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What’s an Exotic Animal Veterinarian & How to Become One

Bynewsmagzines

Apr 25, 2023
yellow snake being examined by a veterinarian


Contrary to what many believe, farmers and pet owners aren’t the only ones that require veterinary services. Organizations such as zoos, hobby farms, circuses, aquariums, and others hire exotic animal vets to take care of the not-so-common animals.

The term “exotic animals” isn’t limited to snakes, ferrets, hamsters, or rabbits, as there are birds, wild cats, reptiles, and larger mammals like giraffes and elephants. It’s a wide-ranging definition, but the responsibilities of this veterinarian are similar to those of a domestic or pet animal vet, which is taking care of the exotic animal’s well-being and health.

One difference is that while other vets work in a clinical or domestic environment, an exotic animal vet works mainly in wildlife and zoological settings. Continue reading to learn more about this professional and what it takes to become one.

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What Does an Exotic Animal Veterinarian Do?

A professional specializing in providing medical care to exotic pets and other non-domestic animals is called an exotic animal veterinarian. Their patients include small mammals, birds, reptiles, or amphibians like snakes, lizards, and turtles, with responsibilities and duties that vary depending on the animal’s specific needs.

Pet mouse on vet's hand
Image Credit: albertczyzewski, Shutterstock

Exotic animal vets perform specific tasks that are like livestock and general pet veterinarians, including:

  • Diagnosing
  • Performing physical exams
  • Treating illnesses
  • Conducting lab tests
  • Prescribing medicine
  • Providing preventative care
  • Performing medical procedures such as surgeries

These professionals must undergo extensive training and know the behavior, medical care, and biology of species of a wide range. That’s because the exotic creatures they work with usually have different physiology/anatomy from domestic livestock or pet animals.

They must also have experience in clinical pharmacology, emergency medicine, laboratory diagnostics, and anesthesia. They must be proficient in the use of diagnostic tools like radiography, ultrasounds, x-rays, endoscopies, and in performing autopsies and necropsies.

Working as an exotic animal veterinarian requires that you have a passion for working with challenging and often unique critters and a robust commitment to animal welfare.1 If you’re dedicated to providing high-quality care and have a love for animals, this is a fulfilling and highly rewarding career.

blood taking from ear vein of elephant
Image Credit: Sukuman Rittem, Shutterstock

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What Are the Different Types of Exotic Animal Veterinarians?

The definition of exotic animal vets is wide-ranging but is primarily defined as professionals that treat non-domestic animals like the ones we have already covered.  Depending on your goals and interests, you can specialize in various animal types, and these specializations include:

1. Exotic Avian Veterinarian

Exotic avian vets specialize in the care of birds, both exotic and non-domestic, which may include poultry, birds of prey, and pets. Examples include raptors, game birds, parrots, waterfowl, and similar rare and exotic species of birds. They work in avian clinics, bird rescue centers, or they can offer medical care to captive birds.

Apart from treatment, an exotic avian vet will also provide nutritional counseling to exotic bird caretakers or pet owners, or they’ll offer preventative care, including parasite prevention, routine wellness checkups, and vaccinations.


2. Amphibian and Reptile Veterinarian

Amphibian and reptile vets specialize in the care of lizards, snakes, frogs, turtles, and similar species. You’ll work in specialty clinics, aquariums, zoos, and research facilities to provide medical care or consultancy services. They may also work with pet owners to provide routine checkups and preventative care.


3. Small Exotic Mammal Veterinarian

A small mammal vet undertakes the care of small mammals such as rodents, rabbits, marsupials, hedgehogs, and similar critters and species, including guinea pigs, chinchillas, sugar gliders, and hamsters.

examining rabbit's teeth at veterinary clinic
Image Credit: sirtravelalot, Shutterstock

4. Aquatic Veterinarian

An aquatic vet specializes in the care of marine and freshwater species such as fish, sea mammals, birds, and crustaceans. These are licensed and qualified professionals in marine and water-based wildlife. They may also engage in wildlife conservation and scientific research.

Since the range of diseases, injuries, and ailments is as diverse as aquatic animals, such a vet is prepared for various conditions, uses of treatments, and medications.


5. Exotic Wildlife Veterinarian

An exotic wildlife vet works in the natural habitat for wildlife, providing medical care and undertaking measures of disease prevention. Patients for these vets aren’t found in the domestic setting and will include various species of reptiles, birds, and large mammals like elephants, lions, and tigers.

Although this role is multifaceted, most wildlife veterinary medicine goes together with the treatment and rehabilitation of animals in need of medical care. They work closely with animal sanctuaries, game parks, zoos, and conservationists.


6. Aquarium and Zoo Veterinarian

As a zoo vet, you’ll work to provide medical attention to captive animals in zoos, circuses, and aquariums. Responsibilities will include providing vaccinations, monitoring the environment of the animals, and ensuring their nutritional requirements are met.

