Small Carnivore Pet Medicine
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2014
Gretchen A. Cole, DVM, DACZM
Oklahoma City Zoo, Oklahoma City, OK, USA


The order Carnivora includes a variety of species which are not primarily carnivores. Below is an abbreviated list of the families and example species.

 Family Canidae: non-domestic dogs, fox, wolf

 Family Procyonidae: raccoon, kinkajou, coatimundi

 Family Mustelidae: otter, ferret, weasel

 Family Mephitidae: skunk

 Family Viverridae: civet, meerkat, mongoose, binturong

 Family Felidae: bobcat, puma (also known as mountain lion or cougar)

Safety Precautions

It is important to consider the philosophical, legal, and ethical implications of working with these species. You need to feel comfortable that this working relationship with your clients owning these species has full disclosure from a safety standpoint for both you and your staff. Ethical issues, such as declawing and canine extractions, need to be considered before your frontline staff receives the call. Utilize policies developed by the American Veterinary Medical Association,, and American Association of Zoo Veterinarians,, as guides for your practice.

Physical Restraint

Maximize your success of restraint while minimizing human safety risk by utilizing squeeze crates, restraint poles and boards, and nets if physical restraint is required prior to chemical restraint. Generally, smaller species (< 10 kg) can be physically restrained (with the help of a net and bite gloves); larger species (10–45 kg) should be physically restrained with caution, utilizing restraint poles or boards and bite gloves, briefly for hand injection of anesthetic agents.

Chemical Restraint and Anesthesia

In contrast to other zoo and wildlife species, much of the information in the domestic literature can be extrapolated to most of these carnivore species. The same principles used in domestic dog and cat medicine apply with some notable exceptions mentioned below.

Dissociative anesthetics (ketamine and tiletamine) have traditionally been the drug of choice, alone or in combination with other classes. They are generally safe, inexpensive, and allow for minor procedures or to enable safe handling until the animal can be placed on inhalant anesthesia. Alone, they have been known to cause rough inductions and recoveries, hypersalivation, muscle stiffness, and paroxysmal head movements. If used in combination with reversible anesthetics, it is critical that ketamine be metabolized before reversal is given (typically 30–45 minutes post-administration if given intramuscular). Tiletamine and zolazepam (Telazol®/Zoletil®) is an excellent induction agent but recovery times may be prolonged. There is no antagonist agent for tiletamine, but zolazepam can be antagonized as per below.

Benzodiazepines (diazepam, midazolam, zolazepam) are excellent sedatives and are typically used in combination with the dissociative class to smooth out and quicken inductions. This class is antagonized (reversed) with flumazenil. The short half-life of flumazenil (approximately 1 hour) makes repeated dosing sometimes necessary.

Opiates - primarily used as perioperative analgesics, they do produce respiratory depression in several species.

Alpha-2 agonists - xylazine, detomidine, medetomidine and dexmedetomidine are potent sedatives typically used in combination with ketamine. Use caution when using this class alone as it will not commonly cause full anesthesia, but rather heavy sedation. This class can be antagonized by the catecholamine response of restraint and has risk of animal arousal when used alone. Dosages for xylazine, detomidine, and medetomidine are commonly the same as domestic cat and dogs. However, dexmedetomidine is recommended to be used at half the dose. Antagonism (reversal) of alpha-2 agonists can be accomplished with atipamezole (less commonly yohimbine or tolazoline).

Recovery: Canids and viverrids are typically pack species by nature and prolonged separation should be minimized to reduce reintroduction issues after recovery. If the animal is a colony animal and must go back in with its group, care must be used in reintroduction, especially if animal has been out for an extended period of time or is still not fully recovered. Consider scent marking several, or all, members of a colony so they all have the same foreign scent. This can be accomplished by rubbing animals with baby powder or perfume.

Preanesthetic fasting for 12 hours is recommended for most medium to large carnivore species, but should be decreased to 4–8 hours for smaller species.

An excited animal will oftentimes require higher dose/dosages than a trained animal receiving a hand injection under "comfortable" conditions. Alternatively, a debilitated animal may require much less.

Muzzles are not recommended for exotic canid species as they prevent their ability to pant and can lead to hyperthermia.

