A Day In The Life Of Exotic Pet Medicine


What is an exotic pet? For our practice, any animal that is not a dog or cat gets labeled as an exotic appointment. This can include small mammals, birds, reptiles and more. The conversations I have with clients about every exotic pet I see mainly revolve around the same general principles. In this column, I will highlight the key aspects of care to consider when getting any exotic pet, easily accessible resources for caring for your pet, and avenues to obtain an exotic animal.

If you are thinking about getting an exotic pet, the first step I recommend is checking out a great website called EMODE pet score. EMODE is a program that was created by 18 scientists and veterinarians with expert backgrounds in public health and animal welfare science. You can search each individual animal on the website, and this will give you a pet score. For example, searching a “veiled chameleon” yields a score of “difficult to expert” to care for; searching “hamster” yields a score of “moderate.” Here is the link to the website: www.emodepetscore.com/get-your-pet-score.

For any exotic pet, some general points I discuss with owners are:

Appropriate Housing, Enclosure And Temperature/Humidity

Enclosure can vary significantly between each individual species in a group (for example, housing for a chameleon is different than a snake although they are both reptiles) and the equipment required for setup can also vary in cost. Humidity and temperature are important especially for reptiles but should be considered for all species. These can also vary between individuals (for example, a northern blue tongue skink requires a different humidity than a Merauke blue tongue skink). Obtain a hygrometer to measure humidity and a non-contact temperature gun to measure any point in the enclosure. It is important also to consider when monitoring temperature and humidity that the area the animal spends time in, within the enclosure, is likely not the same temperature/humidity at the top of the enclosure, so placing a measuring device there could lead to false results.

Diet Recommendations

Each species is different in this category, so thorough research prior to obtaining your pet is critical. There are lots of brands out there for different diets, so if you ever have a question about which to buy, please consult your veterinarian. Some companies have had more detailed nutritional analysis performed for their foods to ensure they meet the needs of the pet and are therefore preferred by veterinarians. Diet also plays an important part in disease prevention; for example, rabbits need hay as the main portion of their diet due to their type of gastrointestinal tract and that their teeth grow continuously. Inappropriate diet can lead to severe dental diseases and secondary gastrointestinal problems.

Enrichment And Social Interaction

What animal doesn’t love play time? This is an equally important part of care and welfare. For example, the Indian ring-necked parakeet needs lots of time out of its enclosure and interaction with owners, otherwise it can develop severe neurotic behaviors that sometimes are not reversible. Even the littlest critters, like our hamsters and gerbils, still require routine exercise. It is also important to consider when your animal will be most active – if it is nocturnal, it may not be interactive with you during the day. Additionally, does the animal you’re considering do better in pairs or alone? How will that animal interact with other animals in the home (especially if it is a prey species like a rabbit)? Does this animal do well around children and what are the safety concerns?

General Health Conditions

Being familiar with common conditions seen in exotic animals can help you take the steps to prevent them if possible and also know the signs to look for regarding illness. Many exotic animals that are prey species will hide illness until they are sick, so picking up signs early if you can truly makes the difference. For example, guinea pigs are predisposed to feet problems due to their body conformation, so ensuring appropriate bedding and maintaining a good weight can help prevent pododermatitis.

Rabbits that stop eating for 12 to 24 hours are already considered critical due to their type of gastrointestinal tract and need immediate medical attention. Most reptiles need calcium supplementation, and if they are not provided this in their diet, they will put this calcium from their underlying bones, making their bones weak and susceptible to fracture.

Where Do I Get An Exotic Animal?

I recommend checking out EMODE for some good resources, but additionally, rescues are often overlooked when getting an exotic pet but are a great resource for owners. Some rescues and organizations we often work with include:

  • Washington Humane Society/SPCA
  • House Rabbit Society
  • Metropolitan Guinea Pig Rescue
  • Phoenix Landing Foundation Bird Rescue
  • Heart Reptile Rescue Sanctuary

When getting your pet, it is important to be sure to quarantine your pet away from other animals for the recommended time (usually 60 days, but this can vary on species) to prevent transmission of disease and monitor for signs of illness.

Exotic/Wildlife Trade

Although this is a difficult topic to discuss, the exotic/wildlife illegal trade continues to impact animals everywhere and decimate populations. When getting your exotic pet, it is important to try to determine if this animal was taken illegally from the environment. Unfortunately, one of the biggest parts of the exotic pet trade is the illegal capture and sale of exotic animals. Extensive work is being done by veterinarians, scientists and volunteers to combat this, but client education is a key part as well. Here are some links to read more on this:

Resources prior to obtaining your exotic pet

I recommend checking out the following resources for more background about your exotic pet prior to purchase:

The veterinarians of VCA Calvert Veterinary Center have over 35 years of combined experience helping pets stay healthy and happy. For more information about scheduling an appointment for your pet, call for an appointment at 410-360-PAWS (7297) or schedule online at www.vaccalvertvet.com. VCA Calvert Veterinary Center is conveniently located at 4100 Mountain Road in Pasadena and has been proudly serving the community for over 17 years.


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