Providing Exceptional Pet Care for Avian and Exotic Animals
“In avian and exotics medicine, you really need to have an open mind and the ability to think outside of the box when treating these unique pets. We still face some limitations when it comes to diagnostic testing and what we know about these animals in general, so I’m constantly researching to learn more about what’s ‘normal’ for them in order to provide the best care possible.”
– Dr. Michelle Whitehead
Dr. Michelle Whitehead is an avian and exotics veterinarian at BluePearl Pet Hospital in Chesterfield, MO. She absolutely loves providing veterinary care for birds, reptiles and other exotic pets in Chesterfield and surrounding communities.
Dr. Whitehead on the Job
Dr. Whitehead is on a mission to bring avian and exotics medicine to the same level of care as the more common household pets like cats and dogs. As one of a few veterinarians trained to provide avian and exotics pet care in the Chesterfield area, she sees a wide range of unique pets in all shapes and sizes.
“It never ceases to amaze me what walks in and the problems they have. This is what makes Avian and Exotics one of the most fun and interesting, yet challenging, fields of veterinary medicine.”
– Dr. Michelle Whitehead
Animals treated by Dr. Whitehead include:
- Pet birds and backyard poultry, such as Amazons, cockatiels, macaws, cockatoos, conures, canaries, doves, finches, chickens, ducks and geese
- Reptiles and amphibians, including turtles, tortoises, iguanas, bearded dragons, monitors, tegus, chameleons, geckos, snakes, frogs and toads
- Fish like goldfish, puffer fish, and koi
- Small exotic mammals including rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas, degus, rats, mice, gerbils, hamsters, ferrets, hedgehogs and sugar gliders
- Other exotic pets such as pot-bellied pigs, exotic cats (ex: servals, caracals, savannah cats), marsupials (ex: kangaroos, wallabies), and New World primates (ex: marmosets, tamarins, squirrel monkeys)
Dr. Whitehead’s areas of special interest include:
- Dental disease
- Gastrointestinal disorders
- Reproductive and hormonal disorders
- Respiratory disorders
- Wellness care
Treating Dental Disease in Small Exotic Animals
Dental disease is one of the most common conditions Dr. Whitehead sees in small exotic mammals like rabbits and guinea pigs. They have continuously growing teeth with open roots, and inadequate forage in the diet can lead to dental malocclusion-causing ulcers and abscesses on the cheek or tongue.
Diagnosis and Treatment
To diagnose and treat dental disease in small exotic animals, Dr. Whitehead uses several types of tools, including:
- Bi-valve dental speculum – a tool used during an oral exam that pushes away the tongue and the cheek to completely evaluate the upper and lower dental arcades of premolars and morals (check teeth)
- CT scan – the best diagnostic tool for evaluating the entire oral cavity as it allows 3D evaluation of the apex of the teeth within the maxilla and mandible (upper and lower jaw) to diagnose dental disease deep within the jaw and not visible with an oral exam
- Dental machine – an electronic tool equipped with a low-speed burr (like a file) to adjust the occlusal surfaces and remove any dental points on the premolars and molars, and a high-speed burr to trim incisors
- Tabletop speculum – a mini table that raises to a 45-degree angle and helps keep the mouth open while undergoing anesthesia and dental treatments
Treatment may involve anything from occlusal adjustment, abscess marsupialization, or even dental extraction. For example, she used an electronic dental machine to safely and properly grind down the overgrown teeth of this guinea pig.
Treating Gastrointestinal Disorders in Avian and Exotic Animals
Avian and exotic animals are prone to developing gastrointestinal (GI) disorders. Some of the most common conditions Dr. Whitehead treats include GI stasis in small exotic pets like rabbits and guinea pigs, and crop stasis in psittacines (parrots) and backyard poultry.
Small exotic animals, particularly rabbits and guinea pigs, commonly suffer from GI ileus or stasis – a condition that occurs when the muscle contractions of the stomach and intestines are reduced. This results in the slowing of food passing through the GI tract and can quickly lead to a life-threatening pet emergency.
Birds and backyard poultry are susceptible to a similar potentially life-threatening condition called crop stasis, also referred to as “crop impaction” or “sour crop”. The term “crop” refers to a small pouch located within its neck that temporarily stores food until it passes through the rest of the digestive tract. Crop stasis refers to the slowing or stopping of food passage from the crop to the rest of the digestive tract.
Diagnosis and Treatment
GI ileus or crop stasis is always secondary to an underlying cause, which can vary from pain, stress, infection, toxicity (heavy metal – like lead or zinc), or organ dysfunction (liver disease, kidney disease, heart failure). To diagnose gastrointestinal disorders in birds and small exotic animals, Dr. Whitehead will make recommendations dependent on the specifics of the case, and tests may include radiographs, bloodwork, and/or ultrasound. Treatment may involve hydration support, pain medication, antibiotic therapy, and/or nutritional management.
Treating Reproductive in Avian and Exotic Animals
Dr. Whitehead also commonly treats reproductive disorders in pet birds and reptiles, including dystocia, follicular stasis, and cloacal prolapse.
Dystocia, also known as egg-binding, is a condition in which birds and reptiles have difficulty laying eggs and can lead to other serious, life-threatening conditions like cloacal prolapse. Follicular stasis is a condition similar to dystocia in which ovarian follicles do not properly cycle and mature into eggs. Cloacal prolapse is a condition that describes the tissue of the vent protruding from the vent, and it may occur as a result of chronic straining to pass an egg, although there are other causes.
