CHINE House Veterinary Hospital, in the outskirts of Loughborough, is one of the few UK practices accredited as a Veterinary Hospital for both small animals and horses. That, however, isn’t why I visited them.
I had seen their advertisement in Rabbiting On, the magazine of the Rabbit Welfare Association, which said that the practice had a special interest in rabbit and rodent medicine and surgery and had a dedicated rabbit ward. I met with Craig Hunt, their exotics vet, to find out more.
Craig has long had an interest in unusual species and holds Certificates in Small Animal Medicine and in Zoological Medicine. His college friend Martin Rudkin, a partner at Chine House, contacted him for advice when first planning an exotics service and the result was that Craig joined the practice in late 2005.
Craig explained that around 80% of his workload is exotic species, of which 40% are rabbits and rodents. The remainder is split equally between reptiles and birds, with the odd monkey, amphibian or pet pig. Most of his rabbit surgery is dentistry, and Craig sees no let-up in this workload despite the increased awareness in recent years of how to prevent such problems.
The service attracts birds and reptiles from a 60-80 mile radius but, as far as rabbits go, Craig thinks that the practice doesn’t see larger numbers than any other small animal practice, but they are looked after more effectively.
The practice has four consulting rooms, one of which is kitted out for Craig with black-out blinds and appropriate client graphics, including a chart of rabbit dentition and another of chelonian anatomy.
A separate ward for Craig’s inpatients ensures that prey species are not stressed by the sight, sound or smell of dogs and cats, their natural predators. Ferrets are the exception, clearly, and they are housed in the cat ward. Rabbit cages and tortoise enclosures are at floor level with reptile vivaria and bird cages higher up, suiting the preferences of their occupants. The vivaria and some bird cages are temperaturecontrolled with ports for supplementary oxygen or nebulisation.
Two separate wards are planned for the future, one for rabbits and small mammals, the other for birds and reptiles. A dedicated exotics operating suite is also planned, to maintain separation between predator and prey, but the character of the building makes alterations difficult.
Sileby Hall is a spectacular Victorian mansion, built in 1891 for the local brewer before being sold to the council in 1901. After a spell as a care home, the practice bought the building in 1994. The period features, such as the well-proportioned rooms, high ceilings and a splendid carved wooden staircase, lend character to the practice environment but they do restrict the alterations that can be made. The building is not Listed, but the Council insists that the exterior should not be changed.
I was lucky to see Craig spay a rabbit, and no detail was overlooked in its care. For a start, the VN who assisted, Louise Knifton, is studying for a certificate in nursing of exotics. The pre-medication focused heavily on analgesia as well as sedation, and after pre-medication the patient’s teeth were checked and its claws clipped.
As well as a heat pad on the table there was additional heating in the theatre during the procedure. The rabbit was intubated and a ventilator provided a top-up to its natural respiration to ensure good oxygenation. A capnograph was used and, in a nice touch which I haven’t seen before, a cotton bud was used rather than forceps to manipulate the delicate internal organs.
Most rabbit surgical patients, except for routine dental procedures, are kept in overnight to make sure that they are eating properly before being discharged.
I asked Craig why he opted for exotics as a career. He graduated from London in 1997 and recalls little exotics tuition in his course, but since childhood he has been interested in the less common pet species. He told me that he enjoys the way that there is still much to be learned about their diseases, and how the caring owner truly appreciates a vet who is sufficiently knowledgeable to really help.
While some of his caseload is referred, many clients arrive after being told by their local vet that they don’t treat parrots, try Chine House. There is very little advertising of the exotics service, just occasionally in a falconry magazine and in Rabbiting On, which I had seen.
Many veterinary practices regard exotic pets as a bit of a nuisance, taking up more time than dogs and cats yet often charged lower prices. Craig Hunt and the Chine House Veterinary Hospital have shown that, if care is taken to learn about them and provide for them, they can become a profitable part of the practice workload.