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Small Animal/Exotics 20TH ANNIVERSARY Compendium March 1999

Highlights and Horizons in

Exotic Animal
Michael J. Murray DVM
Avian and Exotic Clinic of Monterey Bay
Monterey, California

A sick bird is a dead bird.” “One of the best techniques for anesthetizing rep-
tiles is refrigeration at 5˚C for 2 hours.” “Treat rabbits like cats with long
ears.” “If the medication from the pet shop fails to work, flush the fish down the
toilet and go buy another one.”
Michael J. Murray
Today these statements sound horrifying, but 20 years ago they were close to
state of the art in exotic animal medicine. Since then, there has been a tremen-
dous explosion in the popularity of all types of exotic species; and practicing vet- Although the association’s formal lec-
erinarians have made incredible efforts to keep up with public demand. tures addressed avian medicine, there
were also many informal discussions
Expansion First as an Art, Then as a Science on mutual problems. This concept
Unlike many fields in veterinary medicine, exotic animal medicine has been continued to evolve and eventually
driven by practitioners and their response to client demands. As a result, most entered cyberspace in 1991, when the
changes in the practice of exotic animal medicine have been extrapolated from Veterinary Information Network was
other medical disciplines. A glaring drawback to this approach is its inability to formed for online discussions.
account for phylogenetic and species idiosyncrasies. For example, many drug Without a doubt, however, a more
doses administered to exotic birds have been adapted on a per-weight basis from significant event in the development
dose schedules for poultry, food animals, and horses. In addition, nutritional of exotic animal medicine was the in-
data for psittacine species has been extrapolated from data for poultry. Finally, troduction of isoflurane anesthesia in
equipment modification (e.g., using a party balloon as a rebreathing bag in non- 1985. Until then, the only anesthet-
rebreathing anesthetic circuits) has relied on the ingenuity of practitioners. ics used routinely in exotic species
Two events likely had the most significant impact on the practitioner’s ability were methoxyflurane, halothane, and
to manage exotic patients. Indirectly, the formation of the Association of Avian one of several parenteral cocktails
Veterinarians in 1980 not only had a profound effect on avian medicine but be- combining ketamine and another
cause of the organization’s inadvertent collection of practitioners with interest in compound. Although all of these
all nontraditional pet species, also impacted the growth of exotic animal practices. agents had advantages and disadvan-

ENDIU 1980 1985 1986 1988

MP Veterinarians 1980 1983
Association of Avian Isoflurane
The North American
Veterinary Conference

