Walking into West Esplanade Veterinary Clinic and Bird Hospital isn't like entering most other vet offices. Something is different. There's the normal array of pet products -- although most are in smaller packages -- there are artworks featuring animals and there are the usual counter and waiting room benches. Missing are the expected barks and caterwauls associated with veterinary offices.
You'll find no cats or dogs as patients, although Gregory Rich's 12-year-old Austrian shepherd has escorted the doctor through his rounds since he was a pup. As you walk through the clinic, you'll find there are animal sounds, but they're chirps, and thumps and squeaks that come from more exotic patients, like snakes, rabbits, chinchillas, ferrets and especially birds.
Rich's practice focuses on all the special needs of small, uncommon pets that many veterinarians rarely see as well as clueing in owners that these animals have health concerns that require regular check-ups. "Everyone understands that dogs and cats need vaccinations and regular check-ups, but that is not the case with other small animals."
The hospital's intensive care unit houses between five and 10 patients a day that need special attention and observation. "The intensive care room is for critical care needs, pre- and post-operative patients, those we're watching closely," says Rich, who has been a veterinarian for more than 15 years. Common problems that land small animals in critical care are liver, kidney and heart problems, as well as bacterial and viral infections.
Today, the ICU patients include a white-fronted Amazon parrot with kidney disease Rich believes resulted from a toxin the bird ingested, a 30-year-old yellow nape Amazon parrot with malnutrition-related kidney disease, a ferret with a tumor on his foot and a couple of other pet patients. The animals aren't isolated from each other by germ-blocking barriers but are each contained in individual cages. "Unlike a lot of dog and cat or human diseases ... these diseases are not going to cross species lines," he says.
He does separate the reptiles, however, partly for the comfort of people walking through the clinic but also because the ICU needs to be kept at 80 degrees. "An exotic animal ICU needs to be at an elevated temperature," Rich says. "It's a constant 80 degrees in there; their immune systems work better at an elevated temperature."
The surgery suite looks similar to those found in hospitals for humans, except with smaller components. Because many of the patients are quite small, Rich uses microsurgery utensils and even brings in specialized equipment when needed for individual cases. It may sound reasonable for a truly exotic pet like some of the birds that can live from 45 to 60 years, but less likely for a gerbil that only cost $10 at the pet store in the first place.
"People don't look at them just as a pet they bought at a store," Rich says. "It's a family member. Pets are not just a dog or cat or bird or turtle; they're part of the family and people care about them." His job is to identify problems, tell pet owners what treatments are available and how much it will cost and let them determine the next step. Always, he impresses the need for regular check-ups since these pets can't tell owners of discomforts and even serious problems aren't always obvious.
"A veterinarian is the only one who can tell if they're healthy," he says of pets. "Somebody who is educated in that animal needs to ascertain whether it really is healthy or may be having problems.
"We have the knowledge, facility and the experience to provide top-quality information, education, medical and surgical care for all the non dog and cat pets out there," the vet says. And there are plenty. "In 2001 alone, I've done 27 hysterectomies on birds," he says. "They have egg problems just like humans."
He admits that birds are his passion -- and, perhaps, his calling. "I always had small animals as pets when I was a kid: hamsters, gerbils, a hedgehog, birds." But it was while attending veterinary school at LSU in Baton Rouge that he realized the small animal student rotations were his favorites. "During school it was something I always enjoyed -- working the sick animal wards with those unique pets. Once I got out of school, I found I had a knack. I also wanted to give people with small pets an option. I'm the only clinic that does just exotics in the state -- that caters only to exotics."
A recognized bird expert, Rich lectures before veterinarian associations and has been featured on a segment of Animal Planet. "I always really liked birds, and found I had a way with them," Rich says. "Birds that other people can't handle will calm right down for me." His avian patients include Louie, a parrot who holds court at Prince & Pauper home furnishings store on Magazine Street; Reba, a large gold-breasted macaw he's treating for ingrown feathers and irritated skin; another bird with a lump on the back of his neck that Rich diagnosed as "subcutaneous emphysema," a condition in which air gets trapped under a bird's skin; and the ICU patients. At his own home, his non-human family includes the dog Shana, a rabbit and, of course, six birds. "I had a calling for avian medicine," he says. "It's just something that works for me."