Into the wild

Veterinarian Dr Robert Johnson treats a pink-tongued skink
Veterinarian Dr Robert Johnson treats a pink-tongued skink

Dr Phil Tucak explores the trend in exotic pet ownership and what impact this has on the veterinary profession

From lizards to rats, turtles to rabbits, Australian veterinarians are helping to keep an increasingly exotic array of pets healthy and happy. As a profession, veterinary practice is constantly evolving. From its origins, the early veterinarians dealt predominately with livestock—horses, cattle, sheep and pigs. This progressed to include the treatment of other domestic animals such as dogs and cats. Now veterinary practices treat a much wider variety of pets, with vets able to provide health care to a broad range of unusual and exotic pets too. The increasing popularity of pets other than the traditional dog and cat has allowed some vets to focus their attention to offering services for this diverse assortment of unusual, exotic, native animal and avian pets.

Due to the different types of pets we are talking about—snakes, lizards, turtles, frogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, rodents, ferrets, birds, invertebrates and native Australian mammals—it can be hard to define them with a single term. The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) has a special interest group called the Unusual Pets and Avian Veterinarians (UPAV). The term ‘unusual pets’ attempts to cover it, since the term ‘exotic pets’ may be misconstrued as defining animals that are exotic or foreign to a country. However, exotic pet practice is still commonly used to refer to vets who work with one or more of this multi-species group, so if nothing else, it’s certainly an exotic mix. The AVA says its UPAV special interest group focuses on the changing face of pets in Australia, promoting discussion about the veterinary care of pet species other than dogs and cats.

In Australia, it is difficult to accurately state the exact number of unusual and exotic animals kept as pets. Sydney veterinarian Dr Robert Johnson runs South Penrith Veterinary Clinic with his wife Jane, and their practice sees a large proportion of reptiles, along with rabbits, guinea pigs, dogs, cats and native wildlife. Dr Johnson says, “The bearded dragon is fast surpassing the budgie as the third pet in the household after a dog and cat. Bearded dragons are usually regarded as family pets whereas snakes may be owned and cared for by individuals and treated as specimens or breeding animals. More often than not the whole family will come in with the bearded dragon for its check-up just like they do with their cat or dog.”

Melbourne veterinarian Dr Brendan Carmel owns Warranwood Veterinary Centre, a practice with over 90 per cent of its caseload being unusual and exotic pets. Dr Carmel agrees that there is an increasing interest in exotic pets, which in turn is creating a niche for the provision of veterinary services in this area. “Perhaps it’s an increased interest by the general public for wanting ‘something different’ as a pet, or it may be associated with their lack of space for a more traditional pet such as a dog, combined with publicity about exotic pets in the media.” Dr Bob Doneley, who heads the University of Queensland’s Veterinary Medical Centre’s Avian and Exotic Pet Service, adds that the impact of urbanisation leads to a rise in the number of exotic pets that require less space to keep.

“There’s also been a vast improvement in knowledge of the husbandry required to keep exotic pets healthy, and there’s a greater availability as breeders learn how to breed birds and exotics rather than catching them in the wild.”

The AVA states that 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. But in recent years, the amount that undergraduate vet students now get taught about unusual and exotic pets at university has increased dramatically. Dr Doneley lectures vet students in exotic pet medicine and surgery across all five years of the veterinary science degree at the University of Queensland. “This is very different from my education as a student,” he recalls. “We had one lecture in bird medicine and absolutely nothing in other exotics. As the popularity of exotic pets continues to grow, universities have recognised that our graduates need to be competent and comfortable handling and treating these species. I feel that exotic pet medicine today is where small animal practice was in the 1930s, except that our knowledge is just exploding!”

“The bearded dragon is fast surpassing the budgie as the third pet in the household after a dog and cat.” Dr Robert Johnson, South Penrith Veterinary Clinic

Dr James Haberfield who founded The Unusual Pet Vets practice in Perth in 2012 explains that he set up his clinic after seeing how successful exotics-only practices were in other states in Australia.

“I feel the veterinary profession is moving more towards different ‘interest’ areas and that clients often want somewhere to take their pet that can provide the expertise they require. I feel that the number of ‘all-species’ veterinarians in most major cities is declining, opening the way for different niche clinics to offer a more focused service,” says Dr Haberfield.

The Unusual Pet Vets run from two hospitals and have tailored its clinics with a range of specialised equipment to cater for the species they see. “This includes a special ventilator that can automatically ventilate patients above 10 grams in weight, exotic-animal anaesthetic circuits and tiny endotracheal tubes, thermostatically controlled caging and a range of exotic-animal surgical instruments as well as easy access to advanced ultrasound and CT imaging,” says Dr Haberfield.

However, Dr Johnson in Sydney says that most equipment common to small animal clinics can be adapted to exotics practice. “The exotic pet pharmacy does differ slightly from that of the small animal clinic, especially regarding anaesthetics, sedatives and antibiotics. The most important requirements for exotic pet practice are appropriate hospitalisation facilities and the availability of appropriate foods for a variety of species.”

Veterinarians who work with unusual and exotic pets enjoy the variety that their job involves, and as Dr Carmel explains, their clients are very willing to pay for their services. “We are mostly selling our knowledge—advice regarding preventative health. We charge more for an exotic pet consultation than a dog or cat because the consults are up to 30 minutes’ duration and often quite involved.” Dr Johnson adds, “Many owners have a limit. Occasionally after we have quoted for a procedure we hear the refrain, ‘That’s much more than he cost me in the first place!’ as most vets know this response is not unique to exotic pet practice. Thankfully many clients regard their pet as a valuable member of the family.”

Every state in Australia has different regulations covering which species of unusual and exotic pets can be kept, and depending on the species, sometimes a permit is required. Usually these regulations are enforced by the relevant state conservation, wildlife or natural resource departments.

For vets treating unusual and exotic pets, it can be a very rewarding career, as Dr Haberfield highlights; “I find the range of species we see fascinating and one of the things that really attracted me to the area is that we deal with something different every day. I also find it very rewarding to help people that often are so grateful to have found a clinic that has an interest in their exotic pet.”


  1. It is shocking to find out that the bearded dragon is becoming the third most common pet behind dogs and cats. This would definitely make sense as to why Warranwood Veterinary Centre has a caseload of 90% of animals being considered exotic or unusual pets. Is there a reason as to why the bearded dragon is moving up the list so fast?


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