Choosing a Veterinary Hospital For Your Exotic Pet: 5 Basic Questions

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Dr. Laurie Hess is our resident exotics expert and contributes regularly on the Pet Health Network. For more from Dr. Hess, find her on Facebook!

Every few weeks, my exotic pet hospital in New York receives a call from a desperate exotic pet owner somewhere far away seeking advice about their sick pet. Sometimes it’s about a reptile, sometimes about a bird or bunny. The caller might be from the Midwest, Canada, or even from another continent. Unfortunately, in most cases, there is little we can recommend over the phone, and we generally advise pet-owner to take their animals to an exotic pet-savvy veterinarian to be examined. While there are several great resources online directing people to terrific local vets who are comfortable treating exotic species, for some people in certain remote locations, exotic pet veterinarians can be hard to find. What are the most important things to look for when you are seeking out care for an exotic pet vet? Here are 5 essential considerations:

1. How many (snakes, birds, ferrets, rabbits, whatever species) has this vet ever treated?
While practice may not always make perfect, it certainly makes better. The more of any given species a veterinarian sees, the more likely that he or she is to recognize disease and be able to recommend appropriate treatment. Most vets receive little to no training in school on exotic animal species, so if they really want to learn about how to care for these animals, they have to seek out information on their own. These vets who take the initiative to go the extra mile to learn about exotic pets are the vets you’d want to see.

2. Is the veterinary hospital set up to accommodate exotic pets?
While many cat and dog hospitals will see exotic pets, they often do so because they are the only game in town. Many cat and dog hospitals will only treat an exotic pet when no one else will, and the pet is really sick. You can really tell whether a veterinary hospital is set up to treat exotic pets if they have some of the basic equipment and supplies needed to do so, such as a small scale that weighs in grams for weighing little exotic pets or a tank for safely enclosing a reptile. If they have no equipment specifically designed for treating and examining typically smaller exotic patients, it is likely they don’t treat many of them. 

3. Are the veterinary technicians comfortable handling exotic patients?
Knowing how to safely handle exotic pets is truly an art that takes years to master. Most exotic animals are prey species that become stressed when restrained. No matter how good a veterinarian may be at the medical care of exotic species, without great technical staff to comfortably hold these animals, that vet cannot perform great medical care. By just watching how veterinary technicians restrain and manipulate your exotic pet, you can get an idea about how often they actually handle exotic pets. Technicians and veterinarians trained in exotic pet restraint should be relaxed and have a plan on how to pick up and hold your pet. If they are floundering around trying to figure out how to catch your pet, their experience is very likely limited.

4. Are the veterinarians and/or the veterinary staff members of any exotic pet professional organizations?
There are several professional exotic animal groups, such as the Association of Avian Veterinarians, the Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians, and the Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians, to which many veterinarians who are interested in exotic pet care belong. These organizations provide continuing education to veterinary professionals, and typically, individuals who want to remain knowledgeable in exotic pet care will join one or more of these groups to stay current. Veterinarians who belong to these groups typically display the organization’s logo on a decal in their hospitals’ window or printed on their hospitals’ client literature. Each of these organizations have websites, too, that list current members geographically. If a vet has taken the time and money to join any of these organizations, then he or she at least has a strong interest in exotic pets.

5. Does the veterinary hospital provide care for exotic pet emergencies?
This is something most exotic pet owners don’t think about until they are faced with their own pets’ emergency. While a few animal hospitals have veterinarians on call and technicians who remain in the hospital overnight to care for critical cases, the most veterinary hospitals are not open 24/7 but have arrangements with local 24-hour emergency clinics to care for their patients overnight and on emergency basis. However, while local emergency clinics are generally happy to take in dog and cat emergencies, they are not always equipped to handle exotic pet emergencies. When choosing an animal hospital to care for your unique exotic pet, be sure to ask the veterinary staff exactly how they handle exotic pet patients with emergencies after hours. If they have no contingency plan, they likely treat very few exotics. Just as your dog and cat vet should have a plan for after-hours emergencies, so should your exotic pet vet. This is perhaps the most important question to consider when choosing a doctor for your beloved pet. Don’t be afraid to ask it. The answer could be the difference between life and death.

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian – they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.

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