Posts Tagged ‘Exotic Pets’

Laboratory Animals are Exotic Pets on a Different Life Path

Monday, May 16th, 2011

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.)

See full size image

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.


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.

Bearded Dragon Care

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

Shawn Finch, DVM and Angela Bucher, LVT

This is the second in my exotic pet care series, after “Taking Care of Your Exotic Pet, For Example, Your Guinea Pig, Which is Not Really All That Exotic.” Angela Bucher read that and said,  “You sure do take a long time to get to your point!”  As the first improvement, notice how short the title of this one is.  More importantly, Angela is a Licenced Veterinary Technician and experienced Bearded Dragon owner.  She provided all the information for this article.  She is as obsessed with preventative care as I am, and very knowledgeable on reptile (and normal pet) care.  So we teamed up to bring you this information on Bearded Dragons.


  • Someone who is obsessed with learning about Bearded Dragons and their care
  • Someone willing to dedicate the next decade or longer to having a Bearded Dragon in their family
  • Someone able to protect their people (especially kids and immunocompromised friends and family) from potential salmonella exposure
  • Someone who is dedicated to a new pet veterinary visit and regular veterinary visits for the sole purpose of preventative care, though their Bearded Dragon will not have vaccines that force a visit.  Even though their Bearded Dragon will never have severe end-stage metabolic bone disease* because of their excellent care at home, they will still visit faithfully for wellness exams

*the reason many lizard owners bring their pet in to the vet for the first visit, but not you!

Still here?  Good!  You are going to do awesome, future Bearded Dragon owner.


In our opinion, the best cages for reptiles are made by Cages By Design.  They come with water bowls, lighting and branches.  Make sure that you have a habitat that is at least forty gallons.  Your full-grown Bearded Dragon is going to be about two feet long, and will need some leg-stretching room.  If you can afford a larger habitat, bigger is generally better.


The best reptile lights, in our opinion, are made by Exo-terra.  You will need lights for heat, ultraviolet lights (UVA and UVB) and an infrared light for nighttime.  In a forty gallon tank, an ideal temperature gradient will be created with a 150 watt basking light at one end, a 100 watt general heat light at the other, and a 75 watt infrared light for night.  In a larger tank (and to assure consistantly proper temperatures in a forty gallon tank), place thermometers at either end of the tank.

Lights need to be changed every three months.  They will not have burned out by then, but their ultraviolet capacity wanes after about three months, and will no longer provide the UV rays in high enough amounts to metabolize their Vitamin D and calcium, which is a big deal for reptiles.

Bearded Dragons need a moderately humid habitat for optimum health and shedding.  An aquarium with a screened top will hold moisture in well while providing some air circulation.  Mist the habitat (and your Bearded Dragon if he or she likes it) every few days.

No heat rocks! But you knew that right?  They are so 1980’s.  And they cause the worst burns I have ever seen.  Lizards are cold-blooded.  They are not good judges of when they are getting too hot, and will unwittingly sit on heated rocks until they are very badly burned.  I am so glad I became a veterinarian after these evil things were no longer popular.  But they are still out there, in older, hand-me-down habitats.  So if you see them, throw them out.  Yes, even if they are not yours!  Your friend will thank you after you explain why you just did what you did.


The ideal bedding substrate is comfortable and easy to keep clean.  Calcisand is ideal.  If a Bearded Dragon happened to eat it, it could be passed without obstruction.  However, excessive ingestion can cause obstruction.  Do not use regular sand, even if it is from a pet store.  Use a litter scoop to clean the habitat daily and clean it completely once a week.


Infant Bearded Dragons should have a couple of very small crickets (smaller than their head) daily.  Bigger juvenilles should also have crickets.  Suppliment with calcium powder every other day.  A Bearded Dragon’s diet may be supplimented with commercial pellets, but pellets should not be the main diet.  At least half of a Bearded Dragon’s diet should be plant-based.


