A Profession for the Birds: What It's Like to Be a Vet for Exotic Pets

Lots of Americans hold unique jobs, but few can claim to be one out of only 130 people worldwide. That's about how many aviary veterinarians -- professionals trained to understand the medical needs of birds -- there are in the world.

Laurie Hess is one of the few to have pursued a career in this field. The 45-year-old mother of two got into the business because there's no shortage of big-box retailers, such as PetSmart and Petco, that sell these type of animals, she says. "They're not solely selling cats and dogs."

Exotic pets are often purchased on a whim, and have needs that too few pet owners are aware of. "They're an impulse buy and a lot of people don't think that through," Hess says. Some of these animals, for example, have long life spans, which commit their owners to caring for them for decades.

"Part of what I do is to educate people on the special needs of these animals," she says. Exotic pets -- like traditional ones -- put additional demands on owners' time and financial resources, and they also require adequate space.

After a few years of making rounds at about a half dozen area veterinarian hospitals to treat exotic pets, Hess thought it would be easier to have a central place for their treatment. That led about a year and a half ago to her establishing the Veterinary Center for Birds & Exotics in Bedford Hills, N.Y., a suburb of New York City.

Hess first became acquainted with exotic pets during a yearlong internship at New York City's Animal Medical Center, a large teaching hospital, "where you rotate around to different departments, à la "Grey's Anatomy."

That experience included tending exotic pets -- a category that includes birds, reptiles, amphibians and some mammals, such as rabbits and gerbils.<

Finding a Niche

After spending about six weeks treating such animals, Hess realized that she had never been exposed to exotic pets in veterinary school, yet was likely to encounter them -- and be expected to treat them -- when she eventually started her practice.

"It scared me, and it also made me sad that no one cared enough about these pets to really do anything," she says.

After she finished her internship, Hess then pursued two more years of residency training, specifically in exotic animals. At the time, she says, the only board certification available in exotic animals was in birds, so she became a bird specialist.

Hess went on to lead the exotic animal department at the Animal Medical Center. After 10 years, however, she felt the need to move beyond teaching about how to treat such animals and wanted to open her own exotic veterinary practice near her home in suburban Westchester County.

That was about 18 months ago, and despite the languishing economy, business is good, she says. The practice benefits strong referral base and relationships with 60-plus pet stores, as well as local veterinarians across New York State and in neighboring Pennsylvania and Connecticut.

Hess is often surprised at the number and the breadth of types of pets that people have.

"That's the fun of my job," she says. "On any given day, you really have no idea what's coming in the door."

The animals could be as pedestrian as parakeets or cockatiels, or as unusual as peacock or a wallaby, she says.

Unusual Pets, Special Treatment

Determining whether a pet isn't feeling well is made all the more difficult by some pets' nature. While cats and dogs, which are predators, exhibit illness pretty readily, species that are preyed upon, such as rabbits and many birds, instinctively hide signs of weakness to prevent being eaten in the wild.

"Unfortunately, a lot of people just wait until their [exotic pets] are sick and dying before coming in," Hess says.

Though raising pet owners' awareness about exotic pets' needs can be challenging, Hess' unique profession isn't without its lighter moments.

Those include a story about an owner of a cockatiel who was frantic when she discovered a hole in her bird's head and called Hess to schedule an immediate appointment.

Within a hour of her call, Hess says, the pet owner arrived at the clinic, sobbing and clutching the bird's cage, fearful that it might soon die.

Hess, along with a technician, whisked the bird and its owner into an exam room and began a thorough examination.

The cockatiel's eyes, nostrils and mouth all appeared normal, Hess told the owner as the exam progressed. "Then my technician turned the bird slightly sideways so that I could see his ears, and at that point, the owner yelled, 'That's it! Look at that huge hole!'"

The "huge hole" turned out to be the bird's ear canal, and the owner was shocked when Hess showed her that the bird had a matching hole on the other side of its head.

"I finished the rest of the exam in silence," Hess says. "Embarrassed, the owner thanked me, quietly paid her bill and took the bird home."

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