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Treating Small Animal Exotic Pets Is A Big Deal For This Tennessee Vet

Dr. Katherine Baine works hard to learn all she can to provide the best care to furry, feathered, finned, scaled, quilled and hairless patients.

Rebecca Stout
Posted: September 9, 2014, 11:35 p.m. EDT

Dedicating one’s life to the well-being of animals does not just make someone a champion; it makes them an honest to goodness hero. Veterinarians wake up each and every day to face long, arduous hours filled with challenges involving both the intellect and heart. Veterinarians who tend to unusual animals are presented with even more demands than those who treat the mainstream pets. Exotic small animals have additional needs that require specialized care from specially trained professionals.

Dr. Katherine Baine brings these added skills to her patients and their caretakers. She is an avian and exotic mammal medicine specialist at Animal Emergency Specialty Center in Knoxville, Tennessee, and treats every creature imaginable. 

Dr. Katherine Baine with a penguin
© Courtesy Katherine Baine, DVM, DABVP
Dr. Katherine Baine specializes in exotic animal medicine and treats all types of patients.

The craving to be among animals and help them to the highest degree was always part of Baine’s life.

"I really never remember a time I did not want to be a vet,” she said. "For as long as I can remember I brought home injured animals and nursed sick pets back to health as a kid. This transitioned to working in a family friend’s veterinary clinic when I was old enough to work, which of course continued to strengthen my resolve.” 

She credits her mother for passing down her passion for animals and supporting her through the journey that led her to her career. Dogs, cats and fish were ever-present in the home while she was growing up. And as she got older, her mother allowed her to have a variety of exotic critters and helped when needed.

Baine pursued exotic animal medicine early on at veterinary school for more reasons than her childhood experiences with them. 

"I realized how distinct these creatures were as compared to other veterinary patients,” she said. "Their natural lifestyle and niches lead to very unique anatomy and husbandry requirements in captivity. These factors provide a challenge for the veterinarian to not only heal the sick patient, but also educate owners to prevent disease.” 

Many graduating veterinarians go directly into practice, while some go on to complete internships and residencies. Baine chose the latter. 

"The residency provides the veterinarian with the ability to specialize (surgery, ophthalmology, dermatology, etc.),” she said. "My path included a one-year rotating internship at Blue Pearl Veterinary Partners in Tampa, Florida, and three-year residency in avian and exotic animal medicine at the University of Tennessee in order to specialize in this field.” 

Today, Baine is board-certified (ABVP) in avian medicine. Her immediate goal is to take her board exam to achieve certification in exotic companion mammal. In the meantime, when she’s not at home chatting away with her parrot or kayaking one of the many gorgeous Tennessee waterways, she attends a variety of veterinary events to give talks and classes. As a member of the Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians, she enjoys attending the yearly conference and listening to the cutting-edge information offered in the talks. 

Her biggest challenge when working with small exotic pets are those that are prey animals. This is because these types of animals instinctually hide the signs of illness and injury so they do not attract predators. It is very difficult for an owner to read their pets and notice illness because of this. By the time a small mammal shows signs of ill health, it is often badly sick or even in critical condition.

"When [prey animals] see me, it is often a challenge to not only make them feel better, but also run any tests without pushing them over the edge,” Baine said. "There certainly is always a balancing act with any sick exotic pet.” It is a very tricky business when dealing with small mammal exotics because they are not just physically delicate, but also psychologically fragile. 

Flexibility, versatility, creativity and a great deal of compassion are some of the traits an exotic vet must possess to be successful. And Baine brings all of these qualities to the table. Perhaps the most difficult thing for a veterinarian to deal with is the death of an animal or the euthanization of one. Beyond this and medical treatment, veterinarians also perform many other tasks you might not think about. 

"I think the hardest part is that being a veterinarian is not just about being a good doctor,” Baine said. "You also have to learn to be able to be a compassionate communicator, financial consultant, public speaker, client support, staff referee, advocate, teacher and innovator with a creative imagination at times.”

guinea pigs in cage
© Courtesy Peggy Barron
The guinea pigs at the Knoxville Guinea Pig Rescue have been treated by Dr. Baine since 2011.

Peggy Barron is the director of the Knoxville Guinea Pig Rescue in Tennessee. Baine has treated the animals in the rescue since 2011. Barron is among the many who have benefited from both the talents and personal skills of Baine. 

"We have shared joy and heartbreak,” Barron said. "[Baine] has saved lives and helped critically ill piggies and rats through the final stage of their lives. I appreciate her honesty and ability to share bad news in a positive way. I have always felt she gives 110 percent to the care of the animals in her charge.”

Barron said that during an appointment, Baine typically discusses a wide range of treatment options, including the pluses and minuses as well as the cost of treatment. The icing on the cake is that Baine is always available for phone or in-person consultations about the animals in her care. One case Barron recalled involved Marley, an intact, male guinea pig with serious trauma to his left forepaw. 

"In an effort to save at least part of the leg he underwent three surgeries, with the last removing the leg at the shoulder,” Barron said. "He has the distinction of being one of the only three-legged guinea pigs in the country.” Today he is getting around and doing amazing.

Baine is not without an Achilles heel. She grew up with allergies to animals, yet she chose to tackle that obstacle and not let it prevent her from achieving her dream. It must seem like a cruel joke that someone whose greatest love and sole purpose in life is the very thing that can make them sick. She worked through this hardship for years, and today she finds it oddly curious that she is less allergic to animals than ever before. 

Despite her many itches and sniffles, Baine joyfully tends to a wide array of animal companions that are her patients. She happens to be very allergic to one of the many furred creatures she adores. 

"My favorite is probably the spunky, opinionated rabbit,” Baine said. "I certainly have not met a bunny that doesn’t come with a big personality; they are also very playful and smart.” 

Those funny bunnies do tend to melt hearts, but Baine sees critters of all kinds in addition to the small, furry ones: hairless, quilled, scaled, finned and, of course, feathered (she is an avian specialist, after all). 

Baine is still on a journey down a winding path involving souls of all sorts, and she is excited about the future.

"We are starting a pet exotics service at the Animal Emergency and Specialty Center in Knoxville, Tennessee,” she said. "We will see a variety of exotic pets including birds, exotic companion mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates. I am also in the process of completing the requirements to sit for the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners specialty in Exotic Companion Mammal.”

We can only imagine that all of this will happen between her pastimes of kayaking, hiking, bird watching, gardening and playing with her own beloved pets, an Amazon parrot, two cockatiels, a dog and a cat. Baine is, indeed, an inspiration to those who also want to take the path toward healing the little souls that cannot speak for themselves and aiding the people who love them so.

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Posted: September 9, 2014, 11:35 p.m. EDT

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