

Both vets say that the health issues from which their unusual patients suffer also tend to be a little out of the box. Much of the problems seen by professionals working in the exotic pet sector are related to substandard husbandry and diet, Dr Vella says.

“We see the animals that most vets don’t want to and by not seeing domestic pets we have been able to fill a niche market.”—Dr James Haberfield, The Unusual Pet Vets, WA

“Many of the lesions and illnesses we see are often more progressed than dogs or cats. Many of our patients are also quite unwell by the time they present to us. Animals such as rabbits and rodents especially can have a very strong ‘preservation reflex’ and can be very good at hiding disease and illness. We see them when they’re at the end of this and actually look ‘sick’.”

Dr Haberfield agrees there are less ‘routine’ procedures and more animals presenting later in the disease course, often hiding their illness for weeks before “suddenly” becoming unwell. There is also often not as much known about the conditions that exotic animals suffer from as there would be for a dog or cat, and this can prove both frustrating as well as exciting, he says.

“Diagnostic work-ups and surgical procedures are often more challenging due to the size and unique anatomy of our patients. While common things are common, I think there is more variation than in most general dog/cat practices. For example, I could see a macaw for regurgitation, then a python with an abscess followed by a ferret for a vaccination then head into surgery on a rabbit. Every day is different.”

Little is known about the number of exotic pets owned by Australians. Under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, exotic is the term applied to all “animals that do not occur naturally in the wild in Australia” and it falls under the Federal Government’s mandate to legislate around the owning of exotic pets. While “domesticated mammals” such as dogs and cats, cows, sheep and other farm animals, are legal to buy and own, it has been an offence to trade in exotic reptiles and amphibians since 1999. There are some exceptions, however, where, in order to bring a live exotic animal into Australia, it must be a species listed on the Department of the Environment and Energy’s live import list.

Generally speaking, local governments only require dogs and cats to be registered by their owners. All other pets, including exotic or native, do not need to be registered. As a result, there is little reliable data on the numbers of exotic animals being kept in Australian homes. However, anecdotal evidence suggests their numbers are increasing. Dr Haberfield says last year The Unusual Pet Vets saw just over 6,500 paying cases, excluding the additional wildlife that came for treatment. This year, he expects that to increase to 8,000.

“I think there is a general trend towards more people keeping exotic pets—whether it be reptiles, small mammals or birds. I believe part of the reason for this is the trend towards smaller living spaces where a dog or cat may not be as suited. I also think that many people are more willing to spend more money on exotics than previously, and this has led to a higher level of care than ever before.

“We were the first exotics-only clinic in WA, however, at the time we opened there were similar practices in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Every year the number of exotic-only practices continues to grow,” he says.

“Animals such as rabbits and rodents especially can have a very strong ‘preservation reflex’ and can be very good at hiding disease and illness.”—Dr David Vella, Sydney Exotics and Rabbit Vets

Both vets say there is little difference in the business model of an exotics-only practice to a general domestic practice and that each can be equally as profitable. Expenses and charges are similar, Dr Vella says. “We don’t charge less because the patient is smaller or exotic.”

Dr Haberfield argues that by not working with dogs and cats, it allows those who work with exotic pets the opportunity to distinguish themselves through branding and target their clients more easily.

“We see the animals that most vets don’t want to, and by not seeing domestic pets we have been able to fill a niche market and develop a symbiotic relationship with the hospitals that we work out of.”

Officially, however, there are no registered specialists in exotics practice in Australia as it is not currently recognised as an area of specialisation in this country.

This means that while Dr Vella’s American Board of Veterinary Practitioners qualifications in exotic pet care are recognised in North America and Europe, they are not here in the country in which he practises.

“It is difficult to become ‘specialised’ in this area as the scope to become a  specialist is limited to attaining qualifications from abroad. Many of these recognitions are also relatively new worldwide. Vets that are serious about attaining extra qualifications in this area generally seek a residency overseas—typically in North America. Over the last three years, two of my associates have moved to the US to do exactly this,” he says.

But Dr Haberfield, who holds additional qualifications in Avian Health as well as the Medicine and Surgery of Unusual Pets, says the membership offered by the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists is “a great way of learning and ensuring your level of knowledge is where it should be”. In addition, the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) runs an Unusual Pet and Avian Veterinarians (UPAV) special interest group. Formed in in 2013, the group promotes discussion about the medicine and surgery of pet species other than dogs and cats.

With changes in licensing laws and people’s lifestyles, the choice of family pet might not be a dog or cat, but one of another dozen species. The increase in ownership of unusual pets has resulted in a corresponding need for veterinarians to feel competent with the treatment of pets not traditionally covered in the undergraduate curriculum, the AVA says.

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