I had the pleasure of being able to converse with Dr. Siperstein, a practicing exotics vet in the Bay Area, on what being an exotics veterinarian is like. Dr. Siperstein is very passionate about exotics, and has shared many incredible stories about her patients with me and with the pre-vet club on my college campus. Disclaimer: any views or opinions are our own and we highly recommend reaching out to many other exotics professionals if you are interested in a more comprehensive view of exotic animal care.
PC: Hi Dr. Siperstein, can you give me a short summary of what exotic veterinary medicine entails in your everyday practice?
DS: The word exotic describes things not of this region or this culture. Our profession ended up using the term exotic differently, to mean anything that wasn’t traditionally treated in private practice or farm work. Some of the exotic pets I see are wild and some are domesticated, and include reptiles, parrots, rabbits, rats, etc.
PC: What are some differences between you and classic companion animal or domestic production animal veterinarians, other than the animals you guys treat?
DS: We certainly need special supplies, which may be liquid medications that are concentrated in a certain form, or that aren’t commonly used in dogs and cats. Also, we often use smaller specialized surgical instruments. In my case, I do a lot of dental work on rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas; like horses, their teeth are always growing, so I need little tiny dental tools.
I personally feel I need more time in the exam rooms with the client than I would with a dog or cat because there’s so much more involved in the husbandry and client education. For example, if they have a turtle, it could be an aquatic turtle, a land turtle, or even a desert tortoise. I need to spend time explaining the different requirements for their particular type of exotic pet.
PC: With veterinary clinics, you have techs that are helping administer the treatment. So do the techs that you work with have to learn specific guidelines, rules, or take specific courses in vet tech school?
DS: I find that most technicians are learning “on the job”. In some cases, they have more experience, but not necessarily the level of experience right out of vet tech school that I need them to have. Especially in things like monitoring anesthesia and understanding how to give treatments to our patients.
I feel like the most important skill they need is to learn fast and to be really engaged, not so much that they already have the training. Because with the right people, I can teach these skills.
PC: What are some paths that veterinary students should explore if they’re not particularly interested in working at a 9-5 general practice?
DS: In veterinary medicine there are so many paths. Even within the subcategory of exotics there are exotic pet vets, zoo vets, wildlife vets all over the world studying and treating wildlife, research, and conservation medicine, which bridges into human health. I’ve only scratched the surface in terms of the possibilities here.
PC: In that case, how did you know you wanted to practice exotic veterinary medicine, or in particular, in the clinic as opposed to all these other paths?
DS: I am really interested in the human-animal bond aspect of pet ownership. I get to help treat the family pet. I’ll often refer to their little lizard as “the family Golden Retriever”, you know, it just doesn’t look like one. I enjoy interacting with clients. The fact that I can help a creature that is important to a family is really satisfying.
I did know that I was really interested in exotics before I went to vet school, I just didn’t realize I’d reach a phase in my career where I could see exclusively exotics. I was doing a lot of dogs and cats before, but in the last four years I’ve been filling my schedule with exotics.
PC: How has exotic medicine changed during the time you’ve been practicing?
DS: Exotics medicine and pet care have been moving really fast. There’s always new information. We’re learning more about the diseases and better medical and surgical treatment for those conditions. The conferences are really exciting. I’m always thrilled because there’s inevitably going to be a session at the conference where I’ll say, “Oh my god, that’s a game-changer. It’s going to change how I do this, how we all should be doing this.”
It’s exciting to see this field become a really sophisticated science as opposed to a lot of guesswork. Thirty or forty years ago, and even eighteen years ago when I graduated, there were all these questions that people were working on. We’ve come a long way on some of those mysteries and we’re still trying to figure out others. We know a lot more about anesthetic drugs and pain medication and pain management.
PC: And is this new knowledge coming from the other paths in veterinary medicine, like researchers, behavioral analysts and also veterinarians like you? Do you ever compile anything and send it off?
DS: Yes! It’s very exciting because in that environment, at these conferences, work is being published and it’s veterinarians in all fields. Everybody is contributing to our knowledge base.
PC: Even several decades ago, people might’ve had to experiment with different methods because they weren’t published in the books. This sort of branches into the ethical questions of protocol, because as a veterinarian we see a quality-of-life issue, but there’s a legal side to these things.
DS: Yes, there are definitely legal considerations depending on types of medications or treatments. Whether you may be causing harm or pain. We shouldn’t be experimenting on our patients, but we often find ourselves put in a position to be creative in order to do what’s best for the patient.
PC: What are some challenges that you or your colleagues face regularly as exotic vets?