  • leafy greens, such as romaine and chard (no spinach)
  • bell peppers
  • strawberries
  • dandilion leaves
  • hibiscus


  • baby food
  • yogurt


Bring your Bearded Dragon in for a veterinary visit and examination when you first adopt him or her and then every six months.  Do not have your first veterinary visit be when they are sick if you can help it.  At every visit, we will do a thorough examination and weigh your pet.  We will discuss husbandry, normal baselines, preventing problems and answer all of your questions.


The most common disease by far from which Bearded Dragons suffer is metabolic bone disease.  If Bearded Dragons (and other lizards) do not obtain enough calcium from their diets, or cannot process the calcium they do get because of inadequate ultraviolet light, their bodies take the needed calcium from that stored in their bones.  This weakens their bones, causing swelling and pathologic fractures.  Almost one hundred percent of fractures in Bearded Dragons are due at least in part to metabolic bone disease.

Next most common is gastrointestinal obstruction, often from eating sand or other habitat substrate.  Medications to treat obstruction are available, and have been used with moderate success.  Because of the small size of Bearded Dragons, surgery for gastrointestinal obstruction is rarely an option, and the condition may be fatal.

Bearded Dragons are vulnerable to injury and many other illnesses.  They hide symptoms of illness well, so if you suspect anything is wrong, bring them in for a veterinary examination as soon as possible.  Better a false alarm than a serious condition not caught.


Most reptiles and amphibians carry salmonella (a bacteria that can make humans and some animals ill) in their gastrointestinal tract as normal flora and shed it in their feces intermittantly.  It is transmitted by a fecal-oral pathway, meaning that one would have to ingest feces to become infected with salmonella.  As gross as that is, it is not as difficult to become infected as it may seem.  It may take as little as petting your Bearded Dragon then eating a sandwich.  Or letting the area around the habitat become messy, having a child crawl through it then putting his hand in his mouth.

If you are going to have a pet reptile or amphibian of any type, including a Bearded Dragon, make sure you take the precautions necessary to keep everyone safe.  Keep immunocompromised people away from your pet.  This includes anyone on chemotherapy medications, people with HIV/AIDS or other immune-compromising conditions, very young children and elderly people.  Everyone, even those with healthy immune systems, should wash their hands after handling the Bearded Dragon or the habitat, and before eating.


After you have been a Bearded Dragon owner for several years, and if you would like to learn about breeding them, we will help you learn and find resources to prepare you for success.  Most owners are not equipped for all of the work and intense care that goes with breeding Bearded Dragons.  It is difficult to meet the nutritional, and especially the calcium needs of a breeding female Bearded Dragon.  Dystocia is a significant risk, either mechanical dystocia, if the female’s hips are not properly conformed to lay eggs, or medical dystocia (uterine inertia).  Either form can lead to egg binding, which can become a medical emergency.


Bearded Dragons do well as solitary pets.  They should not be housed with pets of other species, even other lizards.  The sex of a Bearded Dragon can be determined by probing, which should only be done by an experienced veterinarian, and is usually not necessary unless you wish to house two Bearded Dragons together.  Two females usually will do well in the same habitat.  A male-female pair can do well together if you intend to breed them.  Again, make sure you are ready for all that is entailed in breeding, if you choose to house a male and female together.  Two males will not usually do well together in the same habitat.  A glass partition can be placed between Bearded Dragons if you wish to house two in the same habitat but seperate from each other.

Bearded Dragons are gentle and intelligent.  They are excellent pets and companions for adults and children.  May you have many wonderful years with your beautiful lizard, and call or e-mail us if you have any questions!

Tell Angela Happy Birthday by donating to the

“Angela Wants A Bull Python” fund,

which doesn’t actually exist.  But you could start it!

(Happy Birthday Angela!  Thank you for everything!)

What I Am Doing This Week: Regrouping and Admiring the Cuteness of Joy the Puppy

Monday, March 8th, 2010

This week I am looking back at my Riley and James posts and realizing that I have not posted an actual original, informative newsletter since October 3, 2010!  And you are still here!  Thank you!  I will try to be more intentional about the exotic pets series that I started with Taking Care of Your Guinea Pig.

