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How to care for exotic pets 

click to enlarge Metairie veterinarian Dr. Gregory Rich with some of his patients.

Photo courtesy Gregory Rich

Metairie veterinarian Dr. Gregory Rich with some of his patients.

Birds, ferrets, guinea pigs, rabbits and reptiles are the most common patients at the Avian & Exotic Animal Hospital of Louisiana (3635 N. I-10 Service Road W., Metairie, 504-455-6386; www.gregrichdvm.com), according to Dr. Gregory Rich, who opened the clinic in 1993 and sees exotic pets exclusively. He also sees sugar gliders, hedgehogs, rats and monkeys.

  "The new thing we are seeing are pet chickens," he says.

  What he doesn't see are very large snakes, big monkeys or wild cats; Louisiana law prohibits individuals from possessing "bears, cougars or non-human primates as pets." The law also bans venomous snakes and constricting snakes 12 feet or longer require a permit.

  Rich's office also has pets available for adoption, since there are no rescue organizations in the area that deal with exotic animals.

  Exotic pets require different care than dogs and cats, Rich says, and owners need to learn the specific needs of their animals.

  "An Amazon parrot will live 55 to 65 years," Rich says. "That's the glory, that it's going to live that long. You get to grow up with those pets. You get to grow old with those pets. A rabbit can live 12 to 14 years, and chinchillas can live 15 to 18 years. ... At home, I've got a 41-year-old Amazon parrot and a 26-year-old hawk-headed parrot."

  Owning exotic pets is a different experience than sharing a home with a dog or cat.

  "It certainly takes an owner who is committed to having a pet that is indoors all the time," Rich says, "a pet that you are going to give fresh food and water every day and clean their area every day." Most people walk their dog outside, where it relieves itself, and cats use litterboxes, but owners must clean the living area of caged animals often to cut down on smells as well as bacteria that can cause skin sores and respiration problems, he says.

  To keep these pets healthy, Rich recommends an annual veterinary checkup that includes a thorough physical exam and blood panels to check on liver and kidney function and nutritional status. Rich's office also can check cholesterol levels, take X-rays to detect kidney stones and CT scans to detect sinus, kidney and other issues.

  Nutritional imbalances are a common problem. "That's probably the biggest health issue we see in the realm of exotics," Rich says. "It's not so much deficiencies but imbalances; it's more not eating the right thing for your environment."

  For example, birds that live outside and use a lot of energy flying can use the nutrients in sunflower seeds and peanuts, but those same ingredients can cause high cholesterol in caged birds. Veterinarians can help find products suitable for each pet's lifestyle, Rich says.

  "Using the veterinary community and the zoological community to educate [pet owners] about dietary needs for their individual pet is a great idea," he says.

  "There are a lot of things we try to help owners understand about the pet they have, from caging to diet to veterinary care. Preventative care is a lot cheaper than emergency care."

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