unlikely companions

Dr. Laurie Hess — a regular Vetstreet contributor, owner and medical director of the Veterinary Center for Birds & Exotics, and one of only about 125 bird specialists board-certified by the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners — has long regaled her friends and colleagues with funny, heartwarming and occasionally hard-to-believe stories about the avian and exotic pets she treats… and their owners.

And now, she’s sharing those stories — along with a look at some of the personal challenges she’s faced throughout her career — with the rest of us in her new book, Unlikely Companions: The Adventures of an Exotic Animal Doctor (Or, What Friends Feathered, Furred, and Scaled Have Taught Me About Life and Love, which is available today. While the names (and sometimes the species) of her clients have been changed to protect their privacy, their stories are engaging and enlightening.

We got our hands on an advance copy of the book and were delighted (although not surprised) with the way Dr. Hess weaves the stories of animals she has treated — ranging from Judge Judy-loving rabbits to an enormous Central Park snapping turtle to a parrot in police custody — into a candid narrative of her struggles to balance her career, her family and her own health.

Vetstreet: Your title references lessons you’ve learned. What’s one you can share without giving too much of the book away?
Dr. Laurie Hess: I think the biggest lesson on life is that animals are not always just simple pets to people — they can have a much deeper meaning that a lot of people don’t appreciate. I hope that [the book will help] people who don’t have exotic pets realize that you can appear to form these incredible bonds with the most unlikely companions, whether it’s a rat or a chinchilla or a sugar glider — any animal that most people don’t know much about. And these animals can form incredible bonds with people, just as a dog or a cat might.

VS: You touch on numerous cases and all types of species, but the story of those sugar gliders is threaded all throughout the book. Did that case inspire you to take on this project?
LH: I think I was already considering writing the book, and as I was telling the story to people, I knew it would be great to write about. I had always been encouraged to write down these crazy anecdotal stories. Some of them were so funny or heartwarming — and some were so unbelievable — and as I started to think about the book, it seemed logical to make the sugar glider story a big story.

VS: Who do you envision as your target audience? 
LH: It’s for animal lovers in general. I think exotic pet owners will really identify with the book, but I think any pet owner would understand the bonds that the people in the book are making with their pets — even if the reader doesn’t have that exact species of pet.

And there’s a bit in there about me being a crazy-busy working mom trying to juggle my life and my career. I think a lot of women can definitely relate to that — having a passion for a career and having to spend a lot of time training for it, but also loving your family and wanting to spend time with them. No matter what kind of career you may have, your family is really important and you have to try to strike a balance. It can be hard, but a woman can raise her children to respect the fact that their mother works and has a career, too.

VS: You don’t shy away from discussing your efforts to find that balance.
LH: A lot of things happened when I set up my animal hospital seven years ago — it was a really big struggle. I’m proud of what I’ve done as a veterinarian, and I’m very proud of my hospital. I’m very aware that there were some trade-offs, but I don’t think I regret them. 

I’m glad my kids were a big part of setting up the hospital, and I think they’re very proud of what I’ve set up and they’re proud of my job. They understand when I have emergency calls that I have to deal with, because that’s who we are — we help the animals, and we’ve always helped the animals. I don’t think they’ve ever been resentful of that.

Dr. Laurie Hess

VS: There’s one story in the book about a mother and son with a very sick rabbit, and she says to you, “Yes, it would probably be easier to give up on the rabbit, but what does that teach my son? That pets are disposable?” Are these types of moments common?
There’s a lot of psychology involved in working with people and their pets. In veterinary medicine, most people don’t have insurance, so they’re paying out of pocket. Finances become a very big part of the decision whether to treat an animal or not. It is something that a lot of families with children face — after all, they’re the ones who have these pets. I spend a lot of time with my “mom hat” on, and I’ll speak to clients from the mother perspective, as well as from the veterinary perspective. I often tell parents that if we put an animal to sleep, the most important message is that you relate to your child that it’s not their fault. That’s something children can really blame themselves for and be scarred by, and it can have long-lasting impact.

VS: Are there any particularly memorable cases you weren’t able to include in the book?
LH: I have a whole ‘nother book in my head! I had a rabbit who was initially brought in by a man whose daughter was in high school, and he was really reluctant to spend a lot of money on the animal. It ended up having a very bad dental problem that required quite a bit of surgery, and he really wasn’t sure he wanted to spend the money.

Well, they decided to go for it, and the rabbit did really well, and then the daughter went off to college a year or so later, at which point the father got really, really close to this rabbit. It became his rabbit. The rabbit required multiple surgeries, but ended up living many, many, many years. In looking back, he was able to say to me, “I went from really not caring about this animal so much to realizing how important it was to my daughter — that’s why I did the surgery to begin with — to then really realizing how important it was to me. I had no idea I could bond with this rabbit in the way that I did.” He didn’t regret a minute — or one penny — spent with or on this rabbit.

VS: What one thing do you hope readers take away?
LH: A lot of people wonder what it’s like to be a veterinarian, and being an exotics veterinarian puts a little twist on that. So for anyone who’s ever been curious about what it’s like to be a veterinarian, to take the work home with you but also be a real person with a family and kids and sporting events and all kinds of stuff, I think the book provides a really good example of that.

Also, my message is always that these animals deserve proper medical and preventive care, because most of the time, we only see these pets when they’re dying or really, really sick, and that’s because many people don’t even realize that they should bring these animals in regularly for care, as they might for a dog or cat.

Exotic pets can be amazing, and you can see the incredible bonds they seem to have with their owners in the book, but they are a commitment and they do require work — if you’re going to have one, you need to know what you’re getting into.

VS: With that in mind, are there any guidelines you wish owners of exotic pets would keep in mind regarding preventive veterinary care?
LH: I definitely think that when you get a new exotic pet — whether you adopt it, buy it, whatever you do — you should have it checked out right away to make sure it’s healthy and also to make sure you’re aware of the most up-to-date ways to care for it. There’s a lot of really outdated stuff on the internet, and even pet stores aren’t always telling you the most up-to-date information. So finding a veterinarian who’s really knowledgeable and current on exotics is really important.

If you’re looking for an exotics veterinarian, I recommend going through one of these three organizations: the Association of Avian Veterinarians, the Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians or the Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians. Many people are members of all of them, because few people just treat reptiles or just treat birds. But you know that if someone is taking the time to join these organizations that they’re serious about these pets.

Also, don’t introduce the new pet to your pets at home until you’re sure it’s healthy and come in at least annually [to see the vet]. For certain species and some of the geriatric pets — and geriatric has different meanings for the different species — come in twice a year.

More on Vetstreet: