Not many exotics vets are also keepers, so I’m a little unusual in that respect. I’ve been keeping birds since I was seven and keeping reptiles since I was eleven. I have no doubt that my keeping has been enhanced by my veterinary knowledge, but I also believe I am a better vet because I have experience as a keeper. I understand the practicalities of keeping and so, I can offer advice on products and processes. It also helps that I can put keepers in touch with other specialists I know from the trade or the hobby.
I think my clients appreciate that I have first-hand experience as a keeper, rather than just theoretical knowledge about husbandry. I’m employed by Great Western Exotic Vets in Swindon. We’re an exotics only specialist veterinary hospital, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I also own my own company AviRep, which I do veterinary work through. I’m Chief Vet Steward at IHS breeders’ meetings and I work informally with REPTA, the FBH and the newly opened National Centre for Reptile Welfare.
Poor husbandry is still the main reason keepers end up in my clinic, but the situation has improved dramatically over the last few years. A decent proportion of the cases I see are metabolic bone disease (MBD) conditions, and it is usually the species you might not expect. I see very few Beardies with MBD nowadays. I think everyone knows that Beardies need UVB and so it’s part of the set up when the animal is purchased. More often I see Leopard Geckos and Crested Geckos with MBD issues. It happens when the customer gets a lizard which “doesn’t need UVB” but then fails to provide adequate vitamin D3 through their diet. Of course, it is possible to negate the use of UVB lamps if the diet the lizard eats contains the right nutrients – the Repashy diets are a good example, although I would always personally advocate the use of UVB lighting for these lizards, it’s hugely beneficial. Unfortunately, some keepers don’t get it right and the animal ends up in my clinic. On the other hand, I also occasionally see lizards with MBD who have been kept under lamps which have expired, so UVB isn’t a fool-proof option either. Whichever system you advocate or choose, whether it be a UVB based system or one that relies on dietary D3, I think it is important to emphasise how to avoid MBD.
Tortoises are another common visitor to my clinic. Often it’s respiratory issues caused by infections which are brought on through stress and lowered immune systems which is usually caused by sub-optimal husbandry. The bacteria which causes the condition are infectious and common. Horsfields Tortoises will often carry the infectious bacteria without showing symptoms, which is how the infection is able to spread. I also see post-hibernation issues, often caused by keepers using the old fashioned ‘Blue Peter’ method of hibernation. It’s sometimes hard to convince a keeper to do hibernation differently when they have been using the same method for 30 years. Often the problems are caused by dehydration when animals have not been hibernated at consistent temperatures. If the tortoise is ‘hibernated’ in a box in the shed it will probably wake up and urinate when the temperature rises above hibernation levels. This leaves them dehydrated if they cannot access water to replenish, which causes kidney failure. We also see cataracts and other eye problems caused when temperature drops too low and freezes the eyes, and we also see injuries caused by rats and other rodents. The answer is to hibernate tortoises indoors in a refrigerator.
Other frequently seen issues are parasites in both wild caught and captive bred animals, nose rub in Water Dragons and, believe it or not, cancer. We often see cancer in Beardies, simply because they are living longer these days – which is contrary to the claims that most captive reptiles die within the first year. The biggest leaps forward in reptile veterinary practices is the fact that specialist reptile vets exist. It used to be that vets were in one of three groups – small animal, equine and farm. Now exotics have been added to that list and there are also specialist exotics vets all over the country.
Exotics are still only a small part of the curriculum for vets at university, but there are now many other ways to learn postgraduation. For example, I recently acquired a Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons certificate in Zoological medicine, and there are many other additional training opportunities and qualifications for exotics.
We’ve come a long way with anaesthetics and surgical procedures and we now routinely perform blood analysis, x-rays, ultrasound, faecal analysis for parasites and tests for viruses. It was only a few years ago we did not know what caused Inclusion Body disease. Now we can test for it. It’s the same story with other infectious diseases and we’re learning new things all the time. The future is bright and we’re moving forward quite quickly.
The tips I have are nothing revolutionary. Stocking density is, of course, an important consideration, as is hygiene. But that should be obvious to anyone working with animals. Keeping good records is important and quarantining should be a routine procedure. Make sure you use a good disinfectant, have an iodine solution available for minor abrasions, use a UVB meter to check lamps – all basic stuff really.