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NJ Veterinary Medical Association
390 Amwell Road, Suite 402
Hillsborough, NJ 08844
info@njvma.org
Phone:  908-281-0918
Fax:  908-450-1286
 

Exotics
People keep many different kinds of animals as pets such as birds, rabbits, ferrets, hamsters, and reptiles. Learn about the special needs and health issues of these animals.


Dear Veterinarian:
I recently purchased two gerbils and named them Jack and Jill. They have been great pets and enjoy being held and running on the wheel in their cage. My only complaint is that they keep having babies. Can gerbils be spayed and neutered? I have been successful at finding homes for the majority of their offspring but I don't want to separate the happy couple. What can I do?

Dear Pet Owner:
As you have discovered, gerbils are only pregnant for three weeks and they are capable of producing litters year round. Babies can become mommies at four months of age and even though they may not deliver 4-7 newborns every time, they have them often. Your best solution is to find a breeder or veterinarian who can distinguish the males from females when they're less than three months old and then separate them by sex to stop your overpopulation problem. Gerbils like to live in groups and as many as 15 family members will get along quite nicely in a large enough enclosure. However, introducing strangers can lead to nasty fights. As for the original happy couple, you may want to have Jill spayed or Jack neutered by a veterinarian comfortable with gerbil care. Gerbils will naturally stop breeding by the time they are a year and a half old so you may also try a temporary separation. When re-introducing them, be sure to do so in a neutral cage.

 


Dear Veterinarian:
I decided to retired my barrel horse last year and breed her to a Quarter Horse stallion in Oklahoma. She is due to foal in March. My friend told me to schedule her shots before she foals, but she routinely gets her annual vaccinations in May. I am afraid of over-vaccinating. What should I do?

Dear Pet Owner:
Because farm animals, horses included, absorb all of their maternal antibodies (or passive immunity) through their gut from their mother's “first milk” (called colustrum), it is critical that we make every effort to insure that the first milk be as strong as it can and that our foal consumes an adequate amount, in a timely fashion. Vaccinating your mare 30 to 60 days prior to foaling is one way to help protect both mother and baby from the diseases that concern us. I hear a lot of talk about the risks associated with over-vaccination, but in this situation I believe the evidence is clear. Discuss with your veterinarian the vaccines that he or she believes are most important for your mare and your circumstances, but my own list makes a priority of Tetanus, Eastern and Western Encephalomyelitis, Botulism, Rabies, Influenza and Rhinopneumonitis. Rhinopneumonitis, also known as “viral abortion” should actually be administered during the fifth, seventh, and ninth months of gestation. Rotavirus causes diarrhea in foals and a relatively new vaccine is now available to help reduce its occurrence. Lastly, your mare is the first source of parasites to your newborn foal. Most recommendations are to deworm one month prior to foaling and again the day after foaling.

 


Dear Veterinarian:
I keep my horse in my own backyard. Do I still need to deworm him?

Dear Pet Owner:
In the constant struggle for life, Nature takes advantage of all opportunities. So, unfortunately, the answer to your question is yes! While those in more crowded conditions certainly have a more pressing need, even an isolated horse needs to be dewormed (and for that matter vaccinated, too). While our parasite controlling drugs of today are far more effective than those of the past, it is unrealistic to hope to eradicate every parasite in your horse's body. As a result, your horse has already contaminated your property, which is now the source of reinfection. Even if it was not, every time you take your horse where other horses have been; every bale of hay you buy that came from a farm that has or ever had horses; indeed, every foot that walks on your property be it human or horse, dog or cat, bird or bunny has the potential to introduce pestilence. Diseases are always looking for victims – we can never lower our guard!

 


Dear Veterinarian:
My daughter was tacking up her horse when “Shadow” suddenly started coughing and pawing the ground. Moments later, green foam was coming out of her mouth. We called our veterinarian, who said that it sounded like “Shadow” was choking and not to panic, and that we should take away her food and water and that she'd get there as soon as she could. I thought she meant minutes, but is was more than an hour before she got to the sable and even then she moved in no particular hurry. Once she got there, it seemed no time at all before “Shadow” was relaxing from a sedative and the veterinarian was able to correct the problem with something she called a ‘stomach tube.' While I was glad everything was better, shouldn't she have been more concerned? We were so worried.

