Vet Talk

The Wild, the Weird, and the Wacky: Unfamiliar Species

Before you get that unusual pet, find a veterinarian who can treat it

Published: January 28, 2013

After spending 12 hours on a strange Sunday on emergency call, going back and forth all day between two locations to treat two horses who decided to live, I began to mull my choices of artery-clogging fat and protein items slathered in cheese and mayo from the local drive thru. As I patted the second horse on its fuzzy head, my phone rang (cue dread-inducing music).

“Dr. Corp? Can you go to XXX Sanctuary? They have a down bear.”

Wow, my blood sugar must have been really low. I was obviously hallucinating. “Did you say a bear??”

“Yes, they have an old Alaskan Brown Bear and she’s been down most of the day, so they need you to go see her.”

When I started that particular job, I had been very clear. I treat things with hooves. Bears do not have hooves. But that wasn’t really the night-time receptionist’s fault.

“Ummmm…. They do know that I don’t know anything about bears, right?”

“Yes, but their carnivore vet is out of town.”

Not words that you want to hear. Personally, I like being higher on the food chain than my patients. Still, never one to pass up the weird and congenitally unable to say “No," I went. I examined the old, dehydrated bear, and I treated her to the best of my abilities. Then I cursed several closed drive-thrus before finally finding dinner, thankful that I had not become dinner.

The bear, while high on the list of weird patients I have seen, was at least in a reputable sanctuary with excellent facilities and knowledgeable staff (with the exception of a certain emergency veterinarian). However, I have treated other patients that live on the fringes of “normal” agriculture with decidedly more mixed feelings and results.

Small scale animal agriculture, particularly in California – acne-spotted as it is with urban-rural interfaces – tends to be as fickle in its trends as a pack of Katy Perry-overdosed tweens. Folks move to “the country” (usually the first visible open space within 30 miles of metropolitan limits), buy a few acres, and decide to “keep animals.” Often these are not the animals best known to the livestock veterinarian – cattle, horses, sheep, goats, or pigs of the expected sizes and shapes. Instead, these new farmers tend to go for animals lurking just outside of the veterinary comfort zone – either offbeat variations on the expected species or species that best resemble drawings from a Dr. Seuss book. I also do not know how to treat Loraxes.

I entered veterinary school in the early 1990s, in time to catch the tail (pun intended) ends of the pot-bellied pig and llama phenomenas. I entered my first job in clinical large animal medicine in 2001 at the height of the miniature-everything frenzy and the beginning of the heyday of the hairy (alpacas, Highlander cattle, and hair sheep and goats.) Ostriches and emus also staged a brief invasion of the countryside, but I escaped them using my “I only treat things with hooves” clause. Birds frighten me under the best of circumstances; birds that can kill just seem like a bad idea.

Warning flags should have gone up in my first week in large animal practice when both the receptionist and technician asked “Will you see llamas and alpacas?” Not only did they not disguise their hopeful eagerness, they were practically drooling on my boots. Well, I had taken a camelid medicine class in school, and I figured if I could buy a book, what could go wrong?

The illustrious Dr. Johnson has written about exotic pets on the small animal side of things. Even though a veterinary license in most states of the U.S. covers pretty much any species other than homo sapiens, most of us exit vet school with biases and experiences geared toward a limited number of species. Dr. J. wishes that all veterinary patients came in either cat or dog flavor. I’d be delighted if every patient neighed, moo-ed, or, under dire circumstances, baa-ed. I grew up with horses, and have over 30 years of experience with the end that bites and the end that kicks. I was raised in dairy country and majored in Animal Science in college, so I have more than a passing familiarity with cattle. Sheep and goats function similarly enough to cattle that they aren’t too much like treating aliens, but after that, things get rather dicey. Witness the bear.

Examining any flavor of pig is much like examining an angry dirigible with bad amp feedback. Llamas resemble a cross between a giraffe and a rather grouchy rabbit, don’t much care for human contact, and spit with accuracy that is the envy of third grade boys. Alpacas are substantially cuter than their llamoid cousins, being somewhat softer and smaller teddy bear/giraffe hybrids, but still have no physiological or behavioral counterparts in the known domestic-animal kingdom. And don’t even get me started on reindeer, zebras, camels, or bison.

Even some of the offshoot breeds of common domestic species have their own special needs and challenges. Pygmy goats, viewed by many as “starter livestock,” are the Boston Terriers of the goat world; they tend toward joint problems and run disproportionately ahead of the average in the emergency C-section standings. Miniature horse and cattle breeds have their own issues. Highland cattle can be unnerving to veterinarians who are used to working on cattle that don’t look like Muppets with really long horns; that said, once one adapts to searching for the patient under a reddish brown carpet, Highlands are pretty decent bovids. Parasites or skin conditions that might fall under the category of minor nuisance in most livestock practice can be economically - and emotionally - devastating in fiber-producing animals such as alpacas and hair sheep and goats.

