Why Are Exotic Pets So Hard to Treat?

If you have an exotic pet, find out where you can get basic care in your area and specialized exotic care in case of emergency.

Exotic pets need special care. By: Serge.By
Exotic pets need special care. By: Serge.By

When you first got your bearded dragon or your little fluffy pocket pet, it’s possible you never thought about the day when Targarian the dragon or Guppy the gerbil might get sick.

Is there a reptile veterinarian in the area? Don’t all vets see gerbils?

Truth is, no they don’t. Specializing in or even seeing exotics for basic health care is something many vets won’t do if they don’t have the expertise.

The vast majority of small animal training in veterinary school is devoted to canine and feline medicine. If veterinarians want to treat birds or ferrets or snakes, they will need to do a lot of work on their own during and long after veterinary school.

My Rabbit Is Exotic?

“Exotics” is the term used for just about any pet other than a cat or a dog. This includes all small mammals, birds and reptiles. Amphibians, miniature pigs and sugar gliders, bring it on!

Even an “exotics” vet may not see all exotics. A vet may have the training to see birds but not reptiles; small mammals but not hedgehogs or marsupials; and so on. If a veterinary office tells you over the phone they are not willing to see your sugar glider, you should be grateful — not angry.

If they have no experience with your exotic, they must gracefully decline treatment. With any luck, they can refer you to a place that can help, but it is wrong for vets to be forced to see species that are out of their field of expertise.

Why Caring for Exotic Pets Is Difficult

1. Each Species Is Unique

There’s an old saying in veterinary school that cats are not small dogs, so don’t treat them as such. In olden days, vets would apply what they knew about dogs to cats. Many times, this would lead to inadequate or inappropriate treatment.

Today, we know better. This lesson applies to exotics tenfold. Exotics veterinarians know they cannot extrapolate from one species to another. Canaries are not small parrots. Chinchillas are not little rabbits. A degu is not a big gerbil!

Simply put, seeing a large array of exotics demands research time, consults, interest, experience, case load and skill.

2. Handling

Not only does the veterinarian need to know how to handle your Amazon parrot or your sugar glider, but she needs qualified technicians to assist.  Taking blood from an iguana, positioning a parakeet for an X-ray or trying to look inside the beak of a screaming Macaw requires experience, patience, and a gifted and qualified helper.

3. Environment and Stress

Many exotics are not as domesticated as our dogs and cats. They don’t like strange environments, and they react badly to stress. A noisy, brightly lit hospital with barking dogs and busy waiting rooms is not a good place for a weak guinea pig or an egg-bound cockatiel.

Ideally, an exotics ward should have controlled temperatures and humidity appropriate for each patient and as little commotion and stimulation as possible.

4. Specialized Equipment

  • Anesthesia equipment and delivery must be tailored to the specific species. Exotics are generally less tolerant of anesthesia than cats and dogs. Proper-sized tubes, IV catheters, etc. are just the beginning. An exotics vet has to minimize stress on the patient and carefully monitor surgical time. These little critters can lose body heat if not properly maintained and cannot tolerate long surgical procedures under anesthesia. An exotics vet must be confident, cautious, but efficient.
  • Surgery and dental instruments and units must be specialized for exotic pets. Specific electrocautery units are required. The vet must be able to work in tiny spaces with small-scale instruments and suture. Special dental instruments must be purchased for rabbits, and so on.
  • Proper housing of exotics pets is essential to keeping up body temperatures and minimizing stress. Incubators, oxygen cages and heat sources must be designed to fit the needs of a parakeet or a rat. The requirements are different.

To watch an exotics veterinarian in action, look for the upcoming show on National Geographic called Dr. K’s Exotic Animal ER. It looks to be an interesting peek into the world of exotic veterinary care, and you can view the show schedule to find information on episodes.

5. Ethics

Many people with exotics do not know as much as they should when they acquire their ball python or eclectus parrot. An exotic pet housed wrong, fed a nutritionally deficient diet or not monitored properly is a recipe for disaster.

Because exotics hide illness as a survival mechanism, people often present these poor creatures to a veterinarian when they are too far gone.

Who is at fault? The commercial pet industry is no friend to exotics. In order to sell and make a profit on cages, hamster tunnels and aquariums, a pet store will sell anybody an animal, even if red flags are written all over the suitability of a specific species and a prospective buyer.

The money is not in the price of the small pocket pet or parakeet. It’s in the paraphernalia.

The public is also to blame, however. People who think they are good Samaritans may adopt an exotic pet who needs a home and not be prepared. Rescuing an animal from a shelter is a noble endeavor, but don’t adopt before you do your homework.

Perhaps the saddest scenario involves folks who buy exotic pets for the novelty factor. An African grey is not an ornament that hangs in a cage. An iguana is not a conversation piece in a cold dorm room.

And as far as buying that reptile or guinea pig for your 10-year-old who might lose interest, parents should own up to the fact that they might be responsible for the care, not the kid!

6. Treatment Failure

I have found that the most difficult part of exotics practice is lack of success. Sadly, as I mentioned above, many of these pets are too far gone when I first lay eyes on them.

The rabbit who hasn’t eaten for a week will probably not make it. The iguana who has been on the wrong diet for the past 5 years may be too damaged to make a comeback. Birds on seed-only diets are nutritionally compromised. The rat suffering with respiratory disease for several months has end-stage lungs and will not survive.

Exotics vets try to save the lost causes. They face a losing battle.

7. Money

And then there is the perennial problem of exotics pets and what their veterinary care may cost. Many veterinarians will do their best to encourage people to treat their exotics and work within a budget. But in reality, treating exotics is often more expensive and requires specialized training, skill, equipment and a qualified staff.

If you have an exotic pet, find out where you can get basic care in your area and specialized exotic care in the case of an emergency. Hats off to all the dedicated, knowledgeable people out there with exotics who are experts in their own right.

If you know what your special friend needs to stay happy and healthy, caring for an exotic pet can be enriching and rewarding. When these well-cared for buddies need additional help, they are a happy challenge to treat.

Additional Resources


This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS, and was last updated Dec. 17, 2018.