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Dr. Paul Stewart discusses his love for exotic animals and how to care for unusual pets.
BRETT WINTER LEMON | Special to The Roanoke Times
Dr. Paul Stewart has practiced exotic animal veterinary medicine for 17 years and is the current veterinarian-in-charge at Mill Mountain Zoo.
Sunday, May 19, 2013
Dr. Paul Stewart is no ordinary veterinarian. Instead of dogs and cats, his patients include marmosets, wolverines and $10,000 hyacinth macaws.
Stewart has practiced exotic animal veterinary medicine for 17 years and is the current veterinarian-in-charge at Mill Mountain Zoo. Three years ago, he opened his own exotic pet clinic to fill a need for emergency vet services for exotic animals in southwest Virginia.
Stewart recently talked about his love for exotic animals - he keeps a 75-pound tortoise in his garage - and how to care for unusual pets.
Why did you decide to work with exotic pets instead of the usual dogs and cats?
The reason I went into veterinary medicine was to do exotics. When I was younger I had a real passion for birds and reptiles, and I had the fortune of having parents that let me have pretty much whatever type of pet I wanted. That gave me experience with certain species that sort of built my interest in helping those animals. ... Every summer I volunteered for a rehabilitation center, and I just felt like it was a very rewarding thing to help animals that couldn't help themselves or didn't have advocates.
I chose it as a profession because obviously it's nice to have a job that you don't see as work. It's never dull. There's so much variation to the care of exotic pets that it's never cookie-cutter medicine. It's always species specific.
What are the differences between working with exotic animals and domestic animals?
Most of the [exotic] animals are in some form or another a prey species. Even if they're not, they have a wild, innate sense to hide their symptoms. Typically, it's a little tougher to determine what's wrong with them because by the time their symptoms turn up, they're pretty advanced. They're also a lot more prone to stress. If they're in a clinic where there's barking dogs and cats, it doesn't really help. This allows a place where animals can come to heal that's not as noisy or busy.
Animals at the zoo are a little bit different to evaluate. We often times have to tranquilize them, and that requires using protocols with anesthesia and sedation. The keepers and the staff up there are incredibly knowledgeable and dedicated. They are able to treat the animals in ways that are low stress. It's just the difference between working on a semi-domesticated animal versus an animal that could take your hand off.
A lot of people think that this is a specialty practice. But when you think of it, we treat hundreds of species of animals, where as a dog and cat practice is just two species of animals. Being an exotic vet is almost being more of a generalist, because you have to focus on biological and medical aspects of all species.
We do a lot of continuing education. We go to two big meetings a year. ... I do find myself up here pretty late at night doing research on things. There are good consultants so if we get in a pinch we can always reach someone from another zoo to try to get some help if there's something we're not able to solve.
What advice do you have for exotic pet owners?
It's better to be proactive than reactive to a pet. Probably nearly half of the purchases of exotic pets are impulse buys. You end up getting into an animal that has really specific husbandry needs. If you're not aware of those or not set up to provide those, some animals have very rapid responses to stress like inappropriate habitat or diet, or even humidity or temperatures with some of the reptiles, and they can get sick pretty quick.
So it's good to not only research and read about what species you're interested in, but it's good to calculate the cost of the animal's care. The setups are often way more expensive than the pet itself, and often times people lose interest in a pet or neglect a pet because of the unseen costs and labor involved in their care. ... We commonly get calls for people who have purchased baby primates or really expensive baby birds that they thought were really attractive in the pet store but get sick rapidly because of lack of experience and knowledge of their care.
It's amazing to me that people have some of these species that are really uncommon. There are people in the valley that have cobras and live in residential neighborhoods. ... I was on one call in a residential neighborhood that had a large collection of reptiles, and while I was there it became evident that a spitting cobra had gotten loose.
Now with all the information that's available online and even on Animal Planet, there's no real excuse that [exotic pets] couldn't have the same care that they would provide for their dog or their cat. Here we provide ultrasound, endoscopies. We do all forms of surgery here. But our main focus here is preventative care. Twenty years ago people only brought their exotic pets in when they were sick, but our focus is to try to encourage people to get early evaluation, annual check ups and wellness visits. Their overall costs will be lower because they won't have to deal with illness as much.
What's the most interesting animal that you've seen?
We've worked with Ringling Brothers. Their magicians have a big bird collection that was really interesting. They have some pretty rare birds, including a toucan.
One of my patients is a 15-foot king cobra. We took a mass off the tail. He was really slow to recover because of his slow metabolism with the drugs, and during the recovery process we actually had to take him outside to get him on the warm asphalt parking lot to get the drugs out of his system. When a lady walked by with her pet guinea pig, suddenly the tongue flicked and we were able to bring him back in.
My most exotic hoofed animal was the takin up at the zoo, which is a 900-pound Asian goat. He was my first large animal anesthesia case. It was kind of interesting because most people deal with horses and cattle, and here I am with a 900-pound Asian goat.
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