A viverrid species, the binturong, has a prehensile tail and can use it with agility during times of restraint, even when sedated.

In some felid species, such as puma, hyperkalemia has been reported during anesthetic event with a normokalemic state prior to procedure which can contribute to complications such as arrhythmias and cardiac arrest.

Intubation is similar to domestic species with careful consideration of laryngospasm by using topical anesthetics. It is a good practice to utilize mouth gags at all times prior to and during intubation/extubation to minimize the risk of human safety compromise.

During induction and maintenance of anesthesia, eye covers should be utilized to minimize any visual stimulation and reduce excitation of the animal during restraint.

Premedications: The use of premedications may make anesthetic induction smoother, both from a handling point of view as well as decreasing the amount of drug needed to induce anesthesia. Commonly used preanesthetics are similar to domestic species. In a healthy animal, the owner may give oral premedications at home approximately 30–60 minutes before presentation. It must be stressed to the owner that they cannot be given in a large volume of food or liquid because of increasing the chances of regurgitation and vomiting during anesthetic induction.

Preventative Health

Regular health examination is recommended for pet carnivores. This includes thorough physical examination with evaluation of teeth. Dental disease is common and dental prophylaxis is often needed. Regular assessment of health through blood (complete blood count and serum chemistry) and urinalysis is recommended.

Infectious Disease Testing

Serologic evaluation for infectious diseases should be considered when an animal has been at risk of exposure or may be introduced to a new animal or household.

 Canidae, Procyonidae: canine distemper virus, occult heartworm (antigen, not antibody)

 Viverridae, Mustelidae, Mephitidae: occult heartworm (antigen, not antibody)

 Felidae: FIV, FeLV, occult heartworm (antigen, not antibody)


 Canidae, Procyonidae, Viverridae, Mephitidae, Mustelidae: canine distemper (canary pox vector vaccine), rabies

 Felidae: rabies, feline viral rhinotracheitis, calicivirus, and panleukopenia (FVRCP)

Rabies Vaccination

With the exception of the ferret, there is no rabies vaccine licensed for use in exotic carnivores. Therefore, while biologically protective antibodies may be present, off-label usage does not provide legal protection. In the event of a human bite exposure (non-ferret), a medical record review and quarantine by the local health authority may be imposed. This does not reflect poor performance by the veterinarian, but rather a lack of legal standing of the vaccine when used off-label. Caution should be exercised with vaccines licensed for 3-year usage. While they probably work in exotic carnivores, annual vaccination may aid a client during a public health inquiry following a bite injury. Additionally, modified-live rabies vaccines have been associated with positive disease conversion in raccoons. It is advisable to avoid modified-live vaccines in non-traditional species, where limited information exists.

Canine Distemper

Canine distemper vaccines have been associated with positive disease conversion in procyonids, mustelids, and non-domestic canids when administered a modified-live vaccine. The newest type of canine distemper vaccination is a canarypox-vectored subunit vaccine (PureVax Ferret Distemper, Merial). While it is labeled Ferret Distemper, it is actually canine distemper virus vaccination labeled for use ferrets. It does not contain a full virus genome and appears both effective and safe for use in all non-domestic carnivores.

Other Vaccinations

Giardia, Borrelia, Leptospira, Bordetella, parvovirus, coronavirus, and parainfluenza virus vaccinations are not frequently used in exotic carnivores.

Heartworm Prevention

All carnivores should be considered at risk of heartworm disease and regular monthly heartworm prevention is recommended. Products labeled for use in cats or dogs are usually well tolerated by exotic carnivores. The most common treatment is oral ivermectin (0.006 mg/kg orally monthly).

Parasite Prevention

As with cats and dogs, regular evaluation of feces (floatation and direct examination) is encouraged. Treatment is the same as domestic animals, though dosages should be calculated based on a current weight. If fleas are found, it is best to treat both the animal and environment and prevent reoccurrence. Exotic carnivores don't often tolerate flea collars.

Neonatal Care

Care of neonates is similar to domestic cats and dogs. Examination, umbilical evaluation, and vaccination are important. Neonatal vaccination series is adapted from the current recommendations for domestic cats and dogs.