Here is my lame excuse/exciting happenings this winter…I have been writing for several other sites and publications, which has been very rewarding.  I am going to list them in the next posting, so you can look through them if you would like, but also so I can keep track of all of them, and what I am supposed to be working on now!

Till I have something of more substance to say, here is a picture of Joy the Puppy on the day we adopted her, January 30, 2009…

writing education

Taking Care of Your Exotic Pet, For Example, Your Guinea Pig, Which is Not Really All That Exotic

Sunday, May 31st, 2009

In keeping with this year’s wellness theme, this newsletter is about the care of “exotic” pets…kind of an overarching view of my thoughts on wellness care beyond cats and dogs.   We have talked about keeping dogs and cats healthy through appropriate diet and exercise.   Let’s talk about expanding our healthy lifestyle mindset to other species.

We will use guinea pigs as our template, because I like them, and they are cute.   My point in doing that, I guess, is to emphasize that if an animal is appropriate for a pet (Please do not adopt a tiger cub or Komodo dragon…or a prairie dog, for that matter) there are similar steps to take, regardless of species, to become a proficient pet owner.

I would say we are about fifty years behind in the pet care of species that are not dogs and cats.  That is, fifty years ago, dogs and cats dealt with nutrition and lifestyle issues that, thankfully, I have only seen in veterinary textbooks.  Because we have honed our care of these common friends so well, we are often able to have them in our lives for the full extent of their domestic lifespan, and well beyond the lifespan they would have in the wild.

Our other pet friends are not as fortunate.  Exotic pets often become ill because we just don’t know as much about taking care of them as we do about dogs and cats.  I think we are on the cutting edge of extraordinary advances in this area, and with all of the information that is out there, knowledgeable experts and the accessibility of information on the internet, we can make that half century leap, and take as good of care of our exotic friends as we do of our dogs and cats.

In fact, you, as owners of these pets, have been as helpful to me as anything I have learned in my veterinary training, experience, reading and continuing education.  You are proactive about learning about the care of the pets you own, and have been so generous to share what you learn and what you experience.  It seems only natural that we should take it even farther…share with each other and with other pet owners and potential pet owners.  If I never have to treat another rabbit with bumblefoot, or guinea pig with scurvy, or lizard with bone disease, and you (and everyone we reach) never has to watch a pet struggle through these or other husbandry-related diseases, it will be well worth all the work we put in together.

So here is my guinea pig “example.”  I hope that if you actually own a guinea pig, the information is helpful to you.  But for all of us, I hope it gets us thinking about how we can set up all of our pets for the best possible odds of a long, healthy life.

We own one guinea pig, a male American Shorthair named Piggy.  He is five years old, and I have not told him that the “average” lifespan of guinea pigs in captivity is five to eight years.  We are all hoping to have him around long after our daughters have left for college…maybe their own kids could even meet him.  As of today, he is healthy and happy, so I will tell you what I have learned from my obsessive reading, veterinary training and experience, and hanging out with Piggy.

First, and most importantly, guinea pigs need Vitamin C.  Guinea pigs and primates are the only mammals whose bodies do not manufacture this particular vitamin.  Most every guinea pig resource tells us that they will get enough Vitamin C from their food/water supplement/fruits/vegetables.  Here is the hitch.  There is not enough in their food.  There is not enough in their water supplements.  There is not even enough in the awesome citrus and veggie snacks you feed them.

Close this newsletter and grab your car keys.  Or if you are way cooler than me (odds are you are), track this down on the internet and have it shipped to you…chewable 25 mg Vitamin C tablets.*  Your piggy needs twenty-five milligrams of oral vitamin C a day.  I know…I usually make broader statements.  25 milligrams.  Not water drops.  Not orange wedges.  An actual chewable tablet.  Of course my reasons for insisting are selfish.  If you all start today en masse, and I never again see another scurvy-related problem, I will be indebted to you forever.

