Boarding Exotics: Should You Join the Rat Race?

Many families now have non-traditional pets, such as pet parrots, reptiles, ferrets, rabbits, rodents and other types of mammals. There are a myriad of unusual exotics available in the pet trade for the person who wants a different kind of pet, such as the raccoon, skunk, fox, coatimundi, hedgehog and kinkajou. Other non-traditional pets include marsupials, with the most common being the sugar-glider, short-tailed possum and the Virginia opossum.

The reality is that pet owners take vacations, and it is not always practical or possible to find a pet-sitter who can be responsible to properly care for some of the more unusual pets that folks may own today. Thus, they may turn to a professional boarding kennel, veterinary practice with boarding facilities or pet retailer to request boarding for their unusual pet.

Before you say yes to boarding non-traditional pets, there are many considerations to be addressed to ensure the safety and well-being of unusual pets, and there are liability issues that must be addressed, as well. Let's go over what you need to know prior to adding exotics to your boarding guests.

Veterinary Care and Contingency Plans for Boarding Exotics

While it is common practice to have one or more veterinarians working with kennels and boarding facilities, and also to have either a clinic or emergency facility on-call for after-hours emergencies, not every veterinarian or emergency clinic is willing or comfortable working on exotics. This can be a huge problem if an exotic becomes ill while boarding. It would be prudent to make arrangements with the primary veterinarian caring for each exotic to be available in case of an emergency. However, in some cases, the exotic pets many not have ever seen the inside of a veterinary facility ever!

Biosecurity Issues

This brings me to my next point. You already probably require certain vaccines and proof of veterinary examination for dogs and cats that are scheduled for boarding. You will need to set policy regarding what standards will be required for veterinary exam and what tests, if any, will be required, and what vaccinations, if any, will be required, and at what time intervals. There is a vaccine available for psittacines against polyoma virus, and many avian boarding facilities require this vaccine prior to boarding.

While vaccines aren't often given, nor necessary, for other exotics, there are some diseases and medical conditions that can be quite contagious between members of the same species, and other diseases can be zoonotic (contagious from animals to humans). For example, rabbits can be infected with the bacterium known as Pasteurella sp., which can cause respiratory, ocular, nasal or systemic infections, and this disease, pasteurellosis, can infect other rabbits from contaminated food bowls or through direct contact, for example.

Birds, especially psittacines, can carry the primitive bacterium called Chlamydophila sp., responsible for "parrot fever," also called psittacosis. It is often very difficult to diagnose psittacosis in a live bird, but it would be best if you require a current negative psittacosis test on every bird that boards with you, as long as you understand the limitations to the testing. Currently, there are two titers, two DNA PCRs, one culture and one ELISA test available to attempt diagnosis of this disease, and different tests are appropriate in different situations. Psittacosis can spread between birds and to humans from infected fecal material, infected dander and oral/nasal secretions. Psittacosis can be transmitted to humans, and while it usually just causes symptoms resembling a mild case of the flu, in immunocompromised humans (children, the elderly and those on drugs that suppress the immune system), it can cause serious illness and rarely even death.

Species Safety

Considerable thought and planning must go into ensuring that all boarders are safe and secure at all times. I used to work for a veterinary clinic as the exotics vet, and we would also board exotics. One weekend, we took in an Arctic fox and raccoon for boarding, in addition to several birds. The owner of the fox and raccoon did not supply their own cages (and this is another area that should be decided prior to boarding exotics), so we put the fox in a small dog run and the raccoon in a large stainless steel kennel cage in a room with several birds housed in their own cages. We put a clip on the latch of the raccoon's cage, knowing that they have nimble fingers capable of opening some cage doors. On the last day of boarding for the raccoon, we came in first thing in the morning to a nightmare scene. The raccoon had managed to figure out how to unlock his cage, and had escaped during the night. On the prowl, he knocked over several bird cages by climbing on them, and he caught and killed two birds, an umbrella cockatoo, which we found him guarding, huddled in the back corner of his cage, and an African grey parrot. Unfortunately, these two birds belonged to the same owners, a childless couple who adored their two birds as child-substitutes. I could not have envisioned a worse scenario, and telling these owners that their beloved pet birds were killed was one of the worst things I have ever been through. But, they taught us in vet school, that if we were going to make a mistake, it is always a good idea to make a different one each time. After this horrible disaster, we put together a boarding plan, housing birds in one room, "prey animals" such as rabbits and rodents in another, reptiles in another and potentially dangerous animals, such as ferrets and raccoons, in a separate room with each cage as "escape-proof" as possible, with locks on each cage and access door.

The potential for serious injury or even death to a boarder is a real possibility. For this reason, snakes (which can be master escape artists, especially if housed in a new or different cage for boarding) should NEVER be housed in the same room as rodents or other potential prey animals. I recently performed a necropsy (animal autopsy) on a common marmoset that was boarding in the same facility as a king snake. The snake escaped and slithered through the bars of the monkey's cage, coiled around the poor creature, constricting it until it was dead and then the snake tried to consume it. However, the marmoset was too large, so the snake ended up regurgitating the poor dead monkey.

While it is impossible to anticipate every contingency, it is vital to separate species that could harm each other, as mistakes can and do happen.

Reptiles are ectothermic, the outdated term of "cold-blooded" used to describe their fluctuating body temperature in response to their environment. Many facilities that board reptiles keep that room warmer than that of the rest of the facility, and for most captive herps, it is still necessary to provide a focal basking light, and other sources of heat, so that the reptile doesn't become cold and ill while boarding. Another concern with herps is the possibility that they carry the bacterium, Salmonella sp. To avoid a possible outbreak of salmonellosis in your facility, all personnel should be instructed to wash their hands thoroughly after handling any herps. All reptile equipment should be washed in an area separate from sinks associated with human food to prevent possible cross-contamination. Testing for Salmonella is unreliable in herps, and a negative test does not mean that the herp is free of this bacterium. Treating for Salmonella with antibiotics is a bad idea, as this can create a carrier state, and may lead to employees becoming lax about proper hygiene.