Diagnosis and Treatment
When it comes to treating reproductive disorders in avian and exotic animals, Dr. Whitehead uses diagnostic tools like radiographs, ultrasound, or CT scans to evaluate the condition prior to developing a treatment plan which may require surgery.
For example, she performed surgery to remove two eggs from this kingsnake and 72 eggs (yes, 72 eggs!) from this chameleon, both of which were suffering from dystocia. She also performed a spay on this red-footed tortoise diagnosed with follicular stasis.
Treating Respiratory Diseases in Avian and Exotic Animals
Respiratory disease can have numerous causes, such as an infection (bacterial, viral, fungal, parasitic), heart failure, allergies or environmental irritants, nutritional deficiency (ex: insufficient vitamin A) or even cancer. Dr. Whitehead sees respiratory disease in avian and exotic animals, including pet birds and backyard poultry, rats and mice, rabbits and guinea pigs – and even snakes!
Some specific respiratory infections include:
- Mycoplasma disease in rats, mice, reptiles, and backyard poultry
- Bordetella in guinea pigs
- Pasteurella in rabbits (snuffles)
- Chlamydia psittaci
- Aspergillus in pet birds, and herpesvirus in tortoises
Diagnosis and Treatment
Diagnostic tests, such as radiographs, bloodwork, tracheal wash and cytology, culture or even endoscopy (scope), are often required to identify the cause and extend of the disease. Treatment options vary, and recommendations are made based on the exam findings and test results of each specific case.
Respiratory signs generally involve increased breathing rate and effort (tail bob, or open beak breathing in a bird), sneezing, wheezing, and sometimes discharge from the eyes and nose.
Treating Other Conditions in Avian and Exotic Animals
Some small exotic animals are more prone to certain conditions than others. For example, hedgehogs commonly suffer from a skin disease that causes quill loss and dry, flaky, itchy skin, often caused by ringworm fungal infection, or mites.
Backyard poultry, like chickens, ducks and geese, are susceptible to trauma from other poultry sharing the coop or outside predators like raccoons, foxes and predatory birds like hawks, eagles and owls.
Ferrets are prone to developing insulinoma (pancreatic tumor) in which tumors grow on the pancreas, causing low blood sugar, nausea, weakness and lethargy. They’re also susceptible to adrenal disease, resulting in an increase in sex hormones that causes symptoms like hair loss, itchiness, and swollen vulva (females) or enlarged prostate (males.)
Sugar gliders commonly suffer from a condition called nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism or metabolic bone disease causing lethargy, muscle tremors, and seizures due to inadequate calcium in the diet.
Even fish are susceptible to conditions that may require veterinary care, including scale disease which causes symptoms like scale loss, redness and bumps, and swim bladder disease which causes buoyancy changes like floating to the top or sinking to the bottom of a tank.
Providing Wellness Care for Avian and Exotic Animals
For Dr. Whitehead, wellness is a big part of providing exceptional care for avian and exotic pets. Since not many veterinarians are trained to practice avian and exotics medicine, she often takes on the role as primary veterinarian to offer regular and preventative care, complete with wellness checks and husbandry evaluations.
Wellness checks include a complete physical examination, and may include screening bloodwork, vaccines for preventable diseases, and fecal examinations to check for harmful parasites and bacteria. For example, Dr. Whitehead provided the first wellness check to ensure a clean bill of health for this 11-month-old squirrel monkey who was adopted as an emotional support companion animal.
Husbandry evaluation refers to detailed review of provision of proper diet, water, and environment for avian and exotic pets. Avian and exotic animals in captivity have special environmental requirements such as unique bedding substrate, preferred optimal temperature zone, humidity, and UVB exposure. There are also specific nutritional needs depending on the species, age, sex, and reproductive status.
Dr. Whitehead Up Close
While growing up in the Vancouver area of Canada, Dr. Whitehead remembers first discovering her interest in veterinary medicine at a very young age.
“My dream of becoming a vet probably began when I was around 5 years old, when every time my dad would take the dogs to the vet, I’d beg him to let me come along so I could see what they do.”
Dr. Whitehead’s Educational Background
After graduating high school, Dr. Whitehead went on to complete her Bachelor of Science and Biology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia Canada.
By the time she started vet school at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada, she was still planning on majoring in veterinary medicine for cats and dogs, with a minor in wildlife rehabilitation on the side. However, that changed when she started joining different clubs in school, like the Wild Exotic Animal Society where she served as both president and vice president.
“I decided to pursue avian and exotics medicine after falling in love with the diversity of the creatures – everything is so unique and cute – and the bond that pet owners create with these pets is amazing – some even kiss their goldfishes every night before bed! I also love that I can provide a service that other veterinarians aren’t comfortable with or trained to do.”
After completing her Doctor of Medicine, she went on to complete an internship in Small Animal Medicine and Surgery at the University of Illinois, followed by another internship in Zoo, Exotic and Wildlife Medicine and Surgery at Texas A&M University.
She then completed a 3-year residency in Zoological Companion Animal Medicine, at North Carolina State University, before officially moving to the United States and joining the team at BluePearl Pet Hospital in Chesterfield, MO.
Dr. Whitehead Off the Job
Dr. Whitehead resides in Illinois with her fiancé and is planning on eventually adopting a couple of rats because “they can be the cutest, sweetest and most loveable creatures that really do bond their owners.” When not working or researching new ways to advance avian and exotic pet care, Dr. Whitehead loves being outside enjoying the sun and nature with a day of hiking, biking or boating.