Vitamin deficiency related diseases are some of the most heart-breaking to treat in any species, even humans, I hear.  Here is a list off the top of my head of some conditions caused by or worsened by low levels of vitamin C.  For the final draft, maybe I will try to be more scientific and look up every possible disease.  Probably not.  For starters, that’s not really my style, and I am afraid it would make this kind of boring.  But more importantly, I suspect that even the brightest and best of the scientific/exotic/veterinary community does not know the full extent of the good vitamin C does for a guinea pig, or you and me for that matter.

Back to the list:  upper respiratory disease, pneumonia, dental disease, conjunctivitis, unthriftiness, pododermatitis, arthritis and other joint-related diseases, immune-related conditions and bladder issues.  Vitamin C is also involved in maintaining a strong immune system, wound healing and recovery from illness in general.

OK, you have your vitamin C.  Next most important (yes I believe that one little tablet is more important than the entirety of the rest of the diet), is the rest of the diet.  Your guinea pig needs an endless supply of timothy hay.  Really, a bottomless bowl.  Some owners use “hoppers,” those little wire things that hang on the outside of the habitat and allow the guinea pig to pull hay as needed, without the hay supply getting wet or soiled.  That is way more sophisticated than what we do, but we stuff two tissue boxes full of hay, and Piggy pulls the hay out as he eats.  Sometimes he will eat two entire boxes of hay in one day!  We refill them every morning, and at the end of the week, we start over with new hay and new boxes.

Of course you need a fresh water supply.  A water bottle seems to work best, as piggies are a bit too messy for a water dish.  If you are used to smaller rodents, guinea pigs will seem to drink ALOT, so make sure to check the supply every day.

Next, have a small bowl for piggy pellets.  He or she needs only two tablespoons of pellets a day.  That is half of one fourth of a cup.  MOST owners give their piggies as many pellets as they want.  And most guinea pigs are overweight.  Cut back gradually until he or she gets just that small scoop once a day.  And if he or she is on a seed diet, switch to pellets over a couple of weeks and use the seed mixture for a treat.  The seeds are not bad for them, but they are high in fat, and not as nutritionally balanced as the pellets are.  The pellets are important for two reasons.  They contain the correct mix of trace minerals and vitamins other than C that are also important for your piggy’s health.  And just as importantly, they love pellets, and we need our guinea pigs to be happy.

Last, and still important, are treats.  Fruits and vegetables are fine.  Carb-based treats are fine.  Commercial guinea pig treats are fine.  Everything in moderation.  You would think we would know more about guinea pigs, being…guinea pigs…but I am extrapolating from what we know of dogs and cats for this next part.  If guinea pigs are also sensitive to the toxic effects of some foods, as I suspect they are, they should not have any of the following:  chocolate, grapes, raisins, onions, garlic or macadamia nuts.

As far as creating an ideal habitat, guinea pigs often enjoy running happy laps around their homes and popcorning (jumping straight up in happy piggy jumps, one of the cutest things you will ever see).  They also like to have a little hiding space.  Base your final habitat size on these factors.  If your pet seems cramped at all, you could always upgrade later.  Piggy’s home is two feet wide, two feet high and four feet long with a plastic bottom and wire mesh sides and top.  There is room for his two tissue boxes, his snack/vitamin/pellet bowl, his water bottle, his igloo, and his happy piggy antics.

For flooring, no wire!  With adequate Vitamin C, a great body condition and a comfy floor, your pet will never need to deal with infectious pododermatitis (bumblefoot), a horrible disease that often ends in euthanasia due to the severe pain involved.  For bedding, no wood shavings!  It is irritating to their respiratory systems and little feet.  Carefresh bedding is a great absorbent paper-based product, by far the best bedding available.  Piggy uses Carefresh bedding, and it keeps him comfortable and not stinky for about a week.

