Spiky, Slimy and Smooth

A python here, a hedgehog there—it’s all in a day’s work for veterinarians who care for zoological companion animals

Dogs and cats may be America’s most popular pets, but nearly 11 percent of us share our lives with exotic creatures, which require a different kind of veterinary care.

“You never know what’s going to come through the door,” says Jennifer Graham of a typical day in the Zoological Companion Animal Medicine Service at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

Her patients are parrots, poultry, canaries, rabbits, ferrets, hamsters, rats, chinchillas, turtles, lizards and toads—among other creatures. “We see pretty much every pet that’s not a cat, dog or large animal,” says Graham, who is one of just 157 U.S. veterinarians board-certified to care for exotic companion mammals or birds.

“People often think that they’re easy pets. But in reality, these species need a lot more specialized care,” she says.

One of only two animal medical centers in New England to offer 24/7 care for exotic and avian patients, the Foster Hospital at Tufts treats about 1,000 patients a year.

Graham and her team, veterinarian Julie DeCubellis and veterinary technician Jessica Leonard, also use their patients to teach Cummings School students how to properly examine all manner of critters, from a palm-sized hedgehog to a 4-foot-long Colombian python.

“Students are often surprised at how much time we take to complete a full physical exam,” says DeCubellis. “We do things in stages, so we don’t push a patient too far, especially if it’s stressed. It takes a lot of experience to learn how best to handle a sick bird versus a sick guinea pig versus a sick reptile.”

Small mammals and birds, for example, instinctively hide any symptoms of illness because they don’t want to get kicked out of the flock or be singled out by a predator, says DeCubellis. “By the time they get to see us, they’re often much sicker than a dog or cat that has come in through the emergency room.”

Reptiles, on the other hand, tend to come to Tufts for “husbandry-related” visits, says DeCubellis. “Their owners want to keep them in tip-top shape and feed them an appropriate diet, but a lot of the time people don’t know what that is.”

While all these animals may have distinctive needs, Graham says their owners’ concerns are anything but unfamiliar: “People have the same strong bond with exotic pets that they would with a dog or a cat.”

Genevieve Rajewski can be reached at genevieve.rajewski@tufts.edu. Steffan Hacker can be reached at steffan.hacker@tufts.edu

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