Nurses lead on exotics module at BSAVA Congress

17 March 2023

Love them or hate them, exotic pet ownership is up nearly 60% since 20201 and the range of species is growing2. The likelihood of encountering one in general practice is rising and it is why the exotics module continues to secure its place in the BSAVA Congress programme.

This year, the focus is on nursing and features four experienced RVNs who will be comparing notes, offering practical advice and tips, as well discussing some of the bigger issues such as quality of life.

Exotics – the training gap

“There’s not much training available for nursing exotic species,” acknowledges Craig Tessyman, RVN at Rutland House Referrals. “We end up using transferrable skills. But just a little bit of knowledge can unlock many nuances of a species and help you give the appropriate treatment. The important thing when faced with a scaly or squawky beast, is to stay calm.”

Adina agrees: “There’s a quote which says “more is missed by not looking, than by not knowing”. It neatly encapsulates the world of nursing exotics. You don’t need to know everything about every species, you just need to be logical and systematic.”

Given rabbits are the third most popular pet in the UK, Jo Hinde-Megarity co-owner of LagoLearn, is understandably frustrated at the lack of knowledge in the veterinary sector.

“There’s a ‘have a go’ culture around rabbits but they are very different to cats and dogs. Given the popularity of this pet there’s relatively little on the curriculum at many colleges and universities. In some cases, camelids get more coverage than rabbits.”

It’s a point reflected in key statistics. The CEPSAF study back in 2008, showed the risk of an anaesthetic or sedative death is nearly ten times higher for a rabbit, and 100 times more likely for a budgerigar, than for a dog3.

Practical anaesthesia for exotic species                                                                    

“Anaesthesia doesn’t start when the patient is on the table,” explains Craig. “It begins with the pre-op check. Successful anaesthesia of exotics is all about preparation – preparing the patient and getting the baselines, as well as preparing the emergency drugs and equipment, just in case.

“Keeping an animal stable and asleep is easier than waking it up, so that’s where I spend my time and attention, and what I’ll be talking about in the session at BSAVA Congress,” he says.

Adina, who be joining Craig in the session 2:50pm on Friday 24th March, adds: “Some the of existing ideas around pre-oxygenation aren’t as useful as we originally thought, so that’ll be an interesting concept to think about. We’ll be looking at some of the medicines we can use, thinking ‘outside of the gas chamber’ and exploring how we can reduce stress.

“It’s an important area to consider, stress can be the tipping point towards a negative outcome. It’s about taking an wholistic approach but also looking at the physiological aspects of these small animals.”

Preventative medicine and quality of life

Often the reason exotic pets end up under sedation is a result of unmet welfare needs. The speakers will be unpicking the subject, looking at how to handle those difficult conversations with owners, how to find and create evidence-based information on husbandry and vet care, as well as exploring the boundaries of pain and distress.

“Quality of life can be exceptionally poor for rabbits, just from a lack of understanding on the owner’s behalf and too few veterinary professionals being able to fill the gaps,” says Jo. “It’s ensuring we’re meeting more than their five freedoms. For example, there are no rabbit hutches on sale which meet the minimum requirements for space, so immediately owners will struggle to find adequate housing.”

For less common exotic pets, such as birds and reptiles, ensuring quality of life can be even harder. “We’re never going to be able to mimic their natural habitats fully,” says Craig. “But there are some great resources out there – BSAVA’s exotic and rabbit manual, guidance from The Tortoise Trust, are just a couple of examples – and, you normally find that those owners’ who are willing to seek veterinary care are also willing to change their pets’ environment.

“The cornerstone of good health is always a good diet,” adds Adina. “Unfortunately, most exotics are sold with very poor diet advice. There’s also the ‘masking phenomenon”, where prey animals try to hide their pain, especially when the owner is around. When talking about quality of life, it’s essential owners are aware that what their pet presents when they are interacting with them may not be a true reflection of how they are feeling.”

Join us at BSAVA Congress

While the speakers all acknowledge there are many reasons to shy away from exotics, there are more reasons to attend the module this year.

“We’ve a great team coming to BSAVA Congress,” says Craig. “The knowledge we’ve got between us is immense. We’ve all worked in the sector for a long time.

“Even if there are only one or two things you take away, it’ll be invaluable not only for you but your wider team. We come at these topics with different perspectives and we’re incredibly passionate about what we do.  It’s exotics. It’s quirky and interesting.

“I’ll bring knowledge and experience over from cats and dogs, so it’ll be relatable. And it’ll be interactive, which always makes sessions more interesting.

“We are all at the event for more than one day, so you’ll be able to find us and chat to us. I’ll be on the BVNA stand for most of it, so come and find me with your questions,” he says.