Guinea pigs often need their nails trimmed, like dogs and cats do.  If you are not comfortable doing it at home, bring them in and have it done.  Also check the bottom of their little feet and make sure they appear healthy.  I know they are weird looking, but you will get used to how they look on a good day, and know if anything abnormal is going on.

Also check your guinea pig’s body condition score.  Unlike a dog or cat, he should not have a visible waist.  But he should have ribs you can feel (but not see) and should not have a big tummy behind his ribs, but be a cute elongated egg shape.

As long as you have him out and are giving him a mini-check-up, make sure his coat and eyes are bright and shiny.  Look in his mouth and make sure his cute little teeth are not longer than normal.  When he comes for his veterinary exam, we will check all of these things too, and also use a speculum to look at his back “cheek” teeth.

Speaking of checkups, I recommend you bring your pet in when you first adopt him or her for an initial check up and every question that you can think of, and then every six months and any time you are concerned about his or her health.

Guinea pigs are skilled at hiding symptoms of illness, so I would recommend you bring them in at the first sign of anything weird.  Most experts will tell you that the reason they hide symptoms is they are prey animals and cannot afford to show any weakness.  But he is in your living room!  Up away from the dog and the cat!  I think he is hiding symptoms because he is so kind he doesn’t want to worry you.  Tell him to quit being so selfless, and let you know if he does not feel well.  And if he will not, you will just have to continue being super-vigilant, and bring him in at the first sign of disease.  Better a false alarm than a serious illness not caught.

If you are going to breed your guinea pigs, do more reading than this cursory introduction!  Keep in mind that female guinea pigs need to have their first litter of piglets BEFORE they are eight months of age.  Their pelvic canal fuses together at about this age if they have not given birth, and after this occurs, they cannot safely give birth to piglets.  (I KNOW they are called pups!  I like to call them piglets!)  If they have given birth by this age, their pelvic canal does not fuse, and they typically will be able to safely be bred from then on.

Also, be careful with new pairs of guinea pigs.  Females can become pregnant as early as one month of age!  So make sure you have the piggies you think you have or you may end up with the old familiar “hamster” story…”I adopted two males/two females/one baby female, and now I have five!  Do you want one?  Look how cute they are!”

Long-haired guinea pigs need to be brushed often.  They need to be treated immediately if mats develop.  Guinea pigs are susceptible to dental disease, trauma, respiratory diseases, bladder stones, uterine cancer, urinary tract infections, intestinal parasites and external parasites, most notably scabies.  This is characterized by intense itching, hair loss and sometimes even seizures.  It is very treatable, but fatal if left unchecked, so if you notice your piggy itching, get him or her in right away!

Also, guinea pigs are VERY heat-sensitive, even more so than dogs.  They should not be outside in the summer, and they should not even be in a sunny window.  If you suspect your guinea pig has become overheated, bathe them quickly in cool (not cold) water, and rush them to the veterinary hospital.  Though this will give him the best odds possible, sadly, I have never seen or heard of a guinea pig surviving heat stress.

Guinea pigs are very social.  They like to have piggy friends, so consider adopting two or more.  Beware the too-small-for-the-number-of-piggies-habitat and the dreaded hamster story!  But if you can adopt a friend for your friend, that would be twice as fun!

They like to be in busy areas of the house or church or classroom.  Make sure you talk to them often.  They can be shy, but can almost always be acclimated to gentle handling, and will enjoy snuggle time.  I realize I am inviting trouble by admitting this, but I have NEVER been bitten by a guinea pig.  And I have been bitten by most every other type of pet!  They just don’t think to bite, and if they did happen to get scared or startled, it would be difficult to get a good chomp in with their peace-loving, hay-chewing itty-bitty mouths.

I know that if you are a guinea pig owner, you are a good one, and completely invested in his or her well being.  I also know that if you are not yet a guinea pig owner, you may be thinking of getting one.  Make sure you check with your family…fellow teachers…pastor…first!  And have fun.  They are one of my favorite types of pets ever, and we love having Piggy in our family.

