Turtles and Lizards and Snakes, Oh My!

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Exotic pet medicine is an exciting field of veterinary medicine that can greatly differ from the traditional care given to dogs and cats. Many different species are considered “exotic pets” including small mammals, birds, reptiles, and even fish. As you can imagine, the practice of medicine on a rabbit is greatly different from a goldfish.

If you have an exotic pet, the first step is to simply call and ask your veterinarian to see if he/she is comfortable seeing that species. Even veterinarians who see exotics do have some limitations. For example, I will not see monkeys, miniature pigs, or spiders. Some veterinarians who do not have a lot of experience with certain animals may be comfortable with seeing your pet initially, but may have to refer you to another veterinarian if there is an issue that they do not have the right equipment or supplies to treat (just like we have to do with some of our dog and cat patients). You can also ask if your veterinarian is a member of any special organizations. My biggest interest is reptiles, so I am a member of the Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians and attend an annual conference to learn about cutting edge topics and share stories about interesting cases with other reptile veterinarians.

When you bring your exotic pet to the vet, make sure you bring all of your pet’s
“husbandry” information with you. “Husbandry” refers to the way exotic pets are kept and includes details about their diet and habitat. This is the biggest difference between exotic pets and dogs / cats. Most exotic pets require specific temperature, moisture, and lighting requirements. Even the best owners cannot perfectly replicate the natural environment or diet exactly the same as the animal would experience in the wild. So, we continually re-evaluate husbandry, especially on animals that are sick. If your veterinarian asks you specific questions about how you keep your pet or offers you advice on possible improvements, this is only because the vet is trying to help you keep your pet as healthy as possible.

The internet is not a bad place to look for husbandry requirements, but do not trust everything you read online. Care sheets from websites of exotic animal hospitals are more reliable than a random message board. Also, please remember that recommendations are always evolving based on new research to help us adjust the husbandry standards to provide the best care for our exotic pets. There are many older resources out there that were considered reliable until research proved that alternatives were better.

One example of an outdated resource is a reptile textbook from the 1970’s that I recently came across. In its time, this book was considered a reliable resource. Within the book is a strategy recommending putting turtles in the freezer to induce anesthesia. This technique is now considered very cruel. The same type of outdated information is out there for husbandry techniques for many exotic pets, so please be careful what you follow. If you have any questions, please ask an exotic veterinarian for recommendations for trustworthy resources.

By: Dr. Miller
Lakewood Animal Hospital