By Michelle Ravich, DVM, DABVP (avian practice)
With the holiday season fast approaching, and all the commotion, houseguests, decorations and festive foods to think about, our exotic pets can easily get lost in the midst. Exotic pets are surprisingly common pets, and include birds (parrots, canaries, finches, etc), reptiles, small mammals (rabbits, ferrets, hedgehogs, guinea pigs, chinchillas, small rodents) and others such as sugar gliders. While many exotic pets are housed in cages, and subsequently thought is often not given to their medical care, medical emergencies are not uncommon.
Honestly the best way to prevent a medical emergency in your exotic pet is to bring them to an exotic pet-savvy veterinarian at least once yearly, to ensure they are housed appropriately with the ideal diet, to monitor their weight, and have a physical exam. Some exotic pets (especially parrots, rabbits and ferrets) should also have routine blood work. Sadly most exotic pet sicknesses/emergencies could have been prevented if they received the proper care initially.
There are two general types of emergencies. The first are true emergencies (such as toxin ingestions, trauma/injuries, seizures, etc) where the pet was truly normal before the incident happened. The second are what’s called “acute on chronic” episodes. Exotic pets are typically prey species, and therefore are programmed to hide obvious signs of sickness so as not to draw attention to themselves. Even with fairly significant disease, they will often continue to eat, groom, and go about their regular business, making it difficult for their owners to tell they are sick. Eventually, however, the disease gets so severe that the pet can’t hide it. At this point, the pet rapidly appears very sick, and it can seem as though this happened all of a sudden, while in actuality, the disease process was going on for much longer.
While the first group of emergencies make it obvious that your pet needs immediate medical attention, it’s harder to pick up on the second group before they become severe. The most important points for exotic pet owners to monitor at home are appetite, bathroom habits and activity level. These are easy to monitor and should be monitored daily. For most exotic pets (except certain reptiles) missing one or two meals is a big deal. And some of these animals, such as rabbits and guinea pigs, can develop severe intestinal disorders just from missing 1-2 meals. Additionally, most of these animals are fairly prolific bowel movement producers. Their cages should be cleaned (or at least spot cleaned) daily to remove old stool, so it is obvious if they are not producing fresh stool each day. Lastly, activity level is essential to monitor daily. For example, if your exotic pet usually runs to its food dish at meal times, but one morning stays on the perch, or in its house or bed, that indicates something is wrong. Once you notice your pet has missed a meal, is not producing stool, or is lethargic, often something has been going on for at least a few days, if not longer.
During the holiday season, there are a few things to keep in mind. Trauma is more likely due to more people in the house, doors opening and closing, and the presence of electrical wires, candles or fires in the fireplace. Please make sure your exotic pet is well contained prior to having guests, and if you are having company, your pet may be more comfortable and less stressed with its cage in a different, quieter room. If your pet likes to have time outside the cage (especially parrots, rabbits and ferrets), make sure all electrical wires, hazardous foods (especially those containing chocolate) and any flames are not within easy reach. Research any new plants you wish to display, to ensure they are not hazardous to animals. Lastly, any fumes in the air (including the use of non-stick cookware) can be dangerous if not deadly for birds, and should be avoided.
It is essential to have a small, species-appropriate carry cage at home in case of emergency, in order to transport your pet to the vet safely. Due to the cold weather this time of year, cars should be warmed up prior to transportation. Blankets or beds can be helpful to add for the mammals, and reptiles can benefit from heating pads or other external heat sources (placed outside the carry cage so they can’t get burned). Call the nearest veterinary hospital or emergency clinic to ensure they are open and comfortable treating exotics before you head over. The specialty websites (aav.org and arav.org) have “find a vet” features to help you find veterinarians comfortable treating exotics.