I will try (by “try” I mean call Dave and have him do it!) to set up sections of the website to discuss the practical care of other specific pets.  As of now, as you know, there is a newsletter on how much I like birds (with no practical information on how to actually take care of them), and another newsletter on how much I like hamsters (with no practical information on how to actually take care of them, but a very helpful section on how to make them a rabbit costume.)  They were, however, very fun to write!  Maybe it is time for me to grow up, and start giving you more practical info.  Then again, maybe not…

January 25, 2010 Jennifer VanCleve is my awesome friend who runs Westwood Church’s Preschool Program.  She asked me yesterday to check if her guinea pig Peanut was pregnant.  (She had accidently been left with a male guinea pig at a preschooler’s home.)  She was not.  I left her the above “note” on an index card.

OXBOW ANIMAL HEALTH: We have an extraordinary resource for guinea pig information right here in Nebraska!  Check out the website for Oxbow, and let me know if there are other websites or resources you would like me to add here.

CAREFRESH As of May, 2010, I am working with Carefresh!  I love it!  E-mail me ANY small pet questions you have!

***GREAT NEWS!!!***January 25, 2010 I just got an e-mail from the veterinarian who oversees national pet care at PetSmart.  I have been, um, bugging her for a while about Petsmart carrying Oxbow Vitamin C.  Here is part of her e-mail…

“The best news of all is that the Oxbow vitamins are coming in spring I think so we are making good strides. As always we welcome any of your comments or questions. Happy Monday :)”


It is indeed, a Happy Monday.

Dr. Finch, Bird Doctor

Thursday, November 1st, 2007

Dedicating a newsletter to hamsters was so fun, I decided to do another… this time dedicated to birds.

Milli The Gorgeous Cockatoo

Since the start of my career as um, Dr. Finch, the comments have ranged from “Do you see birds? You should! Get it?” to that of my most recent bird-owning client, who, after a wellness appointment with his new baby budgerigar, said, somewhat dubiously, “Well, with a name like that, let’s hope you’re a good bird doc.”  I just laughed and said “Yes, let’s hope!”   I must be ok… or lucky… his bird is doing fine so far.

My first avian patient was a budgerigar whose owner had called five other veterinary hospitals, and none of them would see her hurt bird.   For the record, I now know of several vets in Omaha who see birds, and they are all very good.   However, she was panicked and calling through the Yellow Pages, which can be hit or miss.   Anyways, my first reaction was to also say I don’t see birds.   But the bird was hurt… and the owner was crying… and no one else would see them.  And I do love budgies.   So I had them come in.

On presentation, the little bird was hanging from the top of her cage from… a paperclip.   Gross.  This wasn’t an avian case.   This was a hardware case—more my husband’s area of expertise than mine.  What would Russ do? Stuck wire… needle nose pliers… similar to… hemostats!”   I grabbed a pair of hemostats and the bird and gently pulled the paperclip out of the scared budgie’s mouth.  It had been a homemade toy hanger.   She had ignored the toy, bitten the paperclip, and it had gone through the bottom of her mouth and out her neck.   I finished the exam… nothing as dramatic as a paperclip impaling, the rest of her looked like a normal budgie.  I treated her pain and sent her home on budgie-sized antibiotics to guard against infection.

Then I sat down and shook for a good half hour as I thought through how many vital structures are in the very small neck of a bird.  Amazingly, the wire must have missed every single one of them, because she lived to play with safe, paperclip-less toys, and I have gone on to have many, many avian cases, but none as scary as my first one.

In fact, they have by and large been very fun cases.  If you are a pediatrician, maybe you can relate to how fun it is when you are used to patients who will look at you with their cute little faces, but not answer any of your questions, to then having a patient actually answer you in plain English.   It is a nice change of pace, even if my patients are only mimicking what I just said.   Sometimes, on a slow day, I will talk my clients into staying longer just so I can hold their bird and finish our conversation.

