Veterinarian discusses guidelines for success in exotic animal care
By Jessica Clark
Traditional veterinary medicine is concerned with approximately eight species. Exotic animal veterinary medicine practitioners, on the other hand, must be knowledgeable in the biology, nutrition and behavior of hundreds of species. They also must be proficient in the care, maintenance and medicine of this wide array of animals.
Dr. James W. Carpenter, professor of clinical sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State University, said the same systematic approach used with domestic species can be used when examining exotic animals, but physical examination techniques are tailored to the animals' unique anatomy and physiology.
Carpenter said examining and treating exotic animals also requires both a firm understanding of disease processes and the ability to apply that knowledge in practice and solve problems in a rational manner. A creative and open mind and sense of adventure are also beneficial to successful exotic animal care, he said.
In traditional veterinary medicine, animals such as dogs and cats are tame and can be examined without a physical threat, but that is often not the case with wild or exotic animals. Exotic animals are not domesticated and special precautions must be taken. When examining a large cat, primate, bear or any wild animal, veterinarians must recognize the potential dangers these animals present, Carpenter said.
"Very little stress, such as a veterinary examination, is all that is needed to expose their wild sides," Carpenter said. "Many of the animals we examine are not domesticated and are often more aggressive and unpredictable. They are also better armed with talons, powerful beaks or large claws and teeth than domesticated animals. Because of this, many zoo animals must be chemically immobilized for safe handling and examination."
Carpenter said acquiring the information needed to treat exotic animals is a constant learning process.
"After examining exotic animals on a regular basis, the students begin to feel more comfortable," Carpenter said. "They become more willing to work on nontraditional animals and become familiar with diseases and complications common to this group of animals."
There are 32 veterinary schools in North America and most provide training in exotic animal/zoological medicine. K-State has one of the strongest programs of its kind in the country and offers both instructional courses and clinical training focused on exotic animal medicine. Students have opportunities to visit zoos, aquaria and selected private practices for additional training. Some students have even elected to obtain wildlife training in other countries such as Africa, Carpenter said.
"As veterinarians' comfort levels working with exotic animals increase, this field will become an even more exciting, challenging and integral component of small animal practice," he said.