Why Unusual Pets Need Exotic Animal Vets

Pet Iguana

“Calm down,” I told the distraught client pacing back and forth in the exam room, gesturing frantically at a large cat sitting quietly in his carrier. Finally, he managed to convey to me, in broken English, that the cat wasn’t the problem. He unzipped a small bag to reveal a tiny, unconscious monkey who had nothing but a bloody stump in place of one of his hands. He said the monkey had seizured and scared the cat, who had in turn bitten off the monkey’s hand. The upshot was that he wanted me to retrieve the missing body part and sew it back on!

I was an intern, only two weeks out of veterinary school, and alone in New York City at one of the largest animal hospitals in the United States. I was the first overnight doctor in my class — a dreaded honor — working by myself at 2 a.m. Dogs and cats I could handle, but monkeys? I was definitely not prepared.

Veterinarians vs. Physicians

Unlike human doctors who learn to care for only one species — people — veterinarians are taught to care for many species, including cats, dogs, horses, cows, pigs, sheep and goats. While veterinary schools focus on these familiar animals, only a limited number of schools teach about the less common species kept as pets, such as birds, rodents, rabbits, reptiles and amphibians. Even fewer schools teach about really unusual pets, such as chinchillas, hedgehogs and sugar gliders. Yet when veterinary students graduate, they are expected to know how to treat any type of pet that walks — or is carried — through their practice doors. The truth is, though, that the veterinarian in question may have little to no training in caring for any of these species.

In addition, unlike physicians who are taught to specialize in specific medical fields, such as cardiology or dermatology, veterinarians are taught to be jacks-of-all-trades, performing surgery and dentistry, administering all classes of medications, teaching preventive medicine and doing postmortem examinations. Veterinarians are very smart people, but it is hard enough to be proficient in these skills when working on a single species, no less on multiple ones!

Specializing in Exotic Pet Care

While veterinarians theoretically may treat any exotic pet species (as long as that species is legal to own), unless they have advanced postgraduate training, they cannot call themselves bird, small mammal, reptile/amphibian or zoo animal specialists.

I spent a month during my vet school internship in the exotic pet department, seeing all the different animals I would ultimately have to treat on my own. In the end, I realized I needed to learn more, so I stayed on for a two-year residency in bird and exotic animal medicine and surgery. At the end of my residency, I took a grueling three-day board examination to become a bird specialist. Currently, there are only about 150 such specialists worldwide.

When I was doing my residency, the only area of exotics for which there was a specialty examination was avian medicine. Since then, similar specialties have been developed for reptiles/amphibians, exotic companion mammals and zoo animals. All of these fields require three to six years of training beyond veterinary school; in addition, specialists must recertify their specialty degree every 10 years. It is an arduous process, and veterinarians must be dedicated if they want to be called “specialists" in their field.


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