I can honestly say that I have yet to have a patient of any species who was not cute (yes, even the hairless dogs and rats), but the scarlet macaws, rainbow-colored gouldian finches and bright green conures are way up there for breath-taking beauty.   In fact, I always save a few feathers from wing trims for my daughters.   Many of their stuffed animals, thanks to gorilla glue and contributions from my gorgeous patients, are now angel stuffed animals.

And the personalities!   Every bird I have met seems to have an amazing sense of humor just under his or her little feathered surface.   One of my best friends is my Mom and Dad’s twelve-year-old budgie, Pete, Pete, the Parakeet.  (Mom calls him Pete.)   Pete, Pete, the Parakeet knows over thirty words and phrases, and I swear he often uses them in context.   My favorites are “Gimme a kiss,” “Whatcha doing?” and “Here Ernie, Ernie.”   (Ernie is my parents’ tiny poodle, another good friend of mine.)   Pete, Pete, the Parakeet has had two bouts of kidney failure, but is presently healthy and working on his next phrase.

Birds seem to bring me beyond my hospital walls better than any other patients.   I do house calls for Pedro, a cockatiel who lives in the exercise room of Lakeside Village.   While I am there I get to visit my Mother-in-Law Karen who works there, my friends who work with Karen—Paula, Tanya, Michelle and the rest, and the residents—my great aunt-in-law Aunt Rachel, Pedro’s best friend Catherine, our real estate agent’s Dad, my daughter Abby’s “adopted” Grandma, whose cat we went to check on together, and many others. For the severe introvert that I am, Pedro has brought me a long ways.

Pedro Cockatiel

I also do house calls for Buddy, a cockatiel who lives at Montessori Children’s Room, where my Mom teaches.   I try to stretch that into an all day visit… I get to see the kids (including my daughter!), my Mom, the other teachers, Pete, Pete, the Parakeet, and Ratty and Newbie Rat, friends of Buddy, for whom I also do house (school?) calls.

My friend at Westwood Church, Jenn VanCleve, leads the preschool there and allows me to be the vet for their two budgies, Sky and Puffer.   Strangely, Sky is not the sky blue one with the white cloud-shaped mark on his head—Sky is the other one.   But fortunately, the preschool kids know which is which and can remind me as needed.

The summer before last, I taught Vacation Bible School at Westwood Church.   The decorations all had a tropical theme, so naturally we needed a parrot.  I did the best I could and borrowed a gorgeous cockatoo from a groomer at Petsmart.  He let me keep Milli all week, and the kids loved her.   Imagine forty preschoolers trying to teach a bird to say, “Love is kind.”   Milli never did repeat it, though she seemed to enjoy the attention, but I would guess that those kids remember that verse to this day, and in interacting with Milli, they learned in a very concrete way to practice kindness.  Milli’s owner did not seem too happy we were brainwashing his poor bird, but he must believe the verse on some level, because trusting me with his pet for a whole week so I could make the week more special for the kids is one of the nicest things a client has ever done for me.

And so it goes that the birds of Omaha are bringing me out and about, to new friends, new experiences, and beauty I would otherwise miss.  For all these reasons and more, I love seeing birds as patients.  I feel, as I imagine my classmate Dr. Crow feels, and maybe even the Nebraska Humane Society vet Dr. Katz feels, and (I have always believed), the late great Iowa swine practioner, Dr. Hogg, must have felt, as if I am living up to my name, Dr. Finch.

For The Love Of Hamsters

Saturday, September 1st, 2007

I would like to let you know my position on hamster-worth.   With this information, you will be equipped to decide if you would like a normal, sane vet, or a vet like me.   Unfortunately for those of you who would prefer a sane vet, you will probably only succeed in finding one who hides their hamster love better than I, not one with a rational, logical approach to the monetary value of a hamster. Very rarely, I run into a client who, when faced with a hamster treatment plan, says, “But this thing only cost me three bucks!”   It happens with all pets, but seems to happen more often with the pocket pets.   As a comedian once said about treating a sick hamster, “I wouldn’t pay to have my disposable lighter fixed!”

