Vet visits are an inevitable part of caring for a pet. Small mammals like rabbits and guinea pigs have unique needs, and require a veterinarian with special training and experience in treating exotics. The term “exotic pets” essentially refers to animals other than dogs, cats, and farm animals. Exotics tend to hide illness as long as possible as an instinctive survival mechanism, so a knowledgeable exotic animal vet is a must.
Don’t be afraid to do your own research. Ask your vet some of these questions to make sure they’re qualified to treat your pet. You’ll feel confident they’ll be receiving species-specific, high-quality care as a result.
Do you have specialized equipment for exotics?
Whether the vet you choose only treats exotics or has an exotics ward, it’s important they are equipped to care for your pet adequately. Guinea pigs and rabbits love to threaten us with dental issues. Does the veterinary practice have the small-scale instruments required for tooth trimmings? Do they have a way to monitor and control body temperature during and after surgery? Do they have properly sized IV catheters?
Don’t forget about housing. Bunnies and guinea pigs don’t handle stress and commotion well. Sick bunnies and guinea pigs… even worse. Is there a quiet place for them to rest when hospitalized? Can temperature and humidity be controlled to an appropriate level for the species? Speak up and request a tour of The Back.
What is your experience with this surgery?
Ask the exotic animal vet how many procedures they’ve performed, as well as how many were successful. Guinea pigs and rabbits aren’t as tolerant of anesthesia as dogs and cats, so it’s important to minimize the time spent on the operating table. Look into the type of anesthesia used, too. Isoflurane and Sevoflurane are considered a safe inhaled anesthetics.
Do they withhold food before surgery? Unlike dogs and cats, guinea pigs and rabbits should never be denied food. The risk of aspiration is minimal (they can’t throw up like dogs and cats). A full belly at all times is necessary to keep the GI tract active. This can prevent complications and speed recovery. A great exotic animal vet will have staff ready to start hand-feeding right after the pet wakes up to keep food moving through as soon as possible.
Is this medication safe for my pet?
Medications that are safe, cheap, and well-tolerated in dogs and cats can quickly harm an exotic pet. Penicillin toxicity in guinea pigs, for example, can occur even if the medication is injected. Fipronil, a common ingredient in over-the-counter flea treatments, can cause life-threatening symptoms in rabbits.
Pain management is especially important in guinea pigs and rabbits. A pet in pain may stop eating, which can create major problems for these guys. Discuss safe pain medications with your vet, and make sure she considers the side effects of each.
Is the staff trained to handle my pet?
Who will be handling your pet before, during, and after his visit or hospital stay? What about after hours? Veterinary technicians perform many important tests your pet’s vet needs to give a diagnosis. X-rays and blood draws may be routine for dogs and cats, but can be involved procedures for exotic pets. Precautions need to be taken not to injure the rabbit or guinea pig or cause them any additional stress during exams and tests.
Do you have any specialized training or certifications in exotic medicine?
A DVM can receive additional training through continuing professional education that specializes in exotic animals, internships, and residency programs. Board certification for exotic pets is available through the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners (ABVP). The Exotic Companion Mammal Practice is a newly recognized veterinary specialty certification for veterinarians. According to ABVP, “the typical caseload is 10 or more exotic mammal cases per week … By species, the approximate breakdown is 40% rabbits, 40% ferrets, and 20% mice, rats, and other pets.” Veterinarians aiming to become a diplomat of this recognized veterinary specialty need a minimum of six years of practice experience with exotic mammals and must prove commitment to high-level ongoing training.
Unfortunately, while many cities are lucky enough to have plenty of options for a nearby vet office, the vast majority of practices that treat dogs and cats aren’t experienced in exotic medicine. While these vets aren’t as common, your pet’s life can depend on identifying an excellent exotic animal vet. Start by asking local rescues who they use to treat birds, reptiles, and rodents. The Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians also has a handy search tool by ZIP code. Hopefully these questions help confirm your exotic vet is a match!