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‘Too few vets have a feel for exotics’

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01 February 2013, at 12:00am

ROBIN FEARON follows up on some of the sessions at the 2012 London Vet Show, covering the treatment of exotic species and dogs with hearing problems

SICKLY snakes, lousy lizards and troublesome tortoises are all part of the working day for exotic medicine practitioners.

The inherent problem with exotic pets, it seems, is the general lack of knowledge needed to keep them successfully. Kevin Eatwell, lecturer in exotic animal and wildlife medicine at the Edinburgh veterinary school, knows this only too well.

Last year two biologists, Clifford Warwick and Philip Arena, reported that at least 75% of exotic pets died within one year in the home, based on estimates from import and domestic breeding figures. Errors in husbandry coupled with insufficient species research appear to be the key reasons.

“One of the main problems we have is that people really don’t know enough about that animal to keep it,” says Mr Eatwell. “They don’t know how to look after it or what its behavioural needs are. A lot of the disease problems that we have can in some way be linked back to the owners not looking after these pets as well as we would like them to.”

Large pet retail chains sell bearded dragons and other exotic species but there are concerns that more specialist advice is needed to help pet owners. Husbandry set-up alone often costs more than the animal itself and owners do not fully understand how much they must invest to provide the right housing and environment.

“They must have the right financial backing to make sure that their husbandry is right, and that they can buy new equipment or veterinary care,” says Mr Eatwell, whose presentations at the London Vet Show outlined common reptile ailments caused by improper diet and housing.

“When you look at the spectrum of people keeping these animals, some people do an absolutely amazing job of looking after them. But at the bottom end you have someone who clearly should have sought better advice on how to look after an animal sooner.”

Management and environment are nearly always the problem with exotic pets, agrees Professor John Cooper of Wildlife Health Services International, a specialist in zoological medicine.

“Someone buys a garter snake or a bearded dragon, or an African grey parrot, they are inexperienced and are essentially learning on that animal. They should not be, because there are plenty of people who have kept these animals, but they don’t necessarily have access to that knowledge.

“Pet shops can play a better role than they do at the moment in educating people and asking if they really have the facilities to care for a certain species,” says Prof. Cooper. “I put the deficiencies in management and husbandry down to the fact that too many people just think ‘oh, I’ll get a snake’.”

Sudden popularity

According to Prof. Cooper, who has kept birds and other exotic pets since he was five years old, the problem has been exacerbated by this sudden popularity. “There are many people who belong to bird or reptile societies and have kept or bred animals for years.

“A lot of the welfare problems have come from the fact that people see exotic pets as having some kind of cachet and shops are now selling animals that 25 years ago you would have to go to a private breeder to buy.”

Amphibian and reptile markets have also come under fire in a report issued last year by the Animal Protection Agency and two other welfare organisations, looking at systematic welfare problems in markets across the EU and sustained tactics by some vendors to continue commercial trade of wild-caught and captive-bred animals disguised as a hobby.

Kevin Eatwell believes restrictions may be necessary to curb excesses. “If you are talking about species that are difficult to keep in captivity, or that require wild-caught animals imported to sustain the population, that is not ideal. We just have to get that message to the pet traders that are supplying members of the public and get owners to look after them better.

“I think a well educated set of keepers or owners in combination with an animal that is captive-bred from a sustainable source, that is great.”

Rather than support an outright ban, the British Veterinary Zoological Society is drawing up guidelines of species that are more suited to being kept in the home. 

Long-time member John Cooper believes strong guidelines in combination with educational programmes and an Animal Welfare Act to protect companion animals should be enough.

He believes exotic pets have an important role to play in society and supports the principle of people being able to keep non-native species as long as they are

responsible. “If we start putting a blanket ban on private breeders then the enthusiasts who look after their animals, keep extensive notes and write articles about them will not be able to do that.”

Captive breeding has a strong role in conservation, he maintains, the real answer is teaching the correct methods. “The veterinary profession is clearly in a strong position to do that. I am worried that some vets in the profession are threatened by exotic pets.

“They don’t feel they know enough about them and the profession itself has to get its act together.

“I don’t shy away whether it is a dog or a cat or a camel in Africa. I say ‘I am a vet and animals are my business’,” Prof. Cooper says. “There are not enough British vets who have a feel for these animals. That to me is a disgrace.”