People and Exotic Pets: Medical Problems We Share

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Age is not a disease. Veterinarians commonly say this in response to pet owners’ comments that animals are sick just because they’re old. While certainly age isn’t a disease, it’s clear that with aging comes disease. This is true for both people and pets — and for certain exotic pets, such as large parrots and many reptiles, who can live as long as many people, the parallels between disease in people and animals are clear.

Five Common Diseases That Affect People and Pets

Atherosclerosis: Atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, occurs when fat (cholesterol and triglycerides) is deposited inside blood vessel walls as plaque, making vessels stiff, rigid and unable to pump blood effectively. Deposits can become so large that they can either block the blood flow or rupture, causing clots. If blood vessels to the brain are blocked, this can cause a stroke. If blood vessels to heart muscle are blocked, this can cause a heart attack. These scenarios can occur in both people and pets.

Long-lived pet parrots, particularly Amazon and Quaker parrots, who may live 20 to 50 years, are prone to development of atherosclerosis. Like people with atherosclerosis, pet Amazons are commonly overweight, sedentary and often consume a high-fat (predominantly seed) diet. However, studies have shown that while parrots fed high-fat diets can develop atherosclerosis, not all seed-eating birds develop this condition. So it is likely that in birds, just as in people, genetic factors also play a role in the development of this disease.

Veterinarians generally diagnose atherosclerosis in birds from the presence of clinical signs (for example, weakness and sometimes fainting when birds with rigid blood vessels get stressed and can’t pump blood to their brains fast enough) as well as obvious lesions on X-rays. While humans may be treated with blood vessel catheterization to remove dangerous fatty plaques, obese birds, because of their small size and big anesthetic risk, are generally treated simply with low-fat diets, increased exercise and sometimes fat-lowering drugs. These treatments help lessen the likelihood that a parrot will suffer a stroke or heart attack from these fatty plaque deposits. Veterinarians recognize successful treatment of affected birds by disappearance of weakness and fainting and lower blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

Arthritis: This degenerative joint disorder, marked by joint inflammation and pain, is seen often in birds and guinea pigs. Since the incidence of arthritis increases with age and obesity, it is not surprising that this condition occurs in large parrots, who may live in captivity for more than 40 years and who often become obese from chronic lack of exercise and consumption of high-fat, all-seed diets. Poor nutrition and excess weight can strain joints and may predispose a bird to development of arthritis. Bird owners must recognize arthritis-related changes in their pets and make adjustments to cages (perch height, access to food bowls, etc.) to make getting around easier for them.

Like parrots, older guinea pigs commonly develop arthritis in their knees, particularly when their diet lacks vitamin C. Dietary vitamin C is crucial in all guinea pigs to help maintain healthy joint cartilage. Guinea pigs cannot make their own vitamin C, so they must receive vitamin C supplements. Guinea pig owners often mistakenly think that feeding vitamin C-enriched guinea pig pellets or vitamin C-rich vegetables and fruit will provide adequate vitamin C.

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