Aquarium and zoo vets also maintain the captive animal’s medical records as well as ensuring that there’s compliance with standards and regulations in terms of how the animals or fish are treated at these facilities.

veterinarian treat the tiger in a zoo
Image Credit: Anan Kaewkhammul, Shutterstock

7. Exotic Pet Veterinarian

The specialization here involves offering medical care to exotic pets such as small mammals, birds, and reptiles. Such non-traditional critters require expertise that goes above veterinary medicine know-how.

In essence, an exotic pet vet collaborates closely with members of the public that own these animals to ensure they’re provided with the best care possible.


8. Conservation Veterinarian

An exotic animal conservation vet works with various organizations to protect the habitat and welfare of endangered species. They provide medical attention and conduct research that aids in the conservation efforts for endangered species.

They can be called upon to provide outreach and education on habitat and wildlife management or to coordinate public participation programs.

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Where Is an Exotic Animal Veterinarian Needed?

Exotic animal veterinarians are needed anywhere there are animals, including in domestic and commercial settings and in the wild, which includes water bodies. However, their specialization involves animals that aren’t considered domesticated.

Female vet checking horse teeth
Image Credit: wavebreakmedia, Shutterstock

Since they’re experts in exotic animals, these specialized vets have various workplaces where they can be found, and these include:

  • Private Practices: If a private practice specializes in offering healthcare for exotic animals and pets, you’ll most likely find that the doctor in charge is an exotic animal vet.
  • Aquariums and Zoos: Aquariums and zoos employ exotic animal veterinarians to maintain the health of all the animals they have in captivity.
  • Wildlife Rehabilitation Centers: Animal rehabilitation centers, orphanages, and rescue facilities have exotic animal vets who provide medical care to sick, orphaned, or injured animals. Once they’ve been rehabilitated, such animals will then be released or reintroduced back into the wild.
  • Scientific and Research Facilities: Research facilities that use animals for scientific purposes employ exotic animal vets to monitor and ensure humane treatment.
  • Government Agencies: An exotic animal vet can work for a government agency involved in regulating the commercial handling of animals for their protection or conservancy.
  • Conservation Organizations: Conservation organizations focus their efforts on the protection of endangered animal species and their natural habitats. An exotic animal veterinarian is needed for a better understanding of each of the specific health needs.

Towards promoting conservation activities, these specialists also work with the local communities.

How Do You Become an Exotic Animal Veterinarian?

Exotic animal veterinarians specialize in non-traditional healthcare and medicinal treatment of non-domestic animals, which means everything else except what’s found at home or on the farm unless it’s an exotic pet, perhaps.

To become one, you’ll need to earn a veterinary medicine degree that typically includes a four-year DVM or Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program.

Courses from accredited institutions run exotic vet programs and will cover pathology, animal anatomy, surgery, and pharmacology, among others. Afterward, you’ll pursue specialized exotic animal training through residencies or internships at a college or veterinary hospital.

It’ll take between one and three years to complete these programs, which will have provided you with hands-on experience while supervised by experienced veterinarians. There are rigorous exams to pass before you’re a board-certified exotic animal medicine specialist. These are administered by the ACZM, the American College of Zoological Medicine, or the ABVP, the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners.

Besides a robust academic background, you’ll need a passion for working with wildlife and non-traditional animals or pets to become an exotic animal veterinarian. You’ll also commit to professional development through ongoing education to succeed in this challenging but rewarding career.

veterinarian examining a chicken hen
Image Credit: Julia Zavalishina, Shutterstock

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How long does it take to become an exotic animal veterinarian?

After your undergraduate degree in veterinary medicine, the entire process can last anywhere from four to eight years before you’re board certified. That’s because you’ll take additional training as an apprentice or resident, either in an exotic animal clinic or an academic or research institution for at least three years.

What type of health issues do exotic animal vets treat?

Exotic animals suffer from various health problems, including respiratory infections, parasites, metabolic bone disease, nutritional deficiencies, and issues related to their environment or diet.

How often should you take your exotic pet to the vet?

As per specialist recommendation, you should take your exotic pet for a checkup by a licensed vet at least once a year. These visits may vary depending on the overall health, age, and species of the animal or when there’s an outbreak of communicable diseases.

Where can I find a competent exotic animal vet?

You can ask other exotic pet owners for recommendations when you’re trying to find a reputable veterinarian or seek information from breeders and animal shelters.  Alternatively, the Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians and the Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians provide listings for certified practitioners in your area.

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Conclusion

Exotic animal vets are responsible for the well-being and maintaining the health of exotic animals with treatments, preventative care, and advanced medical diagnostics or procedures. In addition to exotic animals and the different specializations of these vets, many also run practices and clinics where they offer medical care for general domestic animals.

To become one, you must attain a degree in the relevant courses from an accredited college. While this job may look demanding, if you have the passion and commitment, it can be rewarding and satisfactory.


Featured Image Credit: Andrii Medvednikov, Shutterstock

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