Monday, September 23, 2013

Interview with Tegan Stephens, unusual and exotics veterinarian

Tegan with a python patient.
Tegan Stephens is a Sydney-based avian and exotics veterinarian. She talked to SAT about the thrills and spills of her job, passing her memberships (congratulations Tegan!) and common problems in unusual and exotic pets. She's also provided some really useful resources for budding exotics vets out there...

Can you tell us a bit about what you do?

I work at the Bird andExotics Vet Clinic in Waterloo, Sydney and have done since I graduated in 2009. I have always had a keen interest in reptiles and amphibians which has broadened to include birds, small domestic mammals, fish, and native wildlife over the years. Most of my job involves working with individual exotic pet owners, giving owners to best information possible to allow them to provide the best care for their pets.

I recently obtained my membership qualifications through the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists in Unusual Pet Medicine and Surgery, and am lucky to be one of only seven vets in the world with that qualification.

What species do you treat?

While the main caseload of the clinic is still avian, we are seeing a significant increase in the number of small mammal, reptile, amphibian and fish cases. Much of this is seasonal and the reptile portion of our work begins increasing exponentially at this time of year as things warm up. We treat anything that can fit though the door (except for dogs and cats!) from a 3g baby bearded dragon to a 120kg pig, with finches, peacocks, lace monitors, emus, ferrets, turtles and everything else in between.

Tegan with a koala.
What do you like most about treating exotic pets?

I love the variety we see every day, and the fact that you never know what is about to come through the door. I also love the need to be creative in our treatment and problem solving endeavours. Many of our species are seen so infrequently that there is little written evidence on effective treatment plans. This allows us to constantly think outside the box, and also gives us great scope to add something to the general knowledge base when we work out a new method.

What’s the down side?

We see a much higher volume of disease and injury due to simple husbandry issues, which is always quite depressing. Another problem is the much higher level of death you see when dealing with small fragile creatures which are infinitely better than dogs and cats at hiding clinical signs until the very last moment. The majority of cases we see come in in a very late stage of illness, and it can be challenging to turn some of these around, but exceeding rewarding when you do.

What is it like studying for your memberships? How much study does it involve?

The membership exams were a huge undertaking. My study plan stretched over 18 months with a gradual increase in intensity as they drew closer. By 6 months out panic-phase sets in quite effectively and leaves very little room for anything else in life.

The particular difficulty in passing the unusual pet medicine and surgery membership exams rested on the fact that they had only been offered twice before, leaving only two past papers and not many people available to ask for their experience. I had a great mentor in my boss Alex however, and lots of help from other exotics vets around Australia. The upside is it's nice to be able to say you are one of only seven people in the world with a qualification!

The membership exams are designed to test your knowledge in a chosen area, to determine that you have the skills to be able to assist GP vets in dealing with cases and to be able to handle more complex referrals. It is in most cases one step before working towards your fellowships to become a specialist - however in Australia there are actually no recognized specialist qualifications in exotics. To be able to apply to sit for the membership exam you have to have been practicing for a minimum of 4 years, and can demonstrate that during that time you have made an effort to gain as much experience as possible in your chosen field.

The exam for us involved a 2 hour theory exam and a 1 hour oral exam which were taken 1 month apart. It feels crazy trying to filter down all that information you have been studying for so long into such a brief period of time! 

An exotic pet sports an exotic hat.
It’s been said that many health conditions of unusual and exotic pets are husbandry related. What are the most common husbandry related problems you see?

The most common husbandry related illnesses we see at our clinic would have to be: 
  1. respiratory illness in reptiles kept at suboptimal temperatures
  2. metabolic bone disease in reptiles, particularly in turtles, dragons and skinks kept without access to a UVB lamp or unfiltered sunlight
  3. Dental disease in rabbits which are fed an inappropriate diet consisting of mainly grains and seeds.

How often should unusual and exotic pets visit the vet?

Most unusual pets should be checked by their vet once a year. It is easier with rabbits as they require vaccinations every 9-12 months, but reptiles and ferrets should not be overlooked. A yearly checkup can help discover problems well before they become serious making treatment more effective. Smaller pets such mice and rats, guinea pigs and older exotics or those with ongoing health issues should ideally be checked every 6 months. 

Do you have any favourite unusual or exotic pet related websites or resources to recommend?

For vets the medirabbit.com site is a great source of general to more in depth information, and the lafebervet.com website is a goldmine of resources for all exotic species. 

The previous proceedings of the UEP/UPAV(Unusual Pet and Avian Vets - our new name) subgroup of the AVA are where you will find all the most up-to-date research and information relating to exotics practice in Australia. Joining international groups such as the AEMV (Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians) and ARAV (Association of Reptileand Amphibian Veterinarians) is also a good way to keep in touch with excellent source material such as the Journal of Exotic Pet Medicine.

Any advice for budding “unusual” vets

Any vets seriously interested in pursuing this area need to get in touch with an exotic vet in their area, and see if there is any scope for volunteer work at the clinic. Read as much as you can but there is no substitute for hands on experience. 

Membership of the UPAV group of the AVA is a must also, as it is the best way to get in touch with other vets who have similar interests as you, go to the conference and take part in the discussion groups available online.


Thanks Tegan for your time!

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