DS: I think the most common challenge that any exotics vet would recognize is the owner’s lack of information about the pet that they own. That, by the time they come in the door, we may already be very behind because the husbandry was incorrect. That can be very frustrating because it is totally avoidable. Why were they feeding their rabbit ham sandwiches? And that sounds over the top, but believe me, we see everything.
Sometimes there’s misunderstanding about what we can do for exotics. We actually have the tools and the ability to treat some pretty complicated and challenging conditions.
On another note, I’d like to mention the ethical issues of owning exotic pets. Should someone be keeping this animal? Is it cruel to keep this type of animal? Is the owner able to do a good job to provide an environment that’s safe and healthy for that animal? Some people say, “no one should be able to own a parrot!” But other people are like, “well, it’s fine if people have parrots but they really need to do a good job.” There are even different gray areas for different veterinarians.
I certainly see pets where the owners just don’t know how to take care of it, and I’m spending a lot of time educating, educating, educating them.
PC: Yeah, it’s one of the most important things vets do, because a lot of people don’t know their animals, even if it’s a dog or cat.
DS: Right? Absolutely. I think every appointment is education. Working to tweak to improve their care is absolutely a part of every appointment.
PC: With these challenges in mind, what are the things that keep you going every day, excited to go to work and to treat the animals?
DS: Getting to see a pet improve when it’s been sick, seeing the pet feel better. We’re giving them a better quality of life. Owners are so unbelievably grateful that we’re able to see them and that we provide treatment. The relationship I have with my clients is really fulfilling.
Also, the intellectual challenge. The fact that we’re always learning, that we have to be creative. My staff and I are always saying “look at the pattern on this snake that’s beautiful,” or “oh wow this is going to be a wild surgery,” or “look at what we pulled out of his intestines, that’s crazy.”
PC: These are all really great reasons why people are in veterinary medicine. Going back a little to what you said being the most common challenge, what is one of the most common tips you’d give to exotic pet owners for them to better understand their animals?
DS: I want owners to understand the evolution of their pet. We won’t necessarily go into a lecture on evolutionary biology, but more in the sense “you own a prey animal, what does that mean in terms of comfort,” or “you own a predator, what does it take to stimulate that animal?” Again, this goes back to the education part, where we’re just trying to tell them how to do a good job…let’s understand what your pet needs and why.
PC: What do you think are some skills that pre-veterinary or veterinary students should start building to better prepare them for veterinary medicine?
DS: The one word that came to me was flexible. As a student, you want to keep in the back of your head that all this learning is being applied later on and that things change. Resources may suddenly not be available to you, and you can’t be paralyzed by that.
Hospital environments change. In my internship, the hospital had a super complicated way of treating diabetic cats. One of the doctors at that hospital said “I want you guys to all remember most vet hospitals do not treat diabetic cats this way. It’s going to be much simpler, they may do this a very different way from how you’re doing it here, and they may still be doing a perfectly good job. Don’t get in your head that they’re doing it wrong and you’re doing it right.”
And with exotics, I feel like part of the time I’m doing arts and crafts. Once, I had to build a split for a fractured jaw on a bearded dragon. I had to figure out what materials to use and how I was going to actually make that device hold the jaw in place.
PC: Yeah, that’s a really important skill. Especially in client interaction, when not every client has the financial capability to do the full treatment and you need to be creative and flexible and think about what you can do with little resources.
DS: We always want to offer the best medicine. We see what the client can do, and try to work with them. Maybe doing anything short of hospitalizing the pet is going to result in suffering, then the best choice may be to euthanize. Fortunately, most of the time we have some options in between. These more limited options may not get us all the way where we want to go, but maybe they will. It’s amazing when things do work out with what you felt in the moment might be insufficient.
PC: Working with exotic pets involves a larger range of animals, which alludes to being flexible. It’s not just dogs or cats, so what do you do when the client comes in with a specimen you’ve never treated before?
DS: I will do some quick research before I meet the client, but yes, I rely on my textbooks. There’s also a professional bulletin board called VIN, or veterinary information network, where board-certified vets can answer other vets’ questions. There are some websites that have good care sheets for exotics that I will rely on. I will absolutely call colleagues. We rely on our whole community to help each other out.
PC: Yes, I feel that veterinary practice is always evolving, and it’s not like human medicine where things are always right in the books.
DS: I don’t pretend to know it all. Just be very transparent with the clients, showing that you’re knowledgeable and confident enough to say you have resources to seek out what you don’t know.
PC: Can you give an elevator pitch on why veterinary students should choose the exotics path instead of any other path?