While the majority of small-animal pet owners are content having animals whose sole purpose is to be petted, in livestock pets constitute a minority. Even novice livestock owners typically expect their animals to do something to earn their keep. Unless the veterinarian plans on teaching the alpaca to juggle or play the ocarina, the vet needs to not only understand the physiology, diseases, and behavior of the animal, but also must be reasonably well informed regarding the expectations for fiber production or show.

Sometimes a one-semester-long-ago class and a text book don’t really cut it.

Faced with the prospect of treating a patient where one has little knowledge, little experience, and possibly even less skill, the veterinarian has a few choices:

  1. Assemble every possible resource, do some research, and go for it just the one time, while letting the owner know that you know very little about Species X.
  2. Buy books, take classes, get hands-on experience, and become a llama/alpaca/zebra/reindeer/funky cattle veterinarian.
  3. Tell the receptionist to say that the doctor is fully booked until the next apocalypse in the queue.
  4. Find an expert in the field and attempt referral or, at the very least, a panicky, whispered consultation from the truck.

I usually chose whatever combination of options 1, 2, and 4 seemed appropriate. Rarely did I refuse to see a patient, but when I did it was because the little voices in my head were screaming that it was not in the prospective patient’s best interests, and certainly not in mine.

If you own or are contemplating owning non-standard livestock, do yourselves, your animals, and the local veterinary clinics a favor and consider the following:

  • Do your homework, including field trips. Don’t just read up on your dream animal. The Internet won’t convey important details such as whether you are allergic to the food, bedding, or animal itself; offensive noises, smells, or language from the animal; the weight of the animal’s excrement when loaded into a wheelbarrow (ask me about the summer spent shoveling elephant poop); whether this species is amenable to human contact or views humans as entry rugs; and whether the animal tends to eat the landscape or dismantle fences, barns, and small towns. Visit a ranch. Offer to volunteer around the ranch. Ideally visit a ranch whose owner isn’t hoping to sell you expensive examples of the breed.
  • Budget, budget, budget. What facilities do you need? (Hint: a barn or shed and some fencing are rarely sufficient.) What will the feed costs be? Does the animal require special care – hoof trimming, shearing, vaccinations, deworming? Will you be capable of doing those procedures? Be brutally honest with yourself here; if you struggle to prune roses or trim dog nails, shearing a llama is going to be out of your league. What sorts of diseases or emergency situations are common in this species? If you are raising meat animals, what is the plan for slaughter? If you are raising milk animals, do you have the facilities for milking and pasteurization of the milk, even if it is for your use alone?
  • Do you have a network of more experienced people? Is there an association of owners of your critter-of-choice in your area? Are there classes you can take through your local agriculture extension?
  • What veterinary services are available? If you have gone with the offbeat choice: reindeer, bison (in most parts of the country), zebras, even llamas, alpacas, and pigs, be prepared for your local veterinary clinics to say politely but oh-so-firmly, “I’m sorry, but we don’t see that.” Don’t bother arguing. If you already have a good relationship with your livestock veterinarian, there is a microscopic chance that with sufficient alcohol or chocolate you might be able to convince that vet to suddenly become educated about Species X. However, most of the time, if a veterinarian has chosen not to practice on a species, the choice was made with everyone’s best interests at heart. You may have to be prepared to transport your animal(s) some distance to find an appropriate veterinarian; this means having the appropriate trailer/truck/etc .

A journey through the land of the wild, weird, and wacky can be a fabulous adventure or the worst sort of nightmare. If you find a veterinarian willing to travel with you into the unknown, do what you can to make that trip easier for all of you:

  • Have the appropriate handling facilities for the species.
  • Find out as much as possible from reliable sources (universities and breed registries are often a good start) about the proper care and keeping of the species in question.
  • Share information with your veterinarian in a non-threatening way; make the effort a partnership, not a demand.
  • Realize that human safety comes first.
  • If you learn of good continuing education courses available for veterinarians on that species, let your vet know. Heck, it may be worth the investment of paying for your veterinarian to attend the course if it is local or online
  • Appreciate that your veterinarian may be stepping outside a comfort zone.
  • Don’t make it a guessing game. If you have picked up hints or tricks on working with your animals, SHARE.

And if you have a sick bear, don’t call me.


February 11, 2013

I have no idea why on earth anyone wants exotics. Truly. Not only are they very specific for veterinary needs, but often handling them requires a certain skill set that people don't understand. Most of John and Jane Q Public can't handle an assertive (not even aggressive) dog, let alone a llama that will truly hurt you and that's not even in the same book as a zebra. The zebra isn't in the same book as oh....let's say, a monkey. Nope. Def sticking with the horses, dogs and cats. It's expensive enough to treat them when things go wrong!

Rhonda LaBelle, RVT 
January 28, 2013

Love, love, LOVE this article! Our practice sees about 20% SMALL exotic species ... none of which need a barn or corral ... and parrots. Lots of parrots. Too many people buy/adopt non-dogs and non-cats without really knowing what they are getting themselves into. The husbandry, nutrition, environmental enrichment and veterinary care needed to keep these animals healthy are often way beyond what they are able (or willing) to provide. Thank you for talking so openly about this, and for approaching this subject with both humor and realism. :)


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