Small pets like rabbits and guinea pigs need a vet that specializes in exotic animals. Their little bodies simply work differently than dogs and cats. Our tiny creatures have bits and parts and issues that dogs and cats just don’t have. Although a local veterinarian may be the world leader in handling a German Shepherd with a bad liver, it does not mean he or she can deal with stasis quickly and efficiently enough, or handle the intricacies of tiny creature dental health. There is no time to waste when prey animals fall ill, so having an exotic vet on speed dial is invaluable. However, vets are people too, and can't be available 24/7. Unfortunately, therapy sessions aside, rodents don't only admit weakness between 9 and 5 on weekdays. Where can you turn when they fall ill on nights, weekends, and holidays, when you're truly in need of an emergency vet?
Start With Your Regular Vet
It's always a good idea to begin a relationship with an exotic vet before you need one. Aside from establishing a baseline for your pet and making illness easier to recognize in the future, it'll be easier to get a last-minute appointment if you aren't a brand new patient. Even if they are full for appointments, they may be able to squeeze your pet in for an emergency visit if you're an established patient.
Your regular vet may have emergency hours, or a phone number you can call for advice after office hours. If not, they may be able to recommend a 24-hour practice that has an exotic veterinarian on staff. Some geographic locations simply have less resources for after-hour emergencies. In these situations, your vet may be willing to provide you with "just in case" supplies to help you care for a sick pet overnight until operating hours.
Do Some Research
... And be prepared to travel. If your normal vet doesn't have recommendations, call other exotic practices and ask if they 1) have evening and weekend hours for emergencies or 2) know of an E.R. vet that will treat exotics. You can also ask local rabbit/guinea pig-specific rescues who they use in emergencies. Sometimes the nearest office open overnight will be a few hours a way. While emergency animal hospitals are great if the pet needs to be on oxygen or fluids will help them stabilize until morning, be prepared that even hospitals that accept rodent patients may not be the best choice for things like surgeries.
Because exotic specialists can be few and far between, it's less likely overnight vets that mainly see cats and dogs will be equipped to handle more complex procedures. Ideally, the practice will know their limitations and stabilize the patient until they can be cared for appropriately by their normal exotic vet.
What is a True Emergency?
If 24/7 resources are limited for exotic pets in your area, you'll need to weigh your options. Limiting stress is of utmost important in prey animals, and even more so when they are sick or injured.
Questions to Ask Yourself:
1. Are they stable enough to make it until morning without any professional medical intervention?
2. Is their pain controlled?
3. Is it worth the extra stress of a potentially long drive, and late-night visit to an unfamiliar place?
4. For hospitalizations, is there staff available overnight to hand-feed around the clock?
Whether to bring them to the vet or wait until morning isn't always an easy call to make. It helps to know what classifies as a life-threatening emergency, and also matters what supplies you have at home to support a seriously sick pet. If you suspect your pet has ingested something poisonous, is having trouble breathing, or is bleeding profusely, it's safe to say this is an emergency situation that can't be controlled at home without training.
Exotic Vet Care of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, defines an emergency in guinea pigs and rabbits as "diarrhea or decreased number of stools, lack of appetite, weakness, depression, painful when lifted or touched, head tilted to one side, rolling or flipping," and in ferrets as "diarrhea, vomiting, pawing at the mouth (may indicate nausea due to dangerously low blood sugar), frequent trips to litter box with little or no urine production, tense abdomen, depression, or lack of appetite."
Supportive Care At Home
Small animals hide illness well instinctively as prey species, so when they start showing symptoms they could have been sick for quite awhile. They also go downhill quickly, so intervention ASAP is essential. If you suspect a respiratory infection is setting in, you can help ease breathing with a humidifier or place your pet in the bathroom while running a steamy shower (just make sure they don't get too hot). If they aren't eating on their own, the best thing you can do to help is start to syringe feed. Even a few hours without eating can cause a rabbit or guinea pig's digestive system to go into GI stasis, a painful condition that's difficult to reverse.
It's worthwhile to have a discussion with your vet on measures you can take at home in case of an emergency. They may prescribe pain medication to keep on hand, or even antibiotics if your pet is prone to respiratory or bladder infections. Regardless, if you decide it's best to wait until your normal vet opens, make sure you keep your pet warm and as calm as possible.