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It’s not just about COVID puppies—even veterinarians specialising in exotic pets haven’t been immune from the consequences of the pandemic. Lynne Testoni reports
The pandemic has changed the way the world operates in so many ways, which for veterinarian Dr Sam Loughridge, has had some unexpected consequences—good and bad.
Dr Loughridge is a director of The Unusual Pet Vets, a group of veterinary clinics specialising in exotic pets. Two of the clinics are located in Western Australia, one in Victoria and one in Queensland. A fifth clinic is due to open on the Queensland Sunshine Coast by the end of 2021 and a sixth is planned for the ACT in 2022.
The last year has seen a big rise in case load across all the clinics, and Dr Loughridge says he suspects that most of that is due to the pandemic.
“We saw a massive spike in the number of cases, consults and pets,” he says. “I would say that the three to six months when the pandemic first started were probably some of the busiest months that we’ve ever had.”
Veterinarians around the world have seen a big increase in their case loads, with many people acquiring a puppy or kitten in the past two years to help them while away the hours while in lockdown at home. Dr Loughridge says that there has been a corresponding rise in people acquiring exotic pets too.
“We definitely did see a big spike of people thinking, ‘Maybe if we’re going to be home for six weeks, now is a good time to get a baby this or a baby that, and do those early days of bonding with that pet’,” he says.
But as Dr Loughridge notes, his team hasn’t just noticed there are more people choosing exotic pets than previously but that more of these animals are presenting at the clinic with health issues that owners probably would’ve missed before because they weren’t spending so much time at home observing their pets.
“We did wonder whether a lot of the extra busyness was around people actually being at home and picking up on things that they might have otherwise missed,” he says.
“Probably the biggest thing is that a lot of the species that we see are prey animals, such as rabbits and guinea pigs. So, they hide their symptoms as best they can. Normally pet owners might see them for just an hour or so in the morning, and then a few hours at night, compared to when they’re working at home and seeing them all through the day. I think there were a lot of people picking up on things that were probably going on for a period of time, but previously they didn’t really get noticed.”
The pull of exotics
A love of birds as a young boy led Dr Loughridge into specialising in exotic animals while he was still at university, and he started his professional career at The Unusual Pet Vets in Murdoch, WA, where he still works.
“The Murdoch clinic is a brand new purpose-built facility that we opened early this year,” he says. “Prior to that, the clinic was operating inside of the Murdoch University Veterinary Hospital. We were inside there for many years, but we just got to a point where our case load was getting too big for the space that we could get there. We needed to expand to take on more staff and see more cases.”
Working with exotics is tricky—the practice works with many different species, which are rarely covered in a standard veterinary science curriculum.
“The bulk of what we see would be rabbits, guinea pigs, ferrets and birds,” Dr Loughridge says. “We also see rats and mice, quite a few reptiles, occasional fish and axolotls, and very occasionally insects.
“There’s generally only a very tiny component of teaching that covers the species that we see, so basically, you have to self-teach or learn on the job, because there definitely isn’t much of a focus of that in the course itself.
“In terms of the variety of things we see, think about how many different species of birds there are, or how many species of reptiles there are, versus cats and dogs. Keep multiplying it and multiplying and multiplying it, that’s where we end up.
“The good thing is that we generally get interest from people that have always had a passion for those animals. And so throughout their course they’ve done placements at various exotic hospitals and that sort of thing.”
The Unusual Pet Vets is facing the same staff shortages that veterinary clinics everywhere are dealing with, particularly the WA clinics, as border closures have made it hard for interstate or overseas-trained vets to join them. They recently employed a vet from Canada, but it took almost a year before he could join them because of government regulations, border closures and lockdowns.
“We’ve been lucky on a few occasions to pick up staff with some experience, but for the most part, it is general practice veterinarians who have always had an interest in birds or mammals or that sort of thing. Or, on quite a few occasions we’ve hired a new graduate (myself included) and gone from there. It’s definitely hard to have someone walk in on day one and do the whole job. We’ve got to build up vets to get them up to the level that we need them to be.”
While birds have always been a particular passion of Dr Loughridge, he says he’s come to love looking after all small animals and relishes the challenge of his job.
“They’re all unique and they present a whole different type of challenge working with them clinically, compared to cats and dogs. When you tell other vets or colleagues that you did X, Y or Z with a rabbit or a guinea pig, they just look at you with this face that says, ‘How on earth is that possible?’
“Sometimes you step back and say, ‘I can’t believe we just did that with something that’s 50 grams. How is that feasible compared to 20, 30 kilos of dog or something like that?’ It’s definitely a very rewarding job.”