1985 19 House Rabbit

Society formed


formed introduced offered exotic animal


subjects and hands-on

1 9 7

9 - 1
9 9 9

1979 1982
wet labs

Compendium March 1999 20TH ANNIVERSARY Small Animal/Exotics

tages, none had the safety net inher- collecting diagnostic samples from OWNERS’ OUTLOOK
ent to isoflurane with its minimal birds and reptiles.
metabolism and less profound car- ■ Exotics Pets—Who Cares?
diopulmonary effects. Safe anesthesia Government Intervention According to a 1996 national
made advances in exotic animal sur- The government is not renowned survey conducted by the AVMA,
gery (including minimally invasive for its assistance to private practition- among households that owned
endoscopy), diagnostic imaging, and ers; however, two legislative actions in specialty and exotic pets, those that
other diagnostic and therapeutic the past 10 years had tremendous in- owned ferrets were the most likely
techniques possible. fluence on the practice of exotic ani- to seek veterinary care for their pets
As the art of exotic animal medi- mal medicine. In 1992, the Wild Bird (49%); whereas those that owned
cine expanded, the science followed. Conservation Act essentially forced fish were the least likely (0.4%).
Research on nutrition, pharmacology, the end of importation of parrots for Average expenditures for exotic
infectious diseases, clinical pathology, the pet trade. Emphasis therefore was pet–owning households per vet
and theriogenology was conducted placed on the importance of avicul- visit increased from $40.12 in
and study findings published. Re- ture in captive management and re- 1991 to $62.51 in 1996.
search was often thwarted by the very production. Domestic production of ■ A Mixed Bag. Not only is the
small captive populations for many birds for the pet trade eventually average number of pets per
exotic species, lack of significant pri- spilled over into markets for reptiles, household increasing, but pet
vate industry interest, and the unique fish, and other exotic species. owners are more likely to own
both cats and dogs than just
physiology of many exotic animals In 1994, passage of the Animal
one species. The Morris Animal
and their pathogens. For example, the Medicinal Drug Use Clarification
Foundation’s Animal Health
development of nucleic acid amplifi- Act permitted the legal prescription
Survey (1997) found that 39%
cation techniques and probes for di- of extralabel drugs (except in feed or of pet-owning households around
agnosing psittacine beak and feather outside the veterinarian–client–pa- the world had both dogs and cats
disease in 1990 was a breakthrough in tient relationship) by veterinarians. compared with 35% that had only
the management of infectious disease The ability of exotic animal practi- dogs and 21% that had only cats.
in many exotic pets. Amplification tioners to select from the entire spec-
techniques have a high degree of sen- trum of pharmacologic agents was fi-
sitivity and specificity and rapid re- nally secured. a plethora of supplements, habitat
sults at a relatively low cost. Ironical- enhancements, and toys for birds and
ly, most research funding for using Industry Response other exotic pets as well as books and
this technology in exotic animal medi- The veterinary industry has also re- magazines for owners. Unfortunately,
cine came from the aviculture com- sponded to the growing popularity of much of this information is misguid-
munity. exotic pets. Twenty years ago, only a ed and many products are inappro-
Technologic advances also influ- handful of textbooks contained any priate for the intended purpose or oc-
enced exotic animal medicine. For information on the medical and surgi- casionally dangerous to the animal.
example, before the introduction of cal management of exotic pets. Today Unfortunately, the veterinary com-
endoscopic sheaths, practitioners of- all large (and most small) publishers munity has failed to respond to the
ten made antemortem diagnoses by market a selection of books and jour- growth of the exotic animal market
inference or by ruling out a series of nals dealing with exotic species. with the same vigor as the pet indus-
differentials, often by performing The pet industry has begun to ex- try. For example, pharmaceutical
major surgery (e.g., a laparotomy to ploit the exotic pet phenomenon. products are rarely developed, tested,
collect site-specific specimens from Formulated diets for the more com- and labeled for use in exotic species;
the coelomic cavity). Endoscopic monly encountered species abound, and most pharmacokinetic work is
sheaths allowed practitioners to use although many are based on little re- still researched within academia.
minimally invasive techniques for search. A trip to any pet shop reveals Other attempts by private industry


Nucleic acid
Veterinary Information
Association of Reptile
First Diplomates in Avian
Animal Medicinal

amplification Network formed Veterinarians formed Specialty recognized by the Drug Use Clarification

techniques American Board of Act ratified
developed Veterinary Practitioners
19891993 1997 1999
Endoscopic sheath system
Small Animal/Exotics 20TH ANNIVERSARY Compendium March 1999

to market specific products (e.g., biologicals) have not Leaders in the field of exotic animal medicine should
been embraced by the veterinary profession. scrutinize current continuing education (CE) techniques.
Traditional veterinary education progresses from the nor-
What the Future Holds mal patient to the diseased patient to clinical management
The future of exotic animal medicine must involve not of the patient. Often current CE emphasizes drug doses
only private practitioners but also private industry and for treatment rather than the pathogenesis of the disease.
academia. Veterinary schools should integrate courses on CE lectures rarely define the normal anatomy and physiol-
birds and other commonly encountered exotic pets into ogy of exotic pets.
their curricula. Information on the basic physiology of Finally, the future of exotic animal medicine depends on
many exotic animal species needs to be available in text- the willingness of private practitioners to continue de-
books, and research into the pathogenesis of exotic animal manding the best care for their patients. The advances
diseases remains to be conducted. Such research will need made during the past 20 years have allowed exotic animal
private funding as well as the financial support of practic- specialists to manage patients with the same degree of pro-
ing veterinarians and the public. fessionalism followed in the more traditional companion
animal practices.