Dear Pet Owner:
Your question raises a number of issues and while you have every right to be confused and concerned, panic isn't necessary. Choking is the term everyone uses to describe the situation when something in your pharynx or trachea (air pipe) obstructs your breathing. It occurs commonly enough in people that we all recognize the term and the condition. In horses and other farm animals, however, it is very uncommon for the airway to become obstructed. For them, it's the food tube or esophagus that becomes obstructed. While the situation can be a life-threatening emergency for a person, with horses, concern is warranted but not sirens and whistles. As with people, improper chewing is the most common cause of the event. Once primary dental problems have been ruled out, management tactics to make your horse eat more slowly need to be employed. Many people have had success simply by placing a large rock in their horses feed tub, which the horse must eat a round. Your veterinarian is the best person to discuss the situation with and to make recommendations for your specific circumstances.

 


Dear Veterinarian:
Bugs, my two-year-old white New Zealand rabbit, hasn't been acting well. The hair around his mouth is consistently wet as if he is drooling. He hasn't been as playful and his appetite has also decreased. Also, his teeth appear to be protruding from his mouth like small tusks. They never used to be like this.

Dear Pet Owner:
Bunnies are not prone to cavities and you don't have to brush their teeth but this does not mean they are without dental problems. Your rabbit has a malocclusion, which means his front teeth, the incisors, are not growing straight. Rabbits, like most animals that mainly eat plants, grasses, and vegetables, have teeth that are always growing and are kept short by grinding against the opposite tooth. If the teeth start growing crooked, they will not wear down properly. Instead, the front teeth continue to grow and will begin to protrude from the mouth. This makes eating difficult. The long crooked teeth must be periodically cut short to control the problem, sometimes as often as once a month. A more difficult to detect condition occurs when the crooked teeth are the molars, the back teeth inside the cheeks. Painful mouth sores may develop as the overlong sharp edges of these teeth cut into the gums and tongue. A veterinarian must often use anesthesia to examine, diagnose, and treat this condition. These problems are usually inherited so it is important not to breed your bunny as his offspring may also develop malocclusion. The common name for this condition is slobbers, which describes the wetness around the mouth. With proper care, Bugs will have a long and happy life.

 


Dear Veterinarian:
Four years ago I bought my ferret from a local pet store. He is neutered and descented and he primarily eats ferret food, though he does occasionally enjoy a piece of chicken or a jelly sandwich. Recently, he has been losing a lot of hair and his back is going bald. He's still eating and drinking normally and he remains playful but he's begun to scratch a lot and I'm getting concerned.

Dear Pet Owner:
You are right to be concerned about your ferret's hair loss. There are several possible causes. He may have a mite burrowing under his skin that makes him scratch. He would have picked up this itchy parasite from playing with another ferret that was infested. The mite is too small to see and medicine must be given to rid him of this nuisance. Another possibility is that he may have a skin sensitivity to his bedding material. This can be helped by changing to a different material such as pine shavings instead of cedar. Also, it's important that his cage is cleaned often to prevent irritations from old discarded food and body wastes. Finally, and most likely, he may have a disease of his adrenal gland causing his body to produce too much estrogen hormone. This is a common and serious problem in ferrets over three years of age. Sometimes medicine can be used to control the disease and sometimes surgery is necessary. A veterinarian familiar with ferrets can help sort out these problems.

 


Dear Veterinarian:
My family recently gave me a guinea pig for my birthday. While she will eat her own special food, she doesn't seem to especially like it so I supplement her meals with crunchy snacks such as pretzels. She seems to prefer these snacks more than her own food but I know that she cannot exist on human snacks alone. How can I encourage her to eat her food?

Dear Pet Owner:
It is very important for guinea pigs to eat their own special food. They are one of the few creatures on earth, along with humans, new world monkeys, and fruit bats, that need a diet containing Vitamin C. This is already supplemented in commercial pelleted guinea pig food. Make sure when purchasing the food that it is fresh by checking the package for an expiration date. Vitamins will lose potency and you may need to add liquid vitamins to the food or water. Without enough vitamin C, guinea pigs develop nose and eye discharge, skin conditions and life-threatening weakness. You can give certain nutritious treats to your pet such as alfalfa hay and small amounts of green leafy vegetables like kale, cabbage, peppers, and spinach but no more than an ounce per day. These foods supply Vitamin C and are also a good source of fiber that aids in healthy digestion. Snacks and treats high in carbohydrates like crackers and pretzels can cause an overgrowth of harmful intestinal bacteria, leading to constipation, diarrhea, and illness. Also, don't forget to supply plenty of fresh water. Your guinea pig will drink up to a pint of water a day. So while an occasional people treat will not cause harm, be careful to stick to a nutritionally balanced meal plan for your guinea pig.

