Training and Preparing Your Technicians to See Exotic Pets
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2014
Matthew Runnells, CVT
Brevard Zoo, Melbourne, FL, USA

When I began my career as a veterinary technician I was told that jobs in exotic animal medicine were nonexistent and that the pay was poor. Although this statement was true it showed me the resistance and superstitions that existed surrounding the exotic and zoo industry. With an ever-increasing population of exotic animal owners there is an equally increasing need for qualified exotic animal veterinarians and veterinary technicians throughout North America. Despite recent legislature the exotic pet industry is growing, but instead of pet stores loaded with troughs of iguanas we now have exotic breeders and importers that have converted their garages to E-market warehouses and ship animals direct to consumers over the internet. This is the world we live in today and as an exotic animal practice you need to prepare your establishment and personnel for the animals they will be seeing. If a practice employs good, qualified technicians, patient procedure success will increase, and most importantly, client happiness and return will increase.

Before You Accept Your First Animal

Before you accept your first exotic patient you must first come to the realization that opening your practice to exotic animal care is not easy or inexpensive. It takes a large amount of invested time from yourself, your practice, and your personnel, but if not done properly, you can open your practice up to legal liability, or worse, negative community opinion. Improper restraint or anesthetic techniques can cause permanent injuries to animals or even death.

Know What Kind of an Employee You Need

A good exotic technician is worth paying more for and to a technician that has great skills and experience there are more employment options. Good, qualified technicians are not easy to come by in the exotic industry. When I mention qualified technicians I am not simply talking about a CVT, RVT, or LVT. I am referring to a technician that has the desire and experience to work comfortably around and with all species of exotic animals. Practices who want exotic veterinary technicians need to hire individuals that know how to restrain a Bennett's wallaby at 9 am, prepare for and complete a wing trim for a Moluccan cockatoo at 11 am, and have the knowledge to anesthetize a prized koi at 1 pm for an exam, all while keeping customers happy and educating them on how to be better pet owners.

Important skills for an exotic veterinary technician:

 Capture and restraint techniques of a multitude of exotic species for exams, medications, and transport.

 Versed in the use of darting equipment including blow guns, dart guns, pole syringes, and jab sticks.

 Expresses a comfort with a multitude of species, including snakes, birds, spiders, and invertebrates.

 Skilled in radiology techniques commonly used with exotic species.

 Knowledge and ability to process blood and other samples from exotic species, including avian, reptile, amphibian, and fish CBCs and chemistries.

 Knowledgeable with the daily husbandry and enclosure design for a wide variety of species.

 Anesthetic protocols and drugs used in the immobilization of exotic animals.

 Knowledge and understanding of neonate husbandry for a variety of species.

 Good interpersonal skills and the ability to work well with others.

 The ability to think outside the box!

How to Begin

Now that you know what kind of technician you want, how do you go about getting one? There are two basic methods of employing exotic technicians. The first is to look within your practice for a person that has the passion to work within the confines of your desired skill set. The second method is to hire someone from outside the practice who has years of experience and many skills. Both methods can have advantages and disadvantages.

When adding an exotic technician to your staff, make it a new position. Whether hiring within or new, give this individual the flexibility to organize patient scheduling, ordering supplies, arrange testing protocols, ordering equipment needs, and hospital protocols related to dealing with exotic species. This new position can also be a whole different department within your hospital. By giving the individual responsibility over this "new section" it will make them feel a part of the practice rather than just working within it. When an individual feels like they have ownership in a task they will start to take pride in it and want to succeed in every aspect.

Looking Within Your Practice

Looking within your practice can be easy and cost effective. Previous knowledge of the individual's work ethics and skill level can give you an advantage over the possibility of taking a chance on a new individual. You may also find that although this individual may not have all the training you would like they are moldable to your desired skills.