Diet: Can You Provide What's Necessary?

Snakes usually eat live prey, and that means that it might be necessary for you to offer boarders live mice, rats or even rabbits! Not everyone has the constitution to be able to drop a fuzzy rodent into a snake's cage and watch it kill and consume it. Also, if a snake is consuming live prey, it will be necessary for someone to watch the snake until it has finished its meal; otherwise the rodent may end up gnawing on the snake. In some cases, this can cause a tremendous amount of tissue damage to the snake. While it is recommended that snakes be trained to consume pre-killed prey, this is not always the case. It is much safer and simpler to offer a pre-killed prey item to a snake, but you will not accomplish that conversion during a boarding visit, I'm sure, nor should you take on the responsibility to attempt this.

Many other herps eat live food, such as pinky mice, crickets, waxworms and mealworms. If you are going to board herps, you will need to have a supply of these food items on hand or available on a daily basis. In addition, herps that have been recently offered live insects need to be monitored to ensure that they are consuming the prey, as it is possible for crickets to turn the tables on the reptile and start chewing on the skin. Also, it is important to know if the herps are actually eating or not and whether or not they are passing stool, as well.

Some herps will require soaking in a suitable water container periodically. Many herp owners have elaborate habitats for their pets at home, but may need to provide a smaller cage for boarding. Soaking provides hydration, exercise and a way to monitor defecation, as well, in some cases. Green iguanas and many other lizards and tortoises love to swim, but their boarding habitat may not have a large enough dish to allow soaking. Most herps will drink water while being soaked, and they usually defecate in the water, as well. So, it may be necessary to soak and swim many herps either daily or several times per week to ensure hydration.

When it comes to avian nutrition, birds consume a variety of different foods. While many parrots still eat a seed-based diet, today birds are often weaned onto a pelleted diet, and in addition, most birds will enjoy vegetables, fruits, whole grain bread, pasta and other healthy foods. If you decide to board birds, make sure that you have the owners provide you with each bird's normal diet, including treats. Some birds that are "seed junkies" will literally starve to death rather than consume pellets or food items that it perceives as unusual or foreign. Since boarding will be a stressful situation, this is NOT the time to attempt conversion of a bird that consumes only seed over to a pelleted diet (which is considered to be a healthier, more balanced diet for most birds). Any bird that hasn't eaten for 24 hours or more is likely to develop very dark green (almost black in color), tarry droppings that may be mistaken for digested blood. Dark, sticky droppings mean that a call to an avian veterinarian is required. Monitoring bird droppings throughout the day is essential for boarding birds, as is keeping an eye on food consumption and water consumption, as well.

Species Idiosyncrasies: Educate Yourself!

If you are planning to add exotics to your boarding repertoire, it is imperative that you familiarize yourself with the peculiarities of each species that you care for. While it might seem like a daunting task, it doesn't have to be. Just do your homework prior to the arrival of each boarder. Find a few reliable websites that provide care-sheets for each exotic, so that you can read up on those that you will be caring for. Detailed care-sheets will provide information on diet, temperature ranges, habits and other pertinent information.

You can learn a lot by doing your homework. What happens if you are boarding a bearded dragon (a very popular lizard) and it spends all of its time buried under the sand substrate at the bottom of the tank, refusing all food? If you would check a detailed herp website, you would find that any change in a beardie's environment might cause it to go into a type of torpor where it buries itself, slows its metabolism and sleeps continually, ceasing all activity including eating. If that happens to a beardie that you are boarding, you should lower the habitat temperature, according to the directions given in care sheets for beardies undergoing torpor. And when the owner comes to pick up his lizard, he will be duly impressed that you were able to identify the unusual behavior and provide a plausible explanation for it, provided, that is, that you have done your homework.

Nocturnal vs. Diurnal

The last consideration is an important one, but one that is often overlooked. Many exotics are nocturnal, meaning that they are primarily awake and active at night. Some of these animals include the hamster, rat, hedgehog, chinchilla, sugar glider and many species of gecko. Nocturnal animals will spend their nights playing, trying to escape, running on their wheels (if provided), eating, drinking, defecating and urinating. This means that if you don't have someone available during the evening and nighttime to feed and observe the nocturnal animals, you won't be able to tell if they are acting normally or if they are eating and drinking. During the day, these animals are just sleeping, and it is very hard to tell if an animal is ill when it is just sleeping. One way to get around having a night-time employee present would be to use a webcam that can remotely monitor any nocturnal boarders. Another way is to use a video camera that can record the evening's activities that can be watched (and fast-forwarded) the next day. Low-light or infra-red cameras would work best, as bright lights kept on all night would disorient and stress nocturnal animals. Sometimes, owners of nocturnal animals will switch the light/dark cycle, in order to interact with their pets during the day. You must know which cycle nocturnal boarders are used to so that you do not disrupt their normal awake/sleep cycle.

Boarding exotics can be a lucrative addition to your facility, however, it is important to have a plan in place so that you do not run into any of the hazards we have discussed, and possibly some scenarios that we haven't even thought of! Plan ahead, be prepared and do research on exotics you plan to board. That's a recipe for providing a wonderful addition to your boarding services.

Copyright 2007 Margaret A. Wissman, D.V.M., D.A.B.V.P.
All Rights Reserved

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