 


Dear Veterinarian:
Two years ago a friend gave me a common green iguana, as she had purchased two. After research, with the proper diet, calcium, heat, and lighting, my iguana has thrived beautifully. He is 28 inches long, very green and healthy. My friend lost interest in hers and I said I would take it. I couldn't believe hers was the same age as mine. It had never received the proper diet, heat, lighting or calcium. In the three months I have had him, he is much greener and fatter but he hasn't grown any. He is only 17 inches long and I would like to know if this iguana is stunted. I was told that because of his early improper care, his life span could be cut in half. Will he get any bigger?

Dear Pet Owner:
Unfortunately, the situation you describe is all too common with pet iguanas. There are some basic requirements that green iguanas need, and if these are not met, medical problems are very likely to occur. The diet for green iguanas usually consists of mostly vegetables (greens such as leafy lettuces, kale or spinach, tomatoes, etc.), fruits and melon and a protein source. Vitamin-mineral supplementation is essential. You mention calcium supplementation, but it is important to know that the calcium supplement should also have phosphorus and vitamin D3. Proper bone growth requires all three of these in the correct proportion. I normally recommend a multi vitamin-mineral supplement for iguanas instead of a “calcium only” supplement. Ultraviolet light is also necessary for proper calcium absorption. An artificial UV light source should be provided for approximately 12 hours per day.

Green iguanas are cold-blooded animas and therefore require a warm environment to raise their body temperature and increase their metabolic rate. The optimal temperature range for their enclosure should be between 85 and 100 degrees F. It is preferable to have a focal heat source at one end of the enclosure that allows the iguana to bask and then move to other areas to cool off.

It appears that you rescued this iguana in the nick of time. However, there is a good chance that this reptile will not grow to a normal length. And if growth does resume, it will be much slower than its counterpart. There are many factors that affect life span and malnutrition is certainly a contributor. A routine physical exam and blood tests would be helpful in determining if life threatening changes have occurred.

 


Dear Veterinarian:
I own two white doves. Shortly after my female layed two eggs, which never resulted in live births, she began feather picking. Is she upset over the loss of her babies?

Dear Pet Owner:
Feather picking in birds can be caused by a myriad of different reasons. Some medical reasons include infections of the skin or feathers with bacteria or viruses, sexual hormonal changes associated with egg laying, and organ diseases. Some environmental issues include extreme temperature changes, too high or too low humidity levels, allergen exposure, noise levels, cage location, etc. Some behavioral issues include boredom, loneliness, flock stress, attention seeking behavior, etc.. Birds can normally lay eggs that do not hatch into “baby” birds. Thus it is very unlikely that your dove is “upset” about her “babies”. Most likely there are various hormonal changes associated with egg laying that are prompting her to do this behavior. It should resolve itself in a short time. See your local veterinarian to rule out other causes if this behavior persists.

 


Dear Veterinarian:
My rabbit, Hopper, was just diagnosed with mites. I was told he got them from being around other rabbits but he is an only child. What do you think caused it?

Dear Pet Owner:
There are a few different mites that typically can infect rabbits. The most common mite is the ear mite, Psoroptes cuniculi. This mite causes inflammation and crusting of the ears. It can be very painful and can spread elsewhere in the body. A fur mite, Cheyletiella parasitovorax, lives mostly on the fur of rabbits and can cause hair loss and a lot of dandruff. Hence the nickname “walking dandruff”. Two types of mange, sarcoptes and demodex can also be present in the skin, but they are very rare. All mite infections are contagious from one rabbit to another. They can also be contracted through environmental exposure, and ear mites can also be carried by fleas. The mites do not always have to be present. Contact and infestation with eggs are possible too.

Although your rabbit is an “only child”, he may have been exposed to mites from where you obtained him and the infection is just starting to show. Or, he was exposed from his litter in the cage or other environmental sources. Mites do not appear from “out of the blue”, there always is a source of contamination.

There are very safe, effective treatments for mites. Sometimes the environment has to be treated also. Follow your veterinarian's treatment directions carefully, and your rabbit should do well.

 


Dear Veterinarian:
I have two female guinea pigs that my children and I love very much. About a year ago, a veterinarian diagnosed one of them with a large mammary tumor. For financial reasons, we couldn't afford the surgery. Sine that time, we've noticed that the tumor has moved lower and closer to her genitals. She is eating and drinking just fine and seems to be in good health. Is this a common thing for guinea pigs and could it be life threatening? They are three-years old.

