From otters to snake, clinic welcomes exotic pets

Monday, February 11, 2002

URBANA, Ill. -- George has a sex problem. His aggressive drive makes him chase after every female and challenge every male. Even by rabbit standards, he is a sexaholic.

So where do you go when you need your rabbit neutered?

Since October, the University of Illinois has offered treatment for exotic animals at its Small Animal Clinic.

A rabbit may not seem exotic, but Dr. Julie Whittington has also seen river otters, macaws, snakes and a rooster in her new job at the College of Veterinary Medicine. She also sees dogs and cats but has had special training in nonstandard pets.

The average vet might not know how to adjust the nutrition for a river otter or how to give a king snake a Caesarean section. However, Whittington recently performed surgery on a snake after it was unable to relieve itself of an egg.

In these times of budget cuts, the clinic is meant to pay its own way, Whittington said. While the UI did not previously encourage its doctors to treat exotic pets, it did have a fee for many procedures.

"I can look up 'C-section for a reptile,' for instance," she said.

Refers to books a lot

Whittington took elective courses in exotic animals in earning her doctorate, but she said many students choose not to. Whittington had to learn special techniques because, for instance, they don't make catheters especially for snakes. She runs to the reference books a lot.

She knows first-hand that it can be hard to find a vet who can treat, say, a rabbit. She once had a rabbit named Bing while she was an undergraduate at the UI. She wanted to find out why Bing was gazing at her lopsided. It turned out Bing had an ear infection.

Whittington began to think she'd like to be a vet, but had a wayward career path including a stint as a UI police officer.

"My partners would hate it sometimes because I'd take animal control calls and put them in the back seat," she says.

Whittington's certified veterinary technician, Jamie Jockisch, has always wanted to work with animals.

"Working with exotics is just another perk," she said. "I like variety."

Jockisch did have one request before signing on to the clinic: "No snakes." That request was not honored.

Neither health worker has ever had a major chunk of flesh consumed by a patient, but each has had her share of live nips.

"I get most of my bites from ferrets," Whittington said. "Even the nicest ferrets that never bite anyone have bitten me."

Whittington said she's glad to see sick animals but hopes owners will bring in pets before they get seriously ill. Regular checkups could prevent health catastrophes. Because a small animal might only live two or three years, it's important to schedule checkups fairly often. A few months may be the equivalent of years in a human.

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