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Bursting With Pride for Exotics

Sara Dias DVM, MSc, Dip. ABVP-ECM, Dip. ECZM-SM, MRCVS European Veterinary Specialist in Zoological Medicine (Small Mammal) and Emily Tindall RVN APVN (Wildlife + Small Mammals) work together to provide an exotic pet referral Service at Pride Veterinary Referrals.

Nestled within the heart of the hospital, the exotics department is a quiet space often with lots of patients. In a typical week, the team can see up to 10-15 patients varying in species such as small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish. The team also work with less common animals such as meerkats, kinkajous, racoons, monkeys, skunk, and big cats.

Through their knowledge, expertise and experience, the team together have provided an exotic pet referral service for over four and a half years at Pride Veterinary Referrals. During this time, and due to increased demand for the exotic pet referral service, the team moved within the hospital to a larger space in 2021 allowing them to treat more referred pets.

No two days are ever the same within the exotics department. To understand just how varied days can be within a busy referral exotics pet department, we caught up with Sara and Emily who explain more.

Firstly, do either of you have any pets?

S: I have Dobby, a sweet cat and a crazy chicken called Lingo-Lingo.

E: Yes! I have a long-term foster cat called George, a crested gecko called Honey and a corn snake called Peaches. They all like to keep me on my toes.

Can you explain the difference in training required to become an exotics specialist?

S: After studying at university, to become a specialist, you need to undertake a rotating internship for 1 year and then a specialty internship (in my case, an exotics internship) for another year. Once complete, you must then undertake a 3-year residency. At the end of this, you must pass two exams (practical and theory) to finally become a specialist. As a specialist your education never ends, as you need to be aware of all new articles and studies that come out. You need to be on top of the game every day!

What interested you both most when pursuing a career in exotics?

S: As an exotic’s specialist, each day is varied. It’s not easy to study so many different species, but it makes your day interesting and varied.

E: For me, it was the difference in cases and animals. Cats and dogs are wonderful, and I love working with them too but with exotics it never stops being interesting. There’s such a variety in cases and you get to work with so many amazing animals which means you’re constantly learning and constantly having to adapt when dealing with patients to make sure you meet the needs of each of the different species. I also have a large interest in wildlife, so it was a natural choice for me to work in a department where I’d get to help wild animals too.

Have there been any recent advancements in veterinary medicine that have particularly helped when treating exotic patients?

S: Exotic medicine and surgery is evolving fast and new techniques and approaches are being created every day, week and month. Exotics medicine and surgery is the field that is evolving faster nowadays.

E: From a nursing perspective, there’s a lot more CPD and a lot more “exotics focused” courses out there now for us. Which is great, because the more people who learn about exotic animals, the more advancements that’ll be made in the future! The world of exotics veterinary medicine is always changing and adapting and it’s fascinating to see the differences that have been made to how we approach and treat exotic animals.

What is the most challenging aspect when working with exotic pets?

S: When working with exotic patients you need to study lots of different species, and you need to know how to approach each one. This can be very challenging, but it’s also very funny and because lots of instruments/techniques were not created for exotic animals, we need to be very creative with a high level of adaptability. You essentially need to be a chameleon and adapt constantly to your environment.

E: For me, it’s education around exotic animals. Exotics are readily available in a number of places, and you don’t need any specialist knowledge to buy one. There are some sellers that do provide really good information about how to look after the animals they sell, however this is not the norm and people do buy them with very little knowledge on the particular care that animal needs. Owning an exotic pet is not like owning a dog or a cat, and we always recommend that people learn about the animals before they buy one. Much of our job includes discussing husbandry with owners to help them to better care for their exotic pets. We also spend a lot of time discussing things like diet changes, and lifestyle changes that the animal will need in the future.

We are also aware that education about the care of exotics does not form a large part of veterinary nurse education. We do understand that the majority of pets seen by veterinary nurses are dogs, cats and some rabbits, but it would be great to see exotics feature more in the student veterinary nurse curriculum. For many nurses like myself, we have to undertake further training in exotics.

How does working within a large multidisciplinary hospital such as Pride Veterinary Referrals benefit exotic patient care?

S: Specialists love to work as part of a team, as every specialty has strong and specific areas of action (exotics, ophthalmology, dermatology, cardiology, surgery, internal medicine, oncology etc). Being able to discuss high level cases with so many specialists provides a fantastic opportunity to grow together and collaborate to achieve the best patient outcomes.

E: We get to work alongside other disciplines to treat our patients which is always interesting to see! We’ve worked with ophthalmology to help with patients with cataracts, surgery to help with orthopaedic cases, oncology to provide chemotherapy, neurology to carry out spinal surgery and even our physiotherapy team to help with the rehabilitation of some of our patients. It’s amazing to see what can be done and I think having multiple specialists across different departments under one roof helps lead to interesting conversations allowing us to discuss different approaches to treating a case. We once worked alongside our surgery department to rebuild the thoracic wall of a rabbit using metal mesh! It was amazing to see the progression and recovery of the patient.

Do you have any exciting plans for the exotics department for 2024?

S: The exotics department is growing year by year at Pride Veterinary Referrals. Opening internships and residencies might be the next step for us.

E: We are looking to re-design the exotics department so watch this space. I’m also looking forward to seeing what new cases we have come through the door.

What’s your advice for undergraduates looking to pursue a career as an exotic specialist or veterinary nurse?

S: The journey might not be easy, but it will be great! Because exotics medicine and surgery are so different, I recommend students trying to shadow as much as they can during their time at university, to find the field they love the most and definitely to pursue a specialist internship.

E: Don’t give up and do lots of research! It’s going to seem like you need an infinite amount of knowledge and that you have to know everything straight away, but you’ll constantly be learning. Medicine and the way we approach exotic animals is constantly evolving so you’re never going to know everything all at once. And don’t be afraid either – just because exotic animals are different, doesn’t mean they’re completely alien. If you can carry out a physical exam on a cat or dog, you can carry out an examination on an exotic animal. You have to work hard and be dedicated but it’s such a rewarding career choice and you will get to see so many interesting cases and meet so many interesting people. Becoming an exotics nurse was the best decision I’ve made since choosing to become a veterinary nurse.