“Maybe ‘exotic pet’ actually means ‘animals we were not taught much about at vet school’!” - Veterinary Practice
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“Maybe ‘exotic pet’ actually means ‘animals we were not taught much about at vet school’!”

A good friend recently directed me to an article in the Daily Mail, its headline telling me that calling lizards, tortoises and snakes exotic is “problematic” according to vets (Allen, 2022). This is news to me! Which vets could these be? The article told me that the British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA), no less, now considered that the term “exotic pet” should be changed to “non-traditional companion animal”. A trawl through the internet eventually took me to a BSAVA position statement declaring that the organisation prefers the term “non-traditional companion animal” as it “better describes both the species and the relationships involved” (BSAVA, 2014). I have a feeling that we need to think this through a bit.

Let’s start with the term “pet”, shall we? Googling the word led me to an online dictionary entry showing that the word was first recorded in the 1500s to describe an “indulged or favourite child” (Merriam-Webster). It was only 30 years later that it was used to denote an animal, similarly loved. So pet is a positive term. It is if we use it as a verb, isn’t it? To pet is to lovingly caress. Alexander Pope in An Essay on Man wrote: “Know Nature’s Children all divide her Care; The Furr that warms a Monarch warm’d a Bear. While Man exclaims, ‘See all Things for my Use!’ ‘See Man for mine,’ replies a pamper’d Goose” (Pope, 1733). Clearly that long ago animals were loved and cared for quite as much as they were eaten! Also, the word “pet”, as derived from the Gaelic “Peata” used for a tame animal, was employed very early to describe a lamb raised by hand. Maybe we don’t need to change pet to companion animal after all…

What is “exotic” then? By 1539, James V of Scotland was said to have had a “menagerie of parroquets, monkeys, peacocks, swans, &c, &c” (Grigson, 2016). Clearly well before that, the Romans kept exotic animals, but maybe that was more to kill Christians in the amphitheatre – rather the opposite of companion animals! However, this is not the place to rehearse the history of zoo animals or the ethics of keeping them. We have a student debate on that happening in a couple of weeks’ time, so maybe I’ll recount that to you in next month’s offering. No – here may be an opportunity to ask what we do mean by “exotic” when talking about the animals we do see every day in veterinary practice.

Here may be an opportunity to ask what we do mean by “exotic” when talking about the animals we do see every day in veterinary practice

Take rabbits, for instance. In the last edition of the BSAVA Manual of Exotic Pets – given their recent statement I guess that will be the very last edition and we can look forward to the future BSAVA manual of non-traditional companion animals – rabbits were certainly still included. Obviously now they have their own manual, and quite rightly so, but they are still classed as exotic pets by the terminology of the last millennium. Yet we are told that they are the third most commonly seen animals in small animal clinics. Hardly exotic or even non-traditional then! But truth be told, there are lots of vets who are not as clued up on rabbit medicine, surgery and welfare as they are on the same stuff for dogs and cats. Not as clued up as they – as we – should be. So maybe “exotic pet” actually means “animals we were not taught much about at vet school”! That then changes the definition of exotic/non-traditional – this way it doesn’t depend on the species of animal, but the age of the vet!

When I qualified in 1988, we only had a couple of lectures on rabbits and rodents from a lab animal perspective. The vet students qualifying today have a number of lectures on rabbits, rodents, birds, reptiles… probably not enough practical classes for those students really keen on non-traditional species, but hopefully enough to give everyone sufficient information to be able to deal with them, be they rabbits, rodents or reptiles, when they join the veterinary profession. But actually, this takes us to a wider issue, which is quite how much our veterinary schools do prepare students for the real world. Maybe that is where EMS is key?

Today, one student who was with me on my ambulatory referral service to veterinary clinics got the chance in what we might call a rather traditional practice (for that, read old school!) to anaesthetise a cat straight off the needle and then spay it with his sleeves rolled up and some gloves on, rather than in the sterile environment of the vet school’s theatre. We need to ensure that all students get the opportunity to become good at such procedures before hitting the job market. But how to achieve that must wait for future discussions!

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