“You’ll have to check his temperature every 30 minutes until it comes up to normal.” I had to take the temperature of a 3-year-old male pot-bellied pig that had just come out of bladder surgery. This was the first task I was given after starting my 5-week rotation on the Avian and Exotic Pet Service during my one-year internship at the Animal Medical Center (AMC) in New York City. I was two months out of veterinary school and I had never touched a pot-bellied pig (or a hedgehog, bearded dragon, sugar glider, or many other exotic pets) before. Yet, as a new veterinarian, I was expected to know not only how to handle these pets, but also how to diagnose and treat their illnesses. This was my introduction to the world of exotic animals – a world I came to love so much that I decided to specialize in it. I realized, during this rotation, that these unique exotic pets were as worthy of medical care as cats and dogs, yet most veterinary students have little to no exposure to them in veterinary school. I also realized that the only way to become truly knowledgeable about these animals’ care was to continue my education by applying for a 2-year residency in avian and exotic animal medicine and surgery that follows an internship. And so, I did.
But it wasn’t smooth sailing. I didn’t get the residency position the first time around. So, after finishing my internship, off I went to work at St. Marks Veterinary Hospital in Greenwich Village in Manhattan, an area of New York City known for its eclectic people and their often-eclectic pets. During the year I spent at St. Marks, I saw birds, bunnies, reptiles, amphibians, ferrets, and rodents of all kinds, along with lots of cats and dogs. I never imagined before that year how many different kinds of animals people keep as pets. I learned there was some truth to the notion that exotic pets are often owned by exotic pet owners. For example, there was the owner of a 10-pound iguana who had so many tattoos encircling his eyes and mouth that I found it difficult to concentrate on what he was telling me when I tried to take a history from him about his iguana’s behavior. Then there was the owner of the 30-gram mouse who found this animal running through her apartment before she decided to keep it as a pet and to purchase a friend for it from the local pet store so that it wouldn’t be lonely. These owners were as intriguing as their animals. So, I decided to re-apply for the residency, and the second time, I got it.
Back I went to the AMC, where I spent two jam-packed years taking blood and x-rays and doing surgery on all kinds of unusual pets. I learned that exotic pet owners are as attached to their animals as cat and dog owners and that many of them are overly protective of their pets since they think no one really knows how to care for them. I learned the importance of asking questions about diet, housing, lighting, temperature, nutritional supplements, and social interaction as many of the problems that exotic pets develop are a result of inappropriate husbandry. Too often, people become enthralled with the notion of owning an exotic pet and then purchase or adopt these animals impulsively without doing any research on their care. As a result, many of these pets are not housed or fed appropriately, and they subsequently become ill. Most veterinarians are not educated, either, about these animals’ needs; thus, even when veterinarians are faced with sick exotic pets, they aren’t sure what to do.
During my 2-year exotics residency, I learned that exotic pets require very specific care and that my education regarding this care would never end. There is always a new disease to learn about or a new type of treatment to understand. Often, there are whole new species to study, as people constantly adopt all sorts of new exotic animals as pets. Some of them – like monkeys and venomous reptiles – don’t belong as pets and after treating a handful of them, I vowed never to treat them again. Others, such as injured wildlife, also don’t belong as pets but are kept by well-intentioned people who find them and decide to keep them. These animals need to be treated until they are healthy and then turned over to wildlife rehabilitators who can care for them until they can be released back into the wild.
The most fascinating aspect of my job as a veterinarian who treats birds and exotic animals exclusively, and perhaps the most important reason I chose to specialize in the care of these pets, is that my job is never boring. One day is never the same as the one before. Sure, like a dog and cat veterinarian, I see pets with the same problems over an over. But in any given day, I might see 10 different species, from snakes to chinchillas to parakeets. I am constantly challenged and constantly learning. Continuing education is a daily occurrence, not just an annual trip to a veterinary conference. Unlike dog and cat medicine, much of avian and exotic pet medicine is unchartered; exotic animal veterinarians often must figure out things as they go, through trial and error without relying on precedents. For any veterinary student or veterinarian who enjoys learning and isn’t daunted by problem-solving, a career in avian and exotic pet medicine is tremendously fulfilling.