Lizard at Vet

Annual checkups are as important for birds and exotic pets as they are for dogs and cats. Many bird and exotic pet owners know this, but are reluctant to bring their animals to the vet because they think the experience will be too stressful. However, any stress your pet may experience is generally outweighed by the benefits of a thorough veterinary examination.

Here are 10 strategies you can use to help reduce stress when taking your bird or exotic pet for a checkup.

Make towel wrapping no big deal. Many pets (especially birds) get upset when they’re held with towels. Since vets often have to restrain animals by wrapping them in towels, you can reduce the stress by practicing this activity at home first. Each time you practice, use the same towels (of the same color) and leave them unwashed between sessions so that your pet can be reassured by her own scent. Start slowly, initially giving your pet treats just for having brief contact with towels, and then working up to her allowing you to briefly enclose her in the towel. This is positive-reinforcement training. As long as she is comfortable, gradually increase the degree and duration of her contact with the towels by continuing to entice and reward her with treats. Remember to bring your pet’s own towels to the animal hospital for the veterinary staff to use during her examination!

Teach your pet to use a travel carrier. This can be a tough one, as many birds and other exotic pets never leave the house and are afraid of even the sight of a carrier. That’s why it’s important to start familiarizing your pet with her carrier weeks in advance of any veterinary appointments. Initially, place the carrier in your pet’s view while rewarding her with her favorite treats — again, using the principles of positive reinforcement. Over several days, gradually move the carrier closer while continuously rewarding her with treats near the carrier. The ultimate goal is for her to only receive a treat when she is actually inside the carrier. Many birds or other exotic pets will learn to sit comfortably in carriers as long as they can see outside. In the case of extreme cold or wind, you may need to cover the carrier with a blanket or towels, and some pets may become upset when they can’t see what’s going on. Continuing to use a favorite food treat or effusive verbal praise can gradually accustom your pet to being comfortable in a covered carrier.

Familiarize your pet with the car. We ride in cars so often that for us, it’s no big deal. But for most birds and exotic pets that never leave home, riding in a car is completely foreign. Motion, street sounds, road vibration — all are unfamiliar sensations. You can reduce any stress by first sitting with your pet in a parked car with the motor running. Gradually work up to taking short drives before the big trip to the animal hospital. Having food and water available and giving treats in the car will also help her associate the ride with something positive and make it less scary.

Get your pet used to being touched. Most birds and exotic pets hate having their feet and faces touched, but a veterinarian examining your pet will need to look in her mouth, eyes and ears as well as inspect her feet. Feet will also be touched if your pet’s nails need to be trimmed. You can make this easier by practicing these activities repeatedly at home — again, while offering effusive praise and some favorite treats.

Train your bird to stretch her wings. Birds generally dislike having their wings outstretched. During a checkup, however, veterinarians need to extend both wings, one at a time, to detect differences in muscle strength between wings and to check for changes in skin and feathers. Just as you can acclimate your pet to face and feet examination before a checkup, you can also try and make this part of the exam easier by practicing wing extension at home. Proceed slowly and gently however, taking care not to pull too hard on the wings. It’s easy to fracture fragile bones or damage feathers if your bird resists.

Even pets with scales need to get on the scale. Cat and dog owners can usually detect changes in their animals’ body weight because they constantly pet them. These changes can be harder to pick up in birds and other exotics because they may not be touched as much. Many birds and some small mammals are rarely handled by their owners. They also often scatter food around their cages, making it impossible to monitor how much they’re actually eating. These pets can hide weight loss until it is extreme. One way for bird and exotic pet owners to monitor their pets’ weights is to weigh them regularly. Teaching your pet to step up on a scale takes a little time and patience, but will help make weigh-ins at home and during exams easier.

Keep reptiles toasty on the journey. Reptile owners are often afraid to take their cold-blooded pets in for checkups because they’re worried the animals will get chilled on the journey and become ill. While prolonged exposure to cold temperatures can lower reptiles’ resistance to infection, they generally tolerate short periods of reduced heat. You can help limit heat loss by placing plastic bottles filled with warm water in the carrier with your pet during transport. And if your car has heated seats, you can preheat the seat before putting your pet's carrier in the car to help keep her toasty for the ride.

Teach your bird to perch. Unbeknownst to most people, birds don’t naturally know how to step up onto or down off perches. These are skills they must be taught and can be helpful in getting birds out of cages. Practicing step-up and step-down before a veterinary exam can minimize the often scary process of extracting a nervous pet from the safety of her carrier at the animal hospital.

Socialize your pet. Many exotic pets never leave the house and have little interaction with anyone other than their caretakers. This can make leaving home and being handled by strangers very stressful. Carefully introducing your bird or exotic pet to people they don’t regularly see can help him be comfortable with unfamiliar people, including the veterinarian. As always, having guests to your home greet your pet with treats will go a long way toward making interactions positive!

Introduce travel slowly — and offer rewards for going on the road. Some animals become so overwhelmed when they are taken out of the house that they pant or even faint (especially birds). For these pets, it is better to introduce travel very gradually, starting with trips in the carrier initially just to the car, then for a drive around the block, and ultimately to the animal hospital just for treats and not for an exam. At each stage, reward your pet with favorite foods and lots of praise. It may take weeks, but ultimately most nervous pets will learn to associate travel with treats and will calm down.

These are just a few ways exotic pet owners can lessen stress associated with a trip to the vet; many owners likely have developed other creative ways to accomplish this. Whatever means you use, remember it’s much less stressful for both you and your pet to go to the vet annually for a preventive checkup than to have to go repeatedly once illness develops.