People and Exotic Pets: Medical Problems We Share

However, the average shelf life of vitamin C in pelleted food for guinea pigs is only three months from the time it is manufactured. Since it may take more than three months for pellets to go from the manufacturing plant to the pet stores to an owner's home, by the time the pellets are consumed, the vitamin C content may be at less than adequate levels. To ensure guinea pigs are getting enough vitamin C, owners can administer vitamin C tablets daily under a veterinarian’s guidance. Proper nutrition for guinea pigs is essential in helping to decrease the occurrence of this debilitating disease.


Kidney failure: Regardless of species, animals who live long enough ultimately experience kidney function decline that may lead to failure as they age. The kidneys clear toxic byproducts of digestion from the bloodstream. As the body ages, kidney function slowly declines until the kidneys become unable to perform effectively, leading to buildup of toxins in the blood and, eventually, to death. Kidney failure is particularly common in older rabbits. As with people, rabbits with kidney failure often drink and urinate frequently and pass very dilute urine. Their appetite decreases, and they lose weight. In both people and pets, eating a balanced diet and staying hydrated may help delay the onset of this condition.

Gout: Gout, a painful condition caused by buildup of uric acid (a byproduct of digestion) in the blood, afflicts people, birds and reptiles. In all species, uric acid is a crystalline substance normally excreted in varying amounts by the kidneys. In people, it dissolves in blood and leaves the body in urine; in birds and reptiles, it is excreted as a solid waste product so that these animals can retain water. When kidneys don’t function properly to excrete uric acid, it precipitates in blood and deposits in joints, causing painful arthritis, and in kidneys and other vital organs, leading to organ failure, kidney stones and death.


In birds and reptiles, gout is associated with lack of dietary vitamin A, excessive dietary vitamin D, severe dehydration, administration of potentially kidney-toxic antibiotics and certain viral and bacterial kidney infections. Treatment includes increased fluid consumption to improve hydration, diet changes, administration of drugs to control pain and to decrease uric acid production and simultaneous treatment of other diseases. Nutritional requirements for exotics are complex, so any dietary supplementation should be done under the supervision of a veterinarian.

Cataracts: Cataracts — a change in the lenses of the eyes from clear to opaque — occur when lens proteins degrade. Cataracts also may develop as a result of excessive exposure to ultraviolet light, genetic predisposition, eye trauma, administration of certain medications or the presence of other diseases. Over time, the lenses become more opaque and are less able to transmit light, ultimately leading to loss of vision. People and pets with significant visual impairment may have surgery to remove cataracts. While cataract removal is simple in most people, many exotic pets have very small eyes, making cataract surgery difficult.


Veterinary Attention Is the Best Prevention

While these diseases are interesting because they are ones we may share with our exotics, they also point out the need for regular, routine veterinary care. Exotic pets, like all pets, should see a veterinarian at least annually, if not more frequently, to help prevent these diseases from occurring. People and pets may suffer from similar medical conditions, but treatment of exotic pets is often more challenging because of patient size, increased risk and expense and therefore should only be attempted under the guidance of a veterinarian well-versed in the specific biology of these unique and fascinating species.

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