Exotic animal medicine with small animal specialism

Elisabetta Mancinelli with rabbit
I don't think I have ever thought of being something other than a veterinary surgeon. I have always been passionate about animals and I used to go bird watching with my dad when I was a little girl. I knew pretty early on what I wanted to be, and when I was five years old I announced to my parents that I was going to be a vet.

Degree in Italy

I completed my degree in veterinary medicine at the University of Naples ‘Federico II’. As a student, it was clear that it was not possible to learn all aspects of veterinary science and it was therefore necessary to make career choices. Many universities nowadays incorporate exotic animal medicine in their curricula, but that was not the case when I was an undergraduate. It is often said that newly graduated vets learn more during their first year after graduation than during their course.

Self-taught learning in exotic species

Soon after graduation I realised there were quite a few things I wished I had learned at university. After an internship that focused on small animal medicine and surgery, I started my self-taught path learning about exotic species, which included seeing practice, attending conferences abroad, externship periods in Europe and the USA, joining professional associations and buying a new range of textbooks and journals. I joined an exotic-only private practice in Rome and this excellent experience formed a solid foundation to my subsequent career. It was there that I had the chance to meet and work with a diverse group of people from many walks of life, and I learned to see the world from a new perspective. I never kept any exotic species of my own but I hospitalised plenty in my home. The day a python found its way out of my room and into my mum's, I understood it was time to move on! I therefore decided to look for new challenges and I moved to the UK in 2007. I spent two years working in private practice and for wildlife charities, while keeping an eye on available career options, as well as speaking to people at CPD events and conferences.

Global opportunities

I found that keeping an open mind and talking to as many people as possible about what opportunities were available was essential. By travelling and working in different countries, I have experienced the similarities and differences among many diverse cultural groups and geographical areas. Understanding their ways and beliefs helped me relate to people and this quality has helped me greatly.

Exotic animal residency 

Once I realised what goal I wanted to pursue in life, I worked hard to achieve it and to succeed. When I came across various career choice options, I decided that a residency would challenge me and deepen my skills and knowledge in a constructive manner. I well remember the day in April 2009 when I received the confirmation that my residency had been approved. It was a strange feeling – a mixture of excitement and fear.

The primary objective of a postgraduate four-year training programme was immediately clear: gaining specific education and experience in small exotic companion mammal medicine and surgery so as to be able to treat these species to the highest standard, ultimately improving their care and welfare.

"I was the first vet in Europe to embark on and pass the examination to achieve the ECZM Diploma in Zoological Medicine"

Reflecting on the experience I would say that it's been an invaluable journey, with many to thank for sharing their extensive knowledge, their help and, sometimes, their hospitality. There is no denying it has been hard work, incorporating training, carrying out research, lecturing, publishing papers and working, but I don't know how you can place a value on learning; my thirst for knowledge and experience has truly been quenched. It also gave me the opportunity to make some amazing friends.

In 2010, I obtained my RCVS Certificate in Zoological Medicine and three years later I completed my residency. In 2014, I was the first vet in Europe to embark on and pass the examination to achieve the ECZM Diploma in Zoological Medicine. Specialist veterinarians have a role in providing expert care to their patients, but also to support other vets treating these species.

Exotic animal welfare

I think it is important to recognise that rabbits and exotic species in general – and their owners – have special needs, and encouraging responsible management, appropriate husbandry and breeding practices for these species is essential in order to promote good health and welfare. This will eventually improve perception and understanding by vets in general practice to encourage owners to use veterinarians to deliver comprehensive exotic animal medicine and surgery at a specialty level.

In her book ‘Why does my rabbit?’, Anne McBride wrote that being able to spend time studying a species very closely was a privilege. Hand on heart, all the years I have spent studying, travelling around Europe and the USA gaining specific educational experiences, have been an invaluable way to learn as well as being truly inspirational.

All vets know that there is no such thing as an average day, but being an exotics vet offers an added dimension. In one day you could see patients belonging to very different animal phyla, which is always a challenge and never boring. You need to have wide knowledge, be able to extrapolate from other species and apply your knowledge, while always keeping an open mind. I am a perfectionist and I always try to do my best by keeping up to date, and I try to find new ways of helping my patients, but always considering the animal's welfare.

My motivation to pursue my career has been because I like animals. That hasn't changed, although I now know that I also care about the people who come along with them. I try to empathise with all owners, including the difficult and ‘exotic’ ones, because most of them like animals too. Although many clients are knowledgeable about the pets they keep, others are not. Clients will turn to many different sources, such as pet shops, breeders, the Internet, even their chiropractor or the local library, in search of knowledge. Much of the information they pick up is erroneous and can lead to myths on issues such as diet and husbandry, which can have a major effect on animal health.

"Exotic species in general – and their owners – have special needs, and encouraging responsible management, appropriate husbandry and breeding practices for these species is essential in order to promote good health and welfare"

It is important that veterinary practitioners are seen as the best source for information on keeping pets, but often we have to work really hard for this. It is important to understand and support the special bond between a person and their pet, whatever it may be, whether a dog, a rabbit, a lizard or a duck. I have learned over the years never to be judgemental but to appreciate this relationship. I think this is key to the care we are willing to put into our everyday job, regardless of the species involved. After many years, I still find it amazing to meet people who are so dedicated to their pet that they will, for example, spending time training their hamster to show its teeth or housing ducks indoors after surgery, or weighing their pet every day to be able to pick up subtle changes in its health.

Being a vet can be stressful and demanding on a personal level. However, our job can be extremely rewarding and it is for those precious moments that I go to work. In 2015, I moved to Bath and I now call it home. Rosemary Lodge Veterinary Hospital has given me the chance to use my skills across medicine and surgery for all the species I deal with in a supportive and friendly atmosphere. Setting up a new service is not an easy task and can be stressful, but working with people you like makes a big difference. This, together with a little determination, makes it possible to combine private life with the career for which I've worked so hard. It is exciting to be at the start of something new, both personally and as part of a new business venture, and I am hopeful that this new experience will lead to exciting opportunities in the future.

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