How to become an exotic animal vet - Daniella Dos Santos' experience

A small tortoise in the hands of a human
I grew up in central London, and despite not having any family members with any form of veterinary or animal related background, as many vets will say, I have wanted to be a vet from a very young age. I qualified from the Royal Veterinary College in 2012, and undertook various EMS placements with an exotics vet to try and improve my basic knowledge, where it became apparent that most problems seen are related to inappropriate husbandry. It was during these placements that I realised as an exotics vet, you are in a privileged position to make a real difference to the welfare of these animals, through educating of both owners and fellow veterinary and animal care professionals.

First steps

I obtained a BSc in Molecular Genetics from Kings College London in 2007, and went on to join the RVC on the graduate programme, and qualified in 2012. Whilst at the RVC, I undertook numerous EMS placements with exotic vets as well as electives in reptilian, avian and small mammal medicine. On graduating, I entered small animal practice in Buckinghamshire, cementing my basic medical and surgical skills as well as undertaking exotic related CPD. After 18 months in practice, I moved to Kent and into exotic animal practice.

A solid grounding

A solid grounding in mixed or small animal practice is a useful first step to a career in exotic animal practice. This enables the clinician to have good basic medical and surgical skills that can then be extrapolated into the challenges you may face in exotic animal practice. Although I have chosen to undertake my CertAVP, there are internships and residencies available to those wanting to attain higher level qualifications. Regardless, of the route taken, excellent communication skills are vital, as lot of exotic work involves educating owners on the importance of basic husbandry, and how much this impacts on the health and welfare of their pet.

The variety and the challenges

I love the variety that exotic practice brings: you never quite know what species are going to come through the door! The fact that I can make a real difference to the welfare of these animals is also a privilege as unfortunately it is a significant problem. For an animal such as a tortoise, it may mean 40+ years of a better life, or for patients such as a parrot, watching them return to their happier and more interactive personalities as they improve is thoroughly rewarding.

"I love the variety that exotic practice brings: you never quite know what species are going to come through the door!" 

Sometimes the lack of evidence-based information for exotics species can be a challenge, as well at the financial constraints that often come along with the cases. It can also become frustrating when you see the cases that could have been avoided with correct husbandry.

There is no such thing as a typical day as an exotics vet. Every day is different! I could be treating a rabbit with dental disease one minute, spaying a tortoise the next, and having a dietary discussion with a parrot owner that afternoon!

My advice

For anyone considering working with exotics, I would advise first getting experience in a mixed or small animal practice. Undertake exotic based CPD to start building your knowledge base, and spend some days shadowing an exotic vet to get a realistic view of exotic animal work before committing to it.

When moving into exotic practice, look for a role where you will have a more experienced colleague to support and advise you, or at least form a relationship with another experienced exotic vet you can contact for advice. Ensure the practice has or is willing to get the appropriate equipment to deal with the species you will be seeing, as well ensuring there is also a nurse willing to see the patients too. It will be difficult to perform surgery on a snake if you have no one to monitor the anaesthetic due to phobias!

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