When hiring from within, open the position to everyone within the practice by posting it for everyone to see. Have potential candidates sign a list to be included in the interview process but give them a deadline to sign up for it. You may find that you have some very strong candidates while others are more reluctant to try something different. Perform individual interviews to identify the one person that fits your criteria and will be worthy of your effort and money for further training. Announce the successful candidate for everyone to hear and list their new responsibilities so that everyone will come to identify that person as the go-to-person for exotic patients.

Training for Success

Training existing personnel to handle and react to a wide variety of exotic animals is an overwhelming task. Sometimes the best way to train a technician to deal with exotic species is to let them go out and get additional training at facilities that already see exotic species. Have them go to as many other facilities as possible and spend four weeks shadowing and training side-by-side with experienced exotic technicians.

Some places that may be receptive to this cooperative relationship would be:

 Wildlife rehabilitation hospitals


 Wildlife breeding facilities

 Research facilities

 Out-of-area exotic practices

 Exotic rescue organizations

You, as the practice owner, may have to make arrangements with these facilities to help you train your employees. Some facilities may be happy to help while other may not even return your call. By sending technicians to other facilities you effectively train them with many of the common practices used, best techniques for restraint and capture, common aesthetic protocols and methods, and in-house lab techniques. The longer you allow a technician to train, the better their skills will be upon return.

There are a number of continuing education possibilities for exotic veterinary technicians. These may cost money or they may be free, but the more exposure your employees get to the exotic and zoo industry as a whole, the better their skills will be. There are several capture and restraint seminars that employees can go to that will certify an individual in capture and restraint of exotic animals. There are also several organizations such as Association of Zoo Veterinary Technicians, American Association of Zoo Keepers, American Exotic Mammal Veterinarians, and the Association of Avian Veterinarians. These organizations have a wide variety of resources, forums, and annual conferences for continued education. The investment of sending employees to conferences, seminars, and classes will pay off with increased skill, better resources libraries, and more contacts within the exotic industry.

Hiring From Outside

If there are no employees within your practice that fit your requirements, hiring a new individual may be your only option. Hiring a person from outside your practice gives you a much larger pool of experienced personnel to choose from. You might get an individual that has years of experience in zoos and aquariums or you may find someone that has worked in wildlife rehabilitation for much of their career. The advantage of opening the pool to the outside world is that you need to spend less time to train these individuals to the common techniques and methods used around the country. These individuals can usually manage even the toughest exotic species, but they may not have the customer service skills to be able to make exotic pet owners feel comfortable with their skills. A working interview may give you a better idea of potential candidate's customer service skills and office interpersonal skills.

You will still need to support continued education of these individuals. They will need to continue getting as much exposure to those organizations and industries that work with species you may see. By staying connected to other industries they gain the connection to the vast resources those industries offer.

You may need to increase your salary bracket for an experienced exotic veterinary technician. These individuals have lots of employment options like zoos, research facilities, wildlife hospitals, conservation programs, field research projects, and other exotic practices. The average pay for experienced exotic technicians range from $11 to $26 per hour, and although this may be more than what you currently pay it should be offset by increased profits once you begin taking exotic patients. If a practice does not increase its pay scale it limits the number and experience of qualified candidates, but you will also increase your chances for a higher turnover rate of employees.

Today, benefits packages such as medical, dental, retirement, and paid continuing education are now as valued to prospective employees as higher pay. With the increased cost of medical insurance qualified individuals are actively looking for jobs that include all these, and by including these items in a hiring package you can offset lower hourly pay.


In conclusion, filling the position for an exotic veterinary technician is not impossible and finding the right person can make all the difference in gaining more profits by making exotic pet owners comfortable with not only the skills of the veterinarian but the staff in the practice. Exotic pet owners are often skeptical of the skills of veterinary professionals, but with proper personnel and proper education the exotic pet owners and breeders will be flocking to your practice.


Speaker Information
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Matthew S. Runnells, CVT
Sea Turtle Healing Center
Brevard Zoo
Melbourne, FL, USA

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