Excitingly Unusual Pets at the ER

Most ERs have exotics folks they can call for advice

Published: November 13, 2012

Photo by Melissa Kaplan
My old friend and longtime VetzInsight reader Mary M. Webster defines ‘exotic’ as strikingly, excitingly, or mysteriously different or unusual. This is as good a label as any other for those non-standard (non-cat or non-dog) pets that sometimes find their way to the ER – the snakes that slither in, birds that flap in or sugar gliders that sweetly float in when injured or unwell.

If I was the boss of everything, all pets would be dogs or cats. I don’t wish the exotics any ill, mind you, it’s just that I don’t want to work on them. They are complex, take specialized knowledge that I don’t possess; you can really mess them up if you don’t have a clue what you are doing and totally obliterate that old saw that we medical types try and adhere to – first, do no harm. In Latin, that’s primum non nocere – pretty exotic sounding, I’d say.

There are two types of exotic pet owners. The first type accidentally stumbled into owning strikingly unusual pets through happenstance or misadventure, and now has the rafters full of bats, iguanas and salt-water fish by inheritance or stumbled-upon-it-ness. Uncle Floyd passed away, and his chinchilla had to go somewhere. These folks are that somewhere.

The second type of mysteriously different pet owner is the enthusiast. They are devoted to the idea of exotic pet ownership and are champions of the species in question. They love their tarantulas, ferrets and hedgehogs, and have read up, stocked up and generally smarted up on how to take the best possible care of their crawly, spiny or reptilian friends. In many cases they know more than the veterinarians who sometimes have to care for these unusual species after hours.

I just do dogs and cats. I’m pretty mainstream that way. There is precious little room in my brain for knowledge about more than those two species. But the scaly, the slimy, the venomous and the feathery need emergency care sometimes, too. What are we all to do when the hamster feels less peppy on his wheel, or the frilled lizard can’t find the energy to do…well, whatever the heck little frilled lizards do for fun?

Luckily there are exotic specialist vets out there and some of them work emergency. They can step in when the call comes and splint the wing or give the hamster what he needs. But they are few and far between – they can’t be there for all the exotics emergencies. At Purdue, we have a couple of exotics folks on call, and when the sugar glider lands in our ER we call them. We don’t call them in, we just call them. Luckily, with many exotics, you just need a voice on the phone telling you what to do (and, sometimes, more importantly, what not to do) and you can get them through the night until the exotics folks can care for them the next day.

Many of the second type of exotic pet owners, the enthusiasts, already have networked a support structure for when the rabbit is off his carrots, or the capybara ‒ the world’s largest rodent ‒ is feeling puny. They have secret phone numbers to call to get help and a network of sympathetic sympathizers, like the French resistance in World War II. This is an alternative to trudging to the ER, where the well-meaning but clueless ER vet could administer a dose of something that would cure the dog but kill the bunny. A dose of penicillin can be lifesaving to a dog with leptospirosis but lethal to the bacteria in a rabbit’s hindgut that allow him to digest the otherwise indigestible fiber in grass and carrots. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that it was not the penicillin that killed Bugs, but the stupid.

Over the years I have picked up a few tidbits on how to successfully treat exotics and avoid being overly stupid. Despite sophisticated avoidance tactics, I have had the odd ferret slink in and I had to learn how to do something. I have learned that:

  • Ferrets can be fairly successfully treated if you think of them as long, slender cats – minimal restraint, don’t do well without food for too long, get lots of liver and GI issues. 
  • Rabbits need a lack of stress to survive, have veins in their ears you can use for an IV and can’t handle penicillin. 
  • Similarly, rodents can’t handle certain kinds of antibiotics without dying. 
  • Oftentimes, the roots of a sick guinea pig's problems are the results of insufficient vitamin C. You will never go wrong by hitting a sick guinea pig with a blast of vitamin C! 
  • Birds need quiet, warmth and oxygen. 
  • Healthy birds can die from restraint, which is even trickier when they’re sick. 
  • Many diseases in lizards and snakes are nutritionally based and take a long time to onset. Although they present urgently, these diseases are rarely fixed rapidly. 
  • Do a really long EKG before calling a reptile dead.

Despite learning these few things, I would never present myself as capable with exotics; I have just learned a few tricks that keep me from doing more harm than good until the people with the right skills can take over.

We sometimes throw the front office staff under the bus when it comes to letting pet owners know we are not all that adept at treating exotics. We have them let potential exotic owners know that the only ER doc on staff is exotics stupid and the leopard gecko might stand a better chance on his own than at the hands of Dr. Clueless. This tactic usually works for the ones that call in, but for the guinea pig who just shows up it obviously won’t do much. For those, we just have to do our best and try and help without too much harm thrown in the mix. Most owners understand and are appreciative of our efforts to help. We often have to thumb through textbooks to develop a workable plan, and can often pick up necessary tidbits from the pet owner’s knowledge base. Most ERs have exotics folks they can call for advice. We can usually muddle through with a minimum of fuss, death or angst.

Every once in a while I have encountered some rage from the unrealistic pet owner who expects all ERs to always have someone available to deal with every species, but those incidents are thankfully rare.

Like many things in life, the key is usually preparation. If you own a non-dog or non-cat, plan ahead: buff up the support network, know what your after-hours options are and check them regularly to see if they’ve changed. Read up on the special needs of your strikingly different pet. Who knows – you may need to help me out someday, and your exotic pet will thank you for it.

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