The phrase “exotic pet” probably brings to mind colorful parrots and rainbow-hued frogs. Veterinary medicine has long defined exotic animals as any animal other than the pet cat or dog or traditional farm animal. So, while “exotic” does encompass parrots and other birds, it also includes all small mammals (rabbits, ferrets, guinea pigs, rats and other rodents) and reptiles (snakes, turtles/tortoises, and lizards).
Avian medicine includes all bird classes from the large ostriches to raptors to more commonly kept parakeets and finches. As smaller pets have become more popular for tiny houses and apartments, the number of households with bird companions has risen. This group is the largest kept number of exotics in the U.S.
Small animal exotics have long been a family favorite, especially for families and classrooms. As more owners have become aware of the joy and personalities of these pets, they have increasingly wanted to provide excellent care and diets to increase their health and longevity. Luckily, these pets are becoming valued members of their families and less disposable entertainment.
Reptiles are the smallest group of exotic pets kept in U.S. households. Many reptile owners have relied on anecdotal evidence for everything from care and feeding to treating a sick pet. Often, they are unaware of the growing body of scientific and medical evidence that will keep their pets’ healthy for the decades many of these animals are expected to live.
Veterinary medicine for exotic pets has exploded both in availability and knowledge since my first foray into this world in the 1980’s. By the time I actually stepped off the graduation stage of UGA and into my first job as a veterinarian in early 1993 until now, the conversations with owners about their pets have changed drastically. Before 2000, most of my veterinary conversations revolved around good care and husbandry of the pet. Just getting the basics right was considered “heavy lifting” since, at that time, probably 90% of the medical cases I saw were due to improper care.
As we rounded the corner of the 21st century, the options for and body of knowledge of exotic pet medicine continued to grow. Today, I am happy to say that I can offer almost all the same services and level of advanced medicine that is seen with other, more traditional animals. Although feeding and care will always be the basis for proper pet care, now my patients are living longer and needing more geriatric services to which better care has led them. We have at our disposal everything from routine bloodwork, to PCR (think DNA) testing for disease, to radiography, CT scans and more.
Many times over the years I have been asked what makes my job exciting. It has and continues to astound and delight me when we add more knowledge to our profession so we can continue to help those often smallest in size, but a huge addition to your family—your exotic pet.