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Where the wild things say aah: vets that cater to exotic pets

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Simon Starkey, a certified avian specialist, explains his diagnosis to Heiberto Espaillat, a parrot owner. (Photo by Ana E. Azpurua/CNS)

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Simon Starkey, an exotic pets veterinarian, cuts Paco's nails. (Photo by Ana E. Azpurua/CNS)

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Simon Starkey takes a sample of a parrot's possible tumor. (Photo by Ana E. Azpurua/CNS)

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Charlie, a red-eared slider turtle, undergoes a procedure to remove a lump from his cheek. (Photo by Ana E. Azpurua/CNS)

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A guinea pig with a cast recovers at the Center for Avian and Exotic Medicine in New York City. (Photo by Ana E. Azpurua/CNS)

Young Charlie was not doing very well. “Does he eat?” the doctor asked, inspecting a lump on Charlie’s cheek. “Has he ever had any other problems?”

Within minutes, the doctor, Alexandra Wilson, diagnosed the problem. Charlie had an ear infection. Her recommended treatment: slice into the lump and drain it.

Cutting open a lump to cure an ear infection may seem rather extreme, but when the patient is a red-eared slider turtle like Charlie, that’s the standard remedy, according to Wilson, a veterinarian at the Center for Avian and Exotic Medicine in New York City.

Like Wilson, a growing number of veterinarians are treating reptiles, birds and other “pocket animals”—as rabbits, ferrets and guinea pigs are called. The range of procedures they offer include treating constipated frogs, removing tumors from rats and providing dental care to rabbits.

These vets work in offices stocked with specialized equipment: tiny masks and mini-blood pressure bands sized to fit smaller patients and heating pads to keep them from getting cold. Some clinics offer laser surgery to minimize the loss of blood, because losing even a few drops can be fatal to tiny exotic animals. Behavioral advice may also be available.

“Exotic-animal medicine is the most rapidly growing field in veterinary medicine,” says James Carpenter, professor of zoological medicine at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State University. Carpenter says that veterinary students are showing a “very strong interest” in this field.

Two decades ago, those interested in taking the exotic-animal path would have had a difficult time. “Most of the veterinary schools offered little to no training in this specialty” Carpenter says. “Now, however, most of the 28 U.S. veterinary schools offer some training, and some offer extensive opportunities, in exotic-animal medicine.”

Last year, the American Veterinary Medical Association granted provisional recognition to the “exotic companion mammal practice” specialty. It accepted its first round of applicants this year. The Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians plans to advocate for the AVMA to add a reptile specialty. An “avian practice” specialty already exists.

“We have people out there saying, ‘OK, who can handle my little exotic companion animal, and who can demonstrate that they know what they’re doing?’ ” says Michael Dutton, who runs the Exotic & Bird Clinic in Weare, N.H. “A specialty is one way to demonstrate that they know how to do that.” In 2000, Dutton founded the AEMV, which has grown from 20 initial members to more than 700 from the United States, Canada and other countries.

What attracts vets like Dutton to treat animals that many people would sooner ignore than have as pets? “Variety,” says Simon Starkey, a veterinarian who is board-certified in avian medicine. “You never get bored.” And because research on these animals is still limited, there’s room for practitioners to make new discoveries. Specializing can also give young vets an edge when they’re job hunting.

The rising number of exotic-pet veterinarians reflects the increased demand for care from owners of nontraditional pets. The number of U.S. households with exotic animals has grown from nearly 14 million in 2001 to around 18 million in 2007, according to the AVMA.

Many of these owners want quality care for their pets--even if the treatment costs more than they paid for the animal. Neutering a rabbit at Wilson’s New York clinic, for instance, costs around $250. Removing a rat’s tumor can range from $250 to $400. The fee for Charlie’s office visit, which included draining the lump and other procedures, totaled $250. A typical turtle of his variety rarely costs more than $20.

Charlie’s owner, Savitri Sukhu, agreed to have his lump drained because she couldn’t bear to know her pet was sick and do nothing about it. She did, however, decline an expensive follow-up test the doctor recommended.

Many animal owners believe that the specialized training of exotic-pet vets is worth the cost. Laura Budean, a native of Romania who now lives in New York, says she lost a guinea pig because of the inadequate care of a vet who didn’t have experience treating pocket animals. She believes that seeing a specialist is cheaper than having her 14 guinea pigs get sick frequently.

Three of Budean’s guinea pigs have had major surgeries to remove tumors or abscesses. In years past, guinea pigs rarely came in contact with a surgical knife unless it was part of some clinical experiment. Budean says she understands why some of her friends think she’s crazy for taking her rodents for treatment. But for her, caring for the pets is not optional.

“I really think that the moment you assume responsibility for a pet, you assume responsibility when they get sick as well,” Budean says. “You get a pet when you know you can provide for that pet.”

E-mail: aea2125@columbia.edu