Venipuncture in exotic carnivores is similar to domestic cats and dogs. In general, jugular, cephalic, and saphenous vessels are easily found. A few exceptions are listed here.

 Procyonidae: Raccoons are commonly overweight with abundant subcutaneous fat stores. When peripheral vessels are not easily identified, an alternative is the cranial vena cava. Positioning is as is described for ferrets.

 Mustelidae: Ferrets commonly have small peripheral vessels, though often visible. If an animal is anesthetized, the cranial vena cava is an excellent option. Otters often have thickly muscled limbs and dense fur coat, making peripheral venipuncture difficult. Shaving the fur doesn't seem to aid visualization. Consider jugular or cranial vena cava puncture.

 Felidae: Jugular venipuncture can sometimes be difficult in the anesthetized exotic cat. Proper positioning of a lengthened neck with fur pulled taut will be helpful. Typically the cephalic and saphenous are made easily visible by application of alcohol and/or shaving fur. The ventral tail vein is an option in larger felids and can also be catheterized.

Urethral Catheterization

Mustelidae: Male mustelids have two unique penile characteristics. They have a baculum (os penis) and the urethral opening exists not on the tip of the penis, but rather as a shallow grove alongside the tip. It is best to exteriorize the penis to visualize the groove when attempting to catheterize.


Zoonotic diseases occur in exotic carnivores. Use of personal protective equipment is recommended. One should consider the zoonotic diseases expected from domestic cats and dogs, as well as these additional diseases.

 Mustelidae: Ferrets are susceptible to human influenza viruses and can develop disease from exposure to infected humans (anthropozoonosis), and probably from ferret to humans (zoonosis).

 Procyonidae: Raccoons are the definitive host for Baylisascaris procyonis. This zoonotic parasite is transmitted via a fecal-oral route. Due to raccoon grooming behavior, it should be assumed that oocysts are present on the animal's fur coat and that handling without gloves increases risk of transmission, even when fecal matter is not observed.


 Canidae: Diets consist of a high-quality dog food and/or a commercial meat diet.

 Procyonidae: Raccoon often eat dog food with 10% added fruits and vegetables. Kinkajou are mainly fruit and honey eaters, but also eat small whole prey (rodents and insects).

 Mustelidae: Ferrets are commonly fed a pelleted food or a whole prey diet. Otters are commonly fed whole prey (fish and rodents) and/or a commercial meat diet.

 Mephitidae: Skunks are omnivorous and should be fed a variety of whole prey (chicks and rodents), eggs, insects, worms, and fruit. A commercial dog food can be the base of the diet with other items added. Obesity is common.

 Viverridae: Meerkat are commonly fed a variety of whole prey, meat, insects, hard-boiled egg, and fruit and vegetable mix. A diet of all insects/meat often leads to obesity. Avocado has shown to be an accepted addition to meerkat diets to decrease calories while maintaining good-quality fat intake. Binturong are exclusively fruit eaters.

 Felidae: Small exotic cats do well with domestic cat food or a commercial meat/whole prey diet. Medium-to-large exotic cats should be fed a commercial meat/whole prey diet. A fasting day is optional, where the animal is given a bone to chew.


This author appreciates the use of material from Deidre K. Fontenot, DVM.


1.  Fontenot DK. Exotic carnivore restraint, anesthesia and analgesia. In: Proceedings from the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Annual Conference; October 25–30, 2009; Tulsa, Oklahoma.

2.  Fowler M. Restraint and Handling of Wild and Domestic Animals. 2nd ed. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press; 1995.

3.  Kreeger TJ, Arnemo JM. Handbook of Wildlife Chemical Immobilization. 4th ed. Published by author; 2012.

4.  Maas AK 3rd. Legal implications of the exotic pet practice. Vet Clin North Am Exot Anim Pract. 2005;8(3):497–514.

5.  Miller RE, Fowler ME. eds. Zoo and Wild Animal Medicine. Vol. 8. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier; 2014.

6.  West GD, Heard D, Caulkett N. eds. Zoo Animal and Wildlife Immobilization and Anesthesia. Ames, IA: Blackwell Publishing; 2007.


Speaker Information
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Gretchen A. Cole, DVM, DACZM
Oklahoma City Zoo
Oklahoma City, OK, USA

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