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Education key to human-animal bond, exotic animal veterinarians say

Exotic animal veterinarians Dr. Susan Brown and husband Dr. Richard Nye visited Peru with a group of fellow veterinarians last October to visit the macaws of Tampbopata (Photo: S. Brown).

Exotic animal veterinarians Dr. Susan Brown and husband Dr. Richard Nye visited Peru with a group of fellow veterinarians last October to visit the macaws of Tampbopata (Photo: S. Brown).

Dr. Susan Brown was having so much fun. “I was so excited,” she said. “I was talking about how great this was. [But when] I looked around, I saw Marty, the pet owner, crying.

“I said, ‘Oh, my Gosh! Why are you crying? Don’t you see how she (the pet) ‘gets it,’ [how] she understands what you’re trying to tell her?’

“And [Marty] said, ‘Yes, I do get it. That’s what makes me think–I was going to euthanize her next week because we couldn’t manage her any more.

‘But now I see we can communicate and I have a very effective means of modifying her behavior. She’s so intelligent, she’s so beautiful mind-wise.’”

Marty originally saw her animal as “troublesome, difficult and problem-making,” said renowned exotic animal veterinarian Dr. Susan Brown.

But thanks to an approximate 10-minute in-home consultation with Dr. Brown, the pet, an alpaca, had, indeed, changed.

“I believe animals want to be safe and they want to understand what we want,” Dr. Brown said. “When you see that light go off [for the animal], that’s empowering.

“This is why it’s important for me to do the work with exotics because people write them off—‘Well, it’s a rat—how smart could it be?’ or ‘Well, it’s a hamster, or it’s a parakeet.’

“They are all incredibly smart.”

Dr. Brown, a nationally respected authority in exotic animals, now works with Fox Valley Animal Welfare League’s (FVAWL) new low-cost spay/neuter clinic in North Aurora.

‘A wonderful learning experience’

Dr. Brown, a 1976 Purdue University veterinary school graduate, and husband/colleague Dr. Richard Nye, a 1976 University of Illinois veterinary school graduate, say they learned a great deal about exotic animals and their care because they had the opportunity to live with so many as companions in their home.

“In her little house in Hinsdale, [Susan] had a wide variety of animal species—rats and mice and snakes and frogs and lizards and ferrets and rabbits and chinchillas,” Dr. Nye said. “We experienced them as pets, and then we were able to share that information with our clients.

“It was a wonderful learning experience.”

Dr. Brown said that in college, veterinary students learn basic principles of medicine and surgery that they then must apply to each species.

“I also spent much time with species-specific groups—the rabbit groups, the ferret groups,” she said. “I actually started the ferret group here in Chicago with one of our employees.”

‘It’s an educational process’

One of her favorite aspects of the new FVAWL’s low-cost spay/neuter clinic is its educational center, Dr. Brown said.

“I’m hoping we can get other exotic veterinarians involved [to give] some different talks for the public, like ‘how to live with your parrot,’ [or] ‘how to provide enrichment,’ [or] ‘how to modify behavior,” she said.

“[Those talks] will reach a larger number of people,” she said. “It’s all about the education. For me it always has been about the education.”

During their 30-plus years in practice, Dr. Brown said they have seen more than 100 species of animals.

“We saw reptiles, we saw every kind of small mammal, we saw all species of birds [in our practice],” she said. “[We’ve found that] a lot of people still don’t know how to care for these animals.”

Dr. Nye agreed. “It’s an educational process,” he said. “We spend the vast majority of our consultation time during an exam talking with the client about the care of the animal.”

The animal’s behavior

Part of the educational process is learning to manage an animal’s behavior, Dr. Brown said.

“The behavior piece is so important to me,” she said. “A lot of people have no idea what fear and anxiety look like in their animals, so they don’t really know how to avoid it.

“Or they have the unfortunate idea that we need to dominate animals. [That is] so inappropriate and wrong.”

Dr. Brown added that dominance only generates a situation of destroying the human-animal bond, creating a more fearful or more anxious animal.

In addition to fear and anxiety, boredom may influence a pet’s behavior.

In terms of birds, “a majority of their life is alone, housed in a cage,” Dr. Nye said. “[A bird may think,] ‘Wow, what am I going to do all day? I’ve played with every toy a thousand times. I’m bored.’

“So you get undesirable behaviors, and the animal is given up because people say they don’t understand and aren’t willing to work with it.”

Because animal behavior is so important, Dr. Brown now has a rabbit training group which she runs once a month in Downers Grove.

“People are amazed when they start working with their rabbits,” she said. “They knew [the rabbits] were smart, but when they start working with training, they’re like, ‘I had no idea.’

“And the bond deepens, the respect level goes up.”

Talk to the animals

Dr. Dolittle would be proud. In fact, he and Drs. Susan Brown and Richard Nye would be kindred spirits.

“We are not separated from [animals],” Dr. Brown said. “They are just as complex as we are. Those of us who live with animals know that.”

These “exotic docs” certainly do know…

They reside with an assortment of animals, representative of 12 different species, on five acres and a large pasture.

“The human-animal bond has kept us going in the veterinary practice for years,” Dr. Nye said.

Pet Ownership in the United States
A 2007 Survey

Pet ownership remains on the rise in the U.S.

Most popular:
• FISH (both freshwater & saltwater)—151.6 million
• CATS—88.3 million
• DOGS—74.8 million
• SMALL MAMMALS—24.3 million
• BIRDS—16 million
• REPTILES—13 million

What we spend on our pets:
• 2007: $41.2 billion
• 2002: $32.4 billion
• 1998: $17 billion

Areas we spend money on:
• Food—$16.2 billion
• Vet care—$10.1 billion
• Supplies & over-the-counter medications—$ 9.8 billion
• Other (e.g.-grooming, boarding)—$ 3 billion
• Live animal purchases—$ 2.1 billion

-information from Lianne McLeod, DVM, About.comExoticPets

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