Urban Jungle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 April, 2008, 12:00am

This week: exotic animals

The question 'How do you know how to heal all those many species of animals?' often comes up. My usual answer is: 'I don't know everything about all those millions of animal species, no one does, but as a general practitioner in the veterinary arts, I am a jack of all trades in pets. Some vets are jacks of all trades in large domesticated animals. Some lucky vets are wildlife vets and there are some vets that aren't jacks at all and are actually very specialised, such as cardiologists, orthopaedic specialists, ophthalmologic specialists. There is even a veterinary ultrasonographic machine programmer; now that's specialised.'

But here in Hong Kong most vets are small-animal general practitioners, with a smattering of horse vets, wildlife vets and epidemiologists. Due to the small overall market and the lack of local universities that provide higher education for veterinarians, there are not any specialists with fellowships here.

Nevertheless, there are many vets with special interests in particular areas. It doesn't make them a specialist by any stretch of the imagination, but it does mean there are different interests among even the small population of vets in Hong Kong. The bread and butter of most clinics here is no doubt the treatment of dogs and cats. I dare say most vets are proficient with dog and cat cases because they are the most commonly seen species in Hong Kong.

But there is also a substantial population of exotic animals here. In the context of small-animal clinics, an exotic animal is anything other than a dog or cat. There are not many really exotic animals, meaning we don't see many iguanas, vultures, falcons, ferrets, spiders and the like. Keepers of many of these really exotic species need licences from the government so they are not very common. More common are rabbits, chinchillas, hamsters, parrots, budgies and turtles. My special veterinary interests, apart from writing and dog and cat medicine, is exotic medicine and surgery. We see an assortment of exotics in the clinic on a day-to-day basis and I have a couple of examples today to share with you that we've seen recently.

Late one night in Tseung Kwan O, a client brought in a mysterious pet in a very large cardboard box. It was very heavy and the owners were sweating from the effort of bringing it in. It turned out to be a very large turtle. Turtles can live a long time and this one was 26. Some people are surprised that owners would pay so much money to heal a sick pet when the initial cost of buying it may have been only HK$10. That was the case with this turtle. Not surprisingly, having a pet for 26 years usually teaches a certain respect for life, not to mention developing an emotional attachment. These distraught owners were worried about their turtle when it stopped eating and started to gasp for breath. It was rather difficult to listen to a turtle's chest through its shell. And it was difficult to see any changes in the lung tissues through X-rays because the contrast was reduced by the shell.

I suspected the turtle had pneumonia with fluids in the lungs, so how did I confirm my suspicions? I stood the turtle on its hind legs so it was vertical rather then flat on its tummy and moved our mobile X-ray machine into a horizontal position, so the X-rays were directed at the wall through the vertical turtle. Like fluid in a glass of water, when looking from the side you can see a line where the water meets the air. On the new X-rays of the turtle I could see a line of fluid in the lungs, confirming my suspicions, and I was able to treat the turtle appropriately for pneumonia.

Last month we had a rabbit that had an increase in salivation, but was not eating. It wasn't the first time I'd seen this rabbit for this problem; it was the sixth time in three months.

Rabbit teeth, unlike ours, grow continually and need continual chewing of roughage to grind them down and keep them short. This rabbit had a deformed molar. The upper molar was angled wrongly and didn't meet up with its lower counterpart. This resulted in ineffective grinding and caused the molar to continue to grow and puncture its gums. We had clipped the molar shorter on numerous occasions, but it kept growing and the problem came back within the month. We needed a more permanent solution to the problem.

We decided to try something risky - extracting the offending molars. It isn't as easy as it sounds. Rabbits have very small mouths and very long tooth roots, proportionally about four times longer than ours. The only way you can gain access to the molars is by cutting open the mouth, extending it all the way to the molars. Then we burr away the bone that covers the tooth's root to remove the molar. It's quite a big undertaking and carries a certain risk. But the surgery worked on this particular rabbit and it's eating again.