Why and how to run an exotic-friendly practice

25 April 2024

With ownership of non-traditional companion animals (exotic pets) continuing to rise, it’s more important than ever to consider how veterinary visits and care can be tailored to the often-misunderstood needs of these species and the key role that all practice staff have to play.

At this year’s BSAVA Congress, Adina Valentine, RVN and Clinical Manager at Origin Vets Clinic, spoke about why and how to run an exotic-friendly practice, and how this can be incorporated into mixed practice to improve the welfare of exotic patients.

The challenges of exotic pets

Most exotic species mask signs of illness extremely well. Stress is a killer in many exotic patients and additional stress can lead to quick decompensation. Opportunities to reduce stress should be taken in all aspects of the veterinary visit – starting with travel to the practice and including the waiting area, the consulting room, theatre and kennels.

Prior to visiting the practice

Encourage owners to start desensitisation to new objects at home as soon as they adopt their pet and before any veterinary visits are needed. This includes desensitisation to transport carriers (particularly important for birds), towels and getting their pet accustomed to handling.

It’s critical that the reception team and other staff who answer the phones are trained and able to signpost owners to husbandry information over the phone.

Traveling to the practice

Transporting exotic patients to the practice can be stressful and exacerbate their clinical symptoms. Owners should be advised on how to safely transport their pets to reduce stress as much as practicable. Whilst it may seem obvious, some basic principles are driving carefully, avoiding loud music/the radio in the car, and making sure animals are safely secured in their transport carrier.

For reptiles, it’s important that they are kept warm during transportation. A small heat source can be provided using a hot water bottle or microwavable heat pad wrapped in a towel, but this should not be placed somewhere where the animal can come into direct contact with it, to avoid them getting burnt. Small to medium size reptiles can be transported in well-ventilated plastic containers with the lid closed, lined with a towel or newspaper, and larger or adult lizards and snakes can be brought in a securely tied cloth bag, pillow case or duvet case.

Birds can be transported in a large cat carrier or collapsible dog crate, and perches inside the carrier are essential.

For small mammals, plenty of bedding and hay should be put in their transport carrier and a calming spray (such as ‘Pet Remedy’) can be sprayed on towels that are placed in or near the carrier, which can have a calming effect on the animal. For animals that live in bonded pairs, such as rabbits, owners should bring their companion with them. Owners should also bring some of their pet’s food with them, so they can eat as normal during their visit.

Aquatic species should be transported in their own tank water in an aquatic bag, and the owner should bring an extra bag of tank water (at least 20 ml) in case water testing is required.

In the practice

Once at the practice, the principles of an exotic-friendly practice begin in the waiting area.

If space allows, an exotic-only waiting room should be created or a separate area within the main waiting area for exotic patients, where they can be away from the sight, scent and sound of dogs and cats. This is particularly critical for prey species, such as rabbits, who find being in proximity to predator species highly stressful. Within the exotic-only area, think about separation between prey and predator species (for example, not having ferrets and birds next to each other).

Once in the consulting room, provide birds with perches, use towels as a visual barrier, dim the lights for diurnal species, and keep oxygen on standby in case it’s needed.

For reptiles, manage heat and avoid temperature fluctuations through heating stations/mats, reduce noise, movement/vibrations and scent, and consider appropriate PPE in case venomous species bite. Be aware of defence mechanisms such as autotomy as a stress response in some species, for example leopard geckoes.

For small mammals, keep carriers covered with towels to muffle noise and eliminate sight, consider using a spray such as ‘Pet Remedy’, and continue to avoid predator signs in the consulting room and kennels, by creating barriers to sight, sound and smell. Rabbits are prone to spinal injury if they kick or twist without sufficient support of their hind end, so efficient handling and restraint is needed. Scruffing is stressful and can cause animals to jump from you and injure themselves when grip is released, so should be avoided.

A separate exotics ward or kennels should be provided, with exotic species separated from the sight, sound and smell of predator species. Within this area, also make sure that prey and predator species are separated and not housed adjacent to each other, for example, rabbits and ferrets, and birds of prey and psittacine birds.

Useful equipment

Useful equipment to have in an exotic-friendly practice include:

  • Oxygen provision
  • Doppler
  • Small weighing scales
  • Heat mat/lamp with thermostat
  • Pet Remedy or species specific pheromones
  • Water testing chemicals
  • Ventilator
  • BSAVA Formulary Part B: Exotic Pets

Further resources on managing exotic patients

Newly published Client Information Leaflets on 7 species of reptile, to help owners understand their care requirements, including housing, nutrition, handling, routine and veterinary care. These are free to BSAVA members in the BSAVA Library https://www.bsavalibrary.com/content/cilgroupreptiles

Library collection on non-traditional companion animals https://www.bsavalibrary.com/content/ntca

BSAVA Manual of Exotic Pets https://www.bsavalibrary.com/content/book/10.22233/9781905319909

BSAVA Manual of Exotic Pet and Wildlife Nursing https://www.bsavalibrary.com/content/book/10.22233/9781910443132

BSAVA Formulary Part B: Exotic Pets https://www.bsavalibrary.com/content/formulary/exotic-pets