Dear Pet Owner:
Mammary gland tumors do occur in guinea pigs, both males and females. These tumors generally occur in the groin area. As they enlarge they can gravitate toward the genital area. About 30% of the mammary gland tumors in guinea pigs are cancerous which are locally invasive but rarely spread to other areas. The majority of mammary gland tumors in guinea pigs are benign, usually fibroadenomas. Other possible causes of masses under the skin in the inguinal area can include hernias, inflammatory masses, abscesses and other tumors. My recommendation with any mass in a guinea pig is a surgical removal. Any mass removed should be sent to a veterinary pathologist to determine what type of mass it is. The reasons for surgical removal include prevention of ulceration, infection, and possible spread to other parts of the body.

Guinea pigs, as all pets, should have physical exams with their veterinarian at least yearly. Many people don't realize that veterinarians can treat even the smallest of pets. During these visits, many conditions and diseases can be detected and treated before severe complications arise. At the same time, your veterinarian can discuss husbandry, diet and any other special needs that your little friend has.

 


Dear Veterinarian:
My older rabbit's urine appears chalky and she occasionally strains to relieve herself. She was spayed when she was 6 months old and she eats rabbit chow. What could be her problem?

Dear Pet Owner:
Your rabbit may have developed hypercalciuria – excessive calcium deposits in the urine. This is a frequent condition affecting pet rabbits. Unlike other mammals, rabbits absorb all the calcium in their diet, regardless of whether the body needs it. It is then passed through the kidneys and urinary system. The urine can become thick and pasty, and calcium bladder stones may also form. These problems can make it very difficult for the bladder to fully empty, and the rabbit will strain to urinate.

Factors leading to excessive calcium carbonate accumulation in the urinary system include genetic disposition, insufficient water intake, lack of proper exercise, lack of adequate elimination area, kidney disease, bladder disease, urinary tract infection, and diets high in digestible calcium carbonate. Commercially available rabbit pellets are high in calcium carbonate. Decreasing pelleted feed and including fresh, fibrous, leafy greens (kale, Swiss chard, collards, chicory, carrot tops, etc. – not iceburg lettuce) may help. Rabbits only need 1/4 cup of pellets daily per 5 pounds of body weight. They also need hay (preferably fresh timothy hay because alfalfa hay has lots of calcium.)

Your veterinarian can help you and your rabbit by obtaining a full history of your rabbit's diet, environment, and daily activity. After your veterinarian performs a physical examination of your pet, she may recommend laboratory blood work, a urinalysis, x-rays, and perhaps an ultrasound to assess your rabbit's present health condition. Medications, surgery, and modification of the diet and environment may help alleviate your rabbit's condition and make her more comfortable.

 


Dear Veterinarian:
Why is special lighting so important for my reptile?

Dear Pet Owner:
Special light bulbs – known as UVA/UVB bulbs – provide a wavelength or spectrum of light, which is vital to a reptiles health. This differs entirely from the regular incandescent lighting that is used to heat many enclosures. There are multiple vendors of these special lights and most can be found at pet stores that deal with reptiles. When these bulbs are switched “on”, the phosphors inside the bulb itself generate a wavelength of light, which upon reaching the reptile allow it to manufacture a special form of Vitamin D. This in turn allows calcium to be taken from the foods the reptile eats to be used throughout the body (as an example, for storage in strong bones). All too often veterinarians are faced with reptiles that suffer from a nutritional illness known as Metabolic Bone Disease or MBD. While there are many different factors that play a part of this complex, one of the chief issues has to deal with the type of lighting in the reptile's environment. All reptiles should have an annual physical examination at the veterinary office. Feel free to discuss lighting requirements with your veterinarian, who is trained to deal with exotic animals.

 


Dear Veterinarian:
Our family's two Zebra Finches recently fell off their perches and dropped to their cage floor. They began to shiver as they walked around the bottom of the cage, then they collapsed to their sides and died. Earlier in the day, they appeared fine. I believe we were caring for them properly. What happened?

Dear Pet Owner:
The most common cause of sudden death of multiple pet birds is 'Teflon Toxicity'. When various non-stick surfaces such as Teflon overheat, they release a gas that is colorless and odorless. This gas, although harmless to mammals, is extremely toxic to birds. Polytetrafluoroethylene gas is released when these coated surfaces are heated to above 530 degrees Fahrenheit. The lungs are the target organ for this gas. Sudden death is usually the only clinical sign. Death usually occurs too quickly for treatment to be initiated. Teflon and similar coatings can be found in many places in the home. Common sources include non-stick cookware, irons, ironing board covers and heat lamps. The source of the toxic gas does not have to be near the birds to be fatal. The typical history usually involves a member of the family using a non-stick fry pan in the kitchen, and shortly thereafter finding their pet birds in another part of the house dead. Due to the facts that the gas is so toxic to birds and there is really no easy way to know when the Teflon surface is overheated, we recommend not using Teflon type cookware when birds are in the same household.

