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Preventing Small Exotic Mammal Medical Emergencies

Regular health checkups and keen observation of your small animal pet gives a better chance of detecting a health problem and avoiding a medical emergency.

Leticia Materi, PhD, DVM
Posted: April 28, 2014, 4 a.m. EDT

gerbil in cage
© Courtesy Leticia Materi, PHD, DVM
Gerbils, like many other small animal pets, hide any illness, which can cause medical emergencies if owners don't notice a problem soon enough.

In contrast to dogs and cats, a large portion of exotic pet patients present to veterinary clinics as emergency cases. This is because most exotic pets are prey species and have a natural survival instinct to hide signs of illness in order to escape the attention of predators. From the animal’s point of view: If I look weak, someone bigger will spot me and have me for supper! It is only when the disease becomes very advanced that prey species will begin to show signs of sickness.

Unfortunately, exotic pets are also less likely to be taken to a veterinarian for regular health checks and disease prevention compared to dogs and cats. Thus, many health problems go undetected until it is often too late.

In order to detect signs of trouble, owners must be familiar with what is normal for their pet and what signs they may display when ill.

A lot can be learned from our pets just by observing them. Are they mentally alert and aware of their environment? Are they moving around easily using all of their limbs equally? Do they have a normal respiratory effort? Are the droppings and urine output normal in amount and consistency? Are they grooming themselves properly?

It is also important to regularly put your hands on your pet and inspect them from all angles. Do they feel bony? Do the eyes, ears and nose have discharge? Are there any lumps or bumps present? (Be sure to check under the belly and jaw!) Is the hind end clean? Are the bottoms of the feet free of sores?

When sick or injured, exotic pets often show varying overt signs of distress including: hunched postures, half-closed eyes, reluctance to move, reduced appetite, weight loss, eye discharge, nasal discharge/sneezing, labored respiratory movements, skin lesions, changes to the droppings (size, number, consistency), changes to the urine (color, amount, odor) or changes to behavior, such as aggression, poor grooming, teeth grinding, etc.

It is impossible to predict when an emergency is going to occur, so plan ahead and be prepared in the event of a crisis. Have a relationship with a veterinarian so that there is a familiarity with you and your pet. This can help save precious time as the clinic will have a detailed record of the husbandry, diet, weight, baseline blood work and previous medical history of your pet. Know what to do after hours if your veterinarian is not open 24/7. Have the phone number for the Pet Poison Helpline, such as the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, in a readily accessible area.

Through constant observation and thorough inspections of our pets, we increase the chance of detecting trouble, which may help prevent a crisis.

Note: This article is meant for educational purposes only and in no way represents any particular individual or case. It is not for diagnostic purposes. If your pet is sick, please take him or her to a veterinarian.

See all of Dr. Materi's blogs, click here>>

Like this article? Check out:
Pain In Small Animal Pets, click here>>

Posted: April 28, 2014, 4 a.m. EDT


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