Since it is so infrequent, I suspect that many of you are as insane as I am.  If your hamster is sick, and if you have the means to treat her, you bring her to me as if she is a tiny little dog and say, “I know it’s crazy, but do whatever she needs.”   I would contend that some sorts of crazy are good.

My client list is as full of people who are as crazy as you and I, the good kind of crazy.   And if you happen to be a sane person reading this, you now have been warned, and have the opportunity to find a rational, level-headed veterinarian.  But you might as well read the stories.   They are kind of fun.

Recently, I had a baby Robo hamster as a patient.   Herbie had just been snatched from the mouth of a cat and rushed to us.   Her little hamster exam was normal except for a large tear in her skin where her scruff should be.   Unfortunately, that is the handle of a hamster, and it was missing.  She was a very sweet little hamster, but a bit of a pinball.   As my receptionist Rhonda and I played the part of pinball paddles to keep her from jumping off the treatment table, Rhonda, following my shouted directions, (I’m not sure why I was shouting—she wasn’t a particularly loud hamster) aimed the surgical glue at Herbie and dripped a drop of glue right on a wound edge.   I took the half-second window of frozen hamster confusion to pinch the wound edges together, before Herbie started pinballing again.

I scooped her up to return the repaired hamster to her owner, when I realized her cute little round face fit perfectly in my closed fist, and she was now calm.  In my defense, it was the end of a long day, and I have already told you that I am insane.  I grabbed a Sharpie and drew little bunny ears and whiskers on my fist.  If you have a friendly hamster, you have to try this!

Anyway, I had not warned the client I was insane, so I switched her pet to my other hand, switched my face to serious doctor, put my Sharpie hand in my pocket and returned her very small hamster to her with her very small hamster medicine.

The first veterinary hospital this client called would not see hamsters.   Now look at what a great case they missed!

Another recent hamster case involved a hamster who did not even have an owner yet.   I include her in my hamster stories because I think pets have inherent worth, not just worth because we project it onto them.

I was filling in at a different Banfield inside of a different Petsmart.   I give you this background only to say, this Petsmart team is not used to my insanity.   And I am used to Petsmart team members at my home Banfield perhaps rolling their eyes and saying “What’s this going to cost me?” but still handing over the hamster.

Anyways, I had been presented with a hamster who was, to use one of my favorite medical terms, a sickie.   After my hamster exam, I handed the little white fluff back to the Petsmart team member and said, “She is going to need surgery.”  She said, as any sane person would, “It’s a hamster.”   I said, “I know. She needs surgery.”

Well, she did have surgery.   All of the supplies were donated by that Banfield’s regular doctor, and I donated the surgery itself, and she was adopted by a different Petsmart employee at that store, a crazy one.   What sane person would adopt a sickie and put herself through the heartbreak of losing her very soon after?   I have a lot of respect for that second employee, and would have set myself up for the same heartbreak, if there had not already been a waiting list to adopt the hamster.

I had a hamster patient with a severe open femoral fracture who needed his leg amputated.  He is doing great a year later.  I saw a hamster recently with the same history.  He was running on his wheel and started limping.  I had flashbacks to Amputation Hamster, but on examination, Joe had just injured a muscle and needed bed rest.   I say that part, then the owners figure out how to talk the hamster into bed rest.   They must have figured out how to explain it to Joe, because he also is doing well.

Those are some of my best hamster stories.  Now hopefully you know if you and I are a good client-doctor match.   I will not be offended if you sneak off, keeping a wary eye on me the whole time.   But I will be happier if you think, “If she cares that much about these little fluffs, she will probably understand why my dog is so important to me and take my concerns and the sanctity of our human-animal bond seriously.”   But not as happy as I was when drew the bunny ears on the hamster and hopped her around my desk.