DS: Cause I think it’s the coolest! No, I’ll give you something better, but it is super fun.
I am never bored. I think most pet owners love their vet, because vets spend more time with them, sometimes, than their owner doctors do. Vets communicate really well, they tend to get lab work and x-rays back to the owners quickly. Clients are so incredibly grateful that you’ve seen their pet. They are scared and stressed because their pet is sick, and the fact that you’re willing and have the training is everything to them. You also get to help an animal that would’ve otherwise spent another night suffering. There are so few of us exotics vets, and we need more.
PC: Yes, definitely. I feel like a lot of people go into small animal practice and there’s not enough exposure to other fields or pets that are not dogs and cats.
DS: I also think pre-vet and vet students get spooked off of it by vets who are spooked by exotics. They think “well if I touch it, it dies,” but no. These animals can be tough.
I think when somebody gets a chance to get a taste of exotic vet medicine, they realize what a valuable service it is and that it’s not as mysterious as it seems. I give a lecture on exotic emergencies to dog and cat doctors. I emphasize, “If you just do these basic things you may save the pet’s life by getting it through the night so it can see an exotics vet in the morning.” The other vets go “I can do THAT!” Like yeah, you can!
PC: With everything that we’ve talked about, how do you feel about the future of exotic veterinary medicine and the specialty it’s headed towards?
DS: I am super excited about the future of exotic veterinary medicine. We have folks doing research at the very highest level, just extraordinarily sophisticated scientific work. We’re just becoming better and better practitioners of exotic vet medicine, doing a better job for these species. Also the clients are going further than they ever had in terms of the care. It’s just ridiculously fun and everyone is so collaborative. People who go into this field of veterinary medicine have a tendency to be very positive. It’s easy to stay excited about our future because we have such amazing people all over the world doing this cool work and making us all better veterinarians.
PC: Just a very positive community.
DS: Yeah, totally. I feel like I’ve reached a point where I can call someone that I used to think of as, “Ooh it’s so-and-so,” but now I’ll text them! I’ll go like, “hey, quick question,” and they go, “hey Dr. Sip!” They used to be these “lords” of our profession in my mind but it turns out they’re just cool people.
There was something on one of your questions that I wanted to come back to. And that’s handling animals, and making sure we’re handling animals in a way that’s safe for the pet and staff. We can injure many of the animals we work with just by restraining them, if it’s done incorrectly.
No one should see an animal they aren’t comfortable with and can’t safely handle the pet. Of course a dog can bite, a cat can bite, but a lizard can whip its tail and take your eye out. A parrot could pretty much break right through the bone of your finger.
PC: I’m sure you see a lot of crazy and cool animals, but what are some of your favorite exotic animals?
DS: This always comes up and the mom’s answer is “I love all my children equally!” But it is true that I have favorites for different reasons. Ferrets are super fun because they’re little weasels. They’re little spaz monkeys tearing around the room, very entertaining and cartoon-like, but when you pick them up by the scruff of their neck they just go totally limp for you to do your whole physical exam.
This is not the most exotic of animals, but I just love guinea pigs. They have different personalities, they’re charming, they’re funny…I don’t know what it is but I’ve just got a soft spot for guinea pigs.
Parrots I love because they’re crazy smart, sometimes too smart.
There’s a little lizard called the red-eyed crocodile skink. It’s like a Game of Thrones dragon except this big *motions with hands as around 5 inches long* with no wings, but otherwise they’re Game of Thrones dragons and super adorable.
PC: That’s a nice variety. You were saying in the beginning how exotic is such a broad term. I personally don’t consider guinea pigs to be exotic because they’re grouped along with small animals like hamsters and mice. They’re pretty common but they see you, an exotics vet.
DS: Exactly, and if you use the dictionary definition of the word they are exotic because they are from Peru. But in this case it’s just that they aren’t a dog or cat. Interestingly, exotic vets are now expected to see pet chickens, because factory farming vets aren’t going to do pet chicken care. So we’re the ones seeing the chickens, and that’s a long-domesticated species.
PC: So just to wrap up the interview is there anything you’d like to add?
DS: The main thing is that I’m never bored. My patients are amazing. Whether it’s a tiny lizard or a huge tortoise, these are the family pets. I love being a part of that story of caring for them.
PC: I just wanted to say thank you so much for speaking with me, it’s been really great hearing you talk about this.
DS: It’s my pleasure! I’m just paying it forward. Someone planted exotic vet medicine in my head and I now get other people excited about a profession that I think is really cool. It’s only good for the profession if there are more exotics vets out there. So I’m happy to do it.