Written By: Mike Corcoran, DVM, DABVP (R/A), CertAqV
What Do Exotic Animal Veterinarians Do?
This is such a common question for me, and I want to give an unusual answer. Day-to-day we see clients, diagnose and treat animals for health problems, educate people on proper pet care, and perform a variety of procedures to make this happen. That is very interesting, but only covers a small piece of the profession as a whole. I think another very interesting story that is less often told involves some of the professional organizations that are more behind-the-scenes.
What we do outside of the hospital says a lot about how we think, how we care, and what is important for us to do what we do effectively.
I am going to tell the story by focusing on one organization, The Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians (ARAV). I have served on the board for 3 years and will be the president of the organization for the next year.
ARAV has 3 main areas of focus: Education, Conservation and Research.
One of the most time intensive projects for the group every year is organizing an annual continuing education conference for veterinary staff. For several years we have been doing this in conjunction with The Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians and The Association of Avian Veterinarians so that exotic animal veterinary staff can go to one location and keep up with all they need to know for all the animals they treat. This year we are also working in conjunction with The American Association of Fish Veterinarians and the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians.
A Question I Get All The Time: How Do You Know So Many Things About So Many Different Kinds of Animals?
When people ask me how I keep up with everything I need to know for all the animals that I treat: this is how. Four years of veterinary school may sound like a lot of time to learn what you need to know, but it’s not. It gives a good foundation of medicine and surgery, with the focus being dogs, cats, cows, and horses. When you expand your practice to include smaller mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish it goes to a whole new level. The different groups of animals all have unique physiology, anatomy and diseases that need to be well understood in order to care for them properly. The annual conference helps us keep up with new knowledge and reinforce skills needed to practice.
On top of this conference, we offer lectures at other more general veterinary conferences for veterinarians who have a primary focus on dogs and cats, but want to learn about exotic animal practice so that they can offer good quality care to those pets as well. Many of these are more introductory level that what is found at the previously mentioned conference.
We also continue the education of veterinarians with a published journal. Unusual cases seen in practice can be highlighted to let veterinarians all around the world to learn from each other’s experiences. Research findings on new medications, treatments or emerging disease conditions can be shared so that veterinarians in practice can remain up to date with all that is being learned. That is how we stay cutting edge and offer the best care for your pet.
In addition to keeping currently practicing veterinarians current in knowledge, ARAV and most of the other similar groups work hard to educate soon to be veterinarians and new graduate veterinarians. As mentioned previously, veterinary school is a very intensive curriculum that is focused on livestock and common companion animals. However, most schools have some introductory courses for exotic animal medicine either as part of the main curriculum, as elective courses or through clubs at the schools. We offer student chapters of the organization at veterinary schools and provide some funding and volunteer time from members to support coursework and hands-on workshops for veterinary and veterinary technician students. After graduation there are internships and residencies available to new veterinarians. ARAV also helps support many of these programs with discounted conference registration, educational materials and other opportunities.
Finally, we work to educate pet owners and animal caretakers. There are many care sheets provided to member veterinarians to help educate clients on proper care for their pets. We also have active social media to reach out to the public. Look on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/ARAVvets/ and the webpage: https://arav.org/for-owners/. Look out for this to be expanded with more information and for regular postings to other social media in the coming year. Increasing our public outreach is one of the major goals for me this year as president.
Veterinarians also play many crucial roles in conservation. With regard to reptiles and amphibians, many species are threatened globally due to climate change, habitat loss, emerging disease, and poaching. A huge percentage of the world’s amphibians are being lost to Chytrid disease, a fungal disease.
Local Endangered Species
Locally in New England, rattlesnakes are dying from a different fungal disease. Also locally, sea turtles are stranded and cold stunned in Cape Cod Bay every year. ARAV members are involved in every aspect of these concerns. From research, to treatment of the affected animals and political advocacy.
We have worked directly with other organizations and state veterinary boards to end cruel practices such as Rattlesnake Roundups where wild snakes are caught and killed, often by skinning them alive. You can read some of the position papers regarding these events, changes to the Endangered Species Act and other concerns on the website.
The Exotic Pet Trade
In the past few years, there have been several confiscations of animals in foreign countries from illegal pet trade. Members have gone to the Philippines and Madagascar to help do health evaluations on the confiscated animals, treat the affected animals and help them be released back into the wild in a way that helps local authorities track them and prevent them from being put back into the pet trade.
We support captive breeding programs to help ensure that fewer animals are removed from the wild for the pet trade, but also to help zoos breed endangered species as a safeguard against extinction. Many of our member veterinarians work in wildlife programs, zoos and academic institutions.
Research is an area that ties into both of the other missions well. We cannot teach anyone about emerging disease unless we understand those diseases. We cannot conserve species unless we understand why they are being threatened and what we can do to intervene effectively. ARAV offers thousands of dollars in grants every year for members who are conducting studies to help advance the knowledge base in reptile and amphibian medicine.
Research That Helps Your Pets
In recent years, this has included studies of the use of various medications to help with sea turtle rehabilitation, nutritional studies in Leopard geckos, methods to evaluate kidney function in bearded dragons, studies on improving anesthesia safety and more rapid recovery for reptiles and many other topics. Research award winners are posted on the website, and there is a link to donate if you would like to support future projects: https://arav.org/professionals/grants/.
The knowledge gained in these projects not only helps wild animals, but helps me in my daily practice offer better diagnostic testing, more accurate treatments and safer anesthesia to the pets that I treat here at Bulger Veterinary Hospital. Medications act very differently in reptiles and amphibians than they do in dogs (the main animals looked at for drug approval). By learning exactly how they act differently, we are able to offer far more safe and effective treatment to our scaly friends.
I am guessing many people are surprised by the amount of things that involve veterinarians outside of the hospital practice. I hope this helps you gain a new appreciation for what is involved in the care of your pets. All of these endeavors help wild animals and pet animals alike.