Critical Care of the Exotic Patient

guinea pigIf you think your pet is unwell, you must take it to your veterinarian for prompt attention. ANY deviation from normal should be a cause for concern and requires immediate evaluation by your veterinarian. It should also be borne in mind that many exotic pets require specialised care – some practices, therefore, do not cater for them and many that do only have some vets to see them. Therefore the onus is on you to locate a practice with interest in these species BEFORE they are ill. If you have doubts about your pet’s health contact your practice as soon as possible and, ideally, in normal working hours as this will maximise your chances that veterinarians with exotics’ interest will be on duty.

What can I do to help?

As immediate care, before an appointment at the local veterinary hospital, and as a supplement to the treatment given by the vet, there is much you can do to aid your pet’s recovery.

The body’s immune system works best to fight off infections when the body has a temperature raised from its normal level - that is the reason why we get a fever - to put the bugs at a disadvantage and aid our immune system. Being still means that the body expends less energy on exercise and has more to channel into recuperation.

"The body’s immune system works best to fight off infections when the body has a temperature raised from its normal level - that is the reason why we get a fever - to put the bugs at a disadvantage and aid our immune system."

Has your reptile got a warmer area in its vivarium where it can stay to increase its body temperature? Although reptiles do not regulate body temperature using internal means (like mammals), this does not mean they cannot raise their body temperature in response to an infection. Reptiles move to a warmer area and give themselves a behavioural fever but this is only possible if there is such a warmer area in their local environment.

Birds or small mammals can also be warmed by heating up a room and placing them in it. Remember not to put heaters in with parrots!

One problem for almost all exotic pets kept in Australia is that they are small. This means they have more surface area per gram of body weight than a larger animal. This renders them far more likely to suffer from hypothermia – heat leaves the body through the skin and thus more skin area per gram of body weight leads to a more rapid loss of heat. This is another reason why sick exotics should be kept in a warm environment.

temperatureIf warmth is important we must ensure that this increased heat does not lead to dehydration. An ill animal will not drink as much as normal and, therefore, will have to be given fluid by mouth or by injection if at a veterinary hospital. It is important to recognise that the metabolic demands of a ‘sick’ animal are far higher than those of a sedentary ‘well’ animal but these animals need food that will give them energy fast. A good basic emergency diet is a baby food which also gives fluid, being very liquid. There are commercially produced high energy recovery foods for birds and small mammals, which can be excellent for use in an emergency.

For birds, humidifying the atmosphere will be helpful in respiratory disease and will provide some rehydrate as they can absorb small amounts of fluid from their air sacs. It is useful to run a bath or shower to create a steamy hot atmosphere in the bathroom into which the bird (in a cage or pet carrier) can be placed.

So keep your sick exotic warm, in a darkened place, well supplied with fluid and a high energy easily digested food source. 

It is important to remember that many of these species are eaten by others in the wild. They, therefore, have a natural urge to hide signs of illness. When they do show signs of sickness they are often critically ill and may have been ill for a while

It is important, therefore not to ignore any signs of illness but to consult a veterinarian (preferably one knowledgeable about these species) as soon as possible. For this reason, too, it is important to locate your nearest bird or exotics’ vet BEFORE your pet becomes ill – it is not good to be hunting for an address in an emergency!

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