Laboratory Animals are Exotic Pets on a Different Life Path

I have spent the afternoon researching small pet (rabbit and rodent) nutrition in my constant, obsessive quest to be a better veterinarian for my patients and veterinary resource for CareFRESH.  Much of my reading today has circled back to laboratory animal nutrition resources.  That is weighing heavily on me.  It is difficult to read about research subjects when my frame of reference in Real Life centers around my own pets and the rodent patients who come in for individual, loving veterinary care, often in the hands of a child.

In college I worked with the best teacher I have ever had, Dr. Merlyn Nielsen, a Professor of Animal Science at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.  His research interest at the time was primarily the heritability of obesity in mice.  I loved helping Dr. Nielsen with his research and spending time with his super cute little white mice.

I did data collection and analysis pertaining to fat percentages of purposely bred thinner and heavier genetic lines of mice – all survival studies, because Dr. Nielsen knew from the start I was a wimp and would cry if I were asked to do terminal studies.  (A story for another day – CPR on a laboratory mouse was my first rodent CPR attempt, not CPR on our baby ratties.)

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It took me thirty minutes to find a plain ol’ white lab mouse picture to contrast with the pet hamster picture, and I still think this guy is super cute!

Fast-forward to senior year of vet school.  I was finishing a well-rounded Midwestern veterinary education covering cattle, horses, pigs, cats and dogs, and realized no one had said “mice” to me in four years.  So I headed down to the Lab Animal corner of the veterinary school and Dr. Lab Animal created an exotic pet rotation for me.  We threw in a couple goat cases for fun.  Again, a surprisingly wonderful experience.  And again, I was shielded from terminal studies.

Fast-forward um…many…years, and I LOVE my career as a small animal vet.  I started in Littleton where lots of vets saw exotics, and ended up in Omaha, where I often get “You’ll see my hamster??  Woo!  I will be right there!” which is almost more fun.  Yeah, exotic pet loving vets are here, and they are awesome, but they are few and far between.  I get quite a few referals from vets who only see dogs and cats and even from mixed animal practitioners (vets who see pets and large animals).  Imagine the courage it takes a pet owner to ask that guy for a hamster referral!

Most of what I have learned has been from exotic pet veterinary books, experience, continuing education and other veterinarians with an interest in exotic pets.  Every once in a while I will wonder…

What if laboratory animal researchers and veterinarians who like exotic pets communicated?

We don’t.  We have entirely different goals and focuses.  Pet practitioners are sad around research.  It is difficult to wrap our heads around.  Animals educated us so we could help other animals.  We got through it and do not want to look back.

But…

Both of my experiences working with lab animals were very positive.  Both leaders who taught me were kind-hearted, compassionate people who cared very much for the animals they oversaw.

And SO MUCH research has been done over the years on animal health and nutrition and longevity.  It has mainly been done to benefit people.

Thank you researchers.  Thank you animals.

What if the knowledge from that research were also used to help pets?  I joke that we should have more medical knowledge about guinea pigs than any other species, because they are…guinea pigs.  But do we?  And if so, is it all being accessed to its fullest potential?

I think I have been ignoring a huge resource to the detriment of the patients under my care.  I do not have a conclusion for this post because I do not know how it ends.

When I figure out how to bridge the gap between the caretakers of the animals of the research world and the caretakers of the animals of the exotic pet world, I will share with you what I learn.  This is just one tip of the lab animal iceberg, which, for me, is a very emotional topic.  Chime in – I would love to hear your perspective.

Sometimes the most emotionally exhausting journeys are also the most rewarding.

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3 Responses to “Laboratory Animals are Exotic Pets on a Different Life Path”

  1. Other Mom says:

    I know you are too tender hearted to be a researcher! but what if one of those little guys would be the means to cures for diabetes, or spinal cord injury or or or—-? Someone just needs to find a way for them to live thru it! does that make sense??

  2. Yes! And better people than me live with that pull and find the right balance and are still struggling to find it and spend their lives making sure lab animals are treated humanely. And I am SO glad we have the medical knowledge base we do thanks in large part to animal research.

    And there IS crossover – for both of those diseases even! Diabetes and spinal injury – in human and animal medical knowledge. I just think it could be even greater than it is – research already done is such a huge resourse, but I often avoid it because it is difficult emotionally.

  3. I like your site! (I’m a vet) Man, I I was in veterinary school and many people quickly found out that it
    is not a snug and relaxing career like they assume it will be!
    Dirty veterinary scrubs, long hours, little sleep, along with lots
    to get the knack of, yet it is entirely definitely worth it.

    I think many folks are actually intimidated away by
    vet school however if your heart is in it i think you should
    put one’s heart and soul into it.

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