 


Dear Veterinarian:
I am worried that my bird may have a problem, as he seems to be losing feathers. Could you explain some of the common causes of feather loss in birds?

Dear Pet Owner:
There are multiple causes of feather loss in birds and some are actually normal. For example, normal molting may be mistaken for excessive feather picking. A bird's molting season varies with the breed. Some molt once, while others molt continuously. If the molting is normal, then you will see pin feathers on the head; these are in an area that the bird cannot reach if it is having a feather picking problem. Also, you will notice many feathers on the bottom of the cage. Birds may spend long periods of time preening themselves during this period. In fact, there may be so many feathers on the bottom of the cage that it may be mistaken for dandruff.

Some areas are normally devoid of feathers, which appear between the feather tracts. Feather picking is a problem, and can also be associated with self mutilation. Psittacine birds, which are very social, are the most affected by this. It can be the result of jealousy, boredom, fear, frustration and other emotions. Bacterial and external parasites as causes are uncommon. Potential medical causes include: malnutrition, intestinal parasites, liver disease, and food allergy. A thorough history and medical examination is necessary to help overcome this problem. Blood work, fecal exam, radiographs, and skin biopsies may be necessary. The effective therapy will be based on the veterinarian's exam and findings. There is not one single therapy that is right for every bird, and the problem may be lifelong. Some examples of treatment include: parasite treatment, improving the social life of the bird, adding more activity to it's daily routine, getting a cagemate, vitamin supplements, antihistamines, and elizabethan collars. Beak grinding or notching is NOT recommended.

There can also be feather loss that is not associated with actual feather plucking. Causes can include mite infestation, damage to the feather follicle, genetic causes, malnutrition, viral infection, and hormonal disturbances.

Due to the variety of causes for feather loss, be sure to speak to your veterinarian to make sure your bird is healthy.

 


Dear Veterinarian:
My three-year-old rabbit sneezes a lot. I don't have any other animals. Could she have allergies or does she have a cold?

Dear Pet Owner:
There are a number of different reasons why rabbits sneeze. The mouth should be examined for any teeth or gum infections. The environment must be checked to see if there is excessive dust or dirt in the cage. The nose must be examined to see if any nasal discharge is present. Is the sneezing a dry sneeze or a wet sneeze? Are the eyes affected? Are there any other lumps or abscesses elsewhere on the body? Rabbits do not typically get a “cold”. It is a human virus that infects the respiratory tract. Also, rabbits do not typically show allergies by having a stuffy nose. Skin irritations usually show itself as an allergy or inflamed eyes. Rabbits can, however, get a chronic Pasteurella infection (sniffles) that can show itself in the upper respiratory tract (the nasal passages). This bacteria can be dormant in rabbits and suddenly appear after a stress, or the rabbit can be infected by having contact with another rabbit. This bacteria can chronically infect the nasal passages and cause abscesses throughout the body. It is very difficult to fully rid a rabbit of this bacteria. Antibiotics can help and sometimes surgery is needed to cut out any abscesses that may develop elsewhere in the body. Your rabbit should get a complete health examination by a veterinarian familiar with rabbits and their health.

 


Dear Veterinarian:
My parrot drinks a lot of water and I'm worried. Do parrots get diabetes?

Dear Pet Owner:
Parrots can drink excessive amounts of water for many reasons. Diabetes, liver disease, kidney disease, lack of humidity, salty foods, behavioral abnormality, etc. Diabetes in birds usually occurs in females and can be related to reproductive activity or disorders of the reproductive tract. The best thing to do is to take your parrot to your avian veterinarian for a physical exam and work-up. The work-up may include blood tests, X-rays, cultures of the chloaca and choana, etc. Also bring the paper on the bottom of the cage so your veterinarian can observe the droppings. The color, consistency, and size of the droppings can aid in a diagnosis. Have a description of your bird's diet (everything he eats) and a description of his environment (how big is the cage?, what type of cage?, are there other birds or animals around?, where does he sit in the room?, etc..). Birds can hide their illnesses very well. If a bird is showing that he is sick, the condition can be already quite severe. Veterinarians therefore rely heavily on testing to formulate a diagnosis. Experience of the doctor is also very important.

Remember most of the pet birds we have now were at some point in their genealogy captured from the wild rainforests. A bird is the healthiest when he is flying free around the jungle or forest and not sitting in one little cage all of their lives. Make sure that any bird you have has been domestically hand raised to alleviate any potential captivity stress. His environment may not be the jungle, but we can try as best we can to offer as similar diet as possible.

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