We should cherish exotic pets as much as our other animal friends
Rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, rats, mice, ferrets, birds, lizards, snakes, terrapins and fish. Twelve different species of animals. These are just a sample of the range of creatures that I see as a pet vet.
Most of my work is with dogs and cats: in Ireland, around 65% of the pets people take to the vet are dogs, around 30% are cats, and the remaining 5% is split between the species listed above, amongst others.
I have always enjoyed seeing unusual creatures: one of the reasons why I became a vet was because I was fascinated by the variety of nature's kingdom. As a child, I kept a wide variety of pets, and I have never lost this interest. Vet students learn the basics of treating every type of animal; qualified vets are equipped to treat most of the common conditions that affect the more exotic types of pet.
In the twenty first century, however, science has taken us further along the road of specialized treatment of different species, and pet owners often, rightly, have high expectations for optimal care of their much-loved animals. These days, if I am asked to deal with a complex, intricate illness affecting a species that I do not see regularly, I will suggest a referral to a vet with a particular interest in that species: it has become impossible for vets to be "experts in all animals".
That said, there are many illnesses of these pets that are common, and that can be effectively treated by vets who are not specialists. In some ways, this can be compared to the work of GP human doctors, who will treat common ailments, but who will decide to refer certain cases on to specialist consultants.
So what conditions are most common in these so-called "exotic" pets? I've concocted a top three list for each species, to give pet owners some idea of what can go wrong.
The first, and most important, point to make is that most of the diseases that affect these types of pets are linked to poor husbandry. Many people don't do enough research on the correct way to keep a particular type of animal. Many pets live in conditions that do not suit them. They are often caged, living in an environment and climate that is very different to the place where they come from in the wild. This means that they cannot seek out the living conditions that suit them naturally: they are forced to put up with whatever their owner provides. Sadly, in many cases, this leads to ill health. The greatest improvements to the health of most of these pets can be achieved by simply educating owners to improve the daily environment and diet of their pets.
Rabbits are far more popular than in the past, with many living free-range in the family home, using a litter tray like a cat. The three top issues for rabbit are simple: viral diseases (Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic Disease) which can be prevented by regular vaccination, dental disease caused by insufficient fiber in the diet (a simple hay rack every day should be provided), and dietary issues (like indigestion) caused by eating the wrong foodstuffs (don't feed treats just because your rabbit likes them: use Google to find out what's safe, and only give these in tiny amounts.)
Guinea pigs are great small pets for children, with a squeaky, chirpy personality. Their top three illnesses are skin disease (they get a parasitic mite that's easy to cure), tumours (lumps and bumps, some benign, some malignant, are common), and dental disease (like rabbits, guinea pigs graze on vegetation continually in the wild, so pet owners need to supply plenty of hay to mimic this, to keep their teeth worn down to the correct level).
Hamsters, gerbils, rats and mice are similar types of small rodents: different folk have different preferences as to which type of creature they prefer (my favourite- the rat-is many people's worst possible pet). Tumours-again, benign or malignant-are common in these creatures. Respiratory infections are common too (rats can need lifelong treatment to control this). And again, dental disease is often seen, especially if chewable items (such as pieces of wood) are not given to allow the natural wearing-down of teeth.
Ferrets, kept as little hunters in the past, are now kept as pets, and they are prone to their own issues: hormonal diseases (due to abnormalities of their internal glands) anaemia ( caused by their unusual reproductive cycles) and skin parasites are all common.
Birds-from parrots to budgies and canaries-suffer from feather abnormalities, respiratory infections and sore eyes.
Snakes and lizards often develop mouth infections, skin disease due to lack of exposure to natural light, and illnesses caused by nutritional deficiencies.
Terrapins also commonly suffer from nutritional deficiencies due to inadequate diet, damaged shells due to poor living conditions, and mouth infections.
There's a long list of illnesses that can affect fish, but nearly all of them come down to one simple fact: poor water quality, due to over feeding and inadequate tank maintenance. It's often effective to have a sample of tank water analysed as a way of finding out why a fish seems unwell.
Exotic pets are no less important than other pets,and it's up to each of us to cherish them as much as we can.