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Responsible exotic pet ownership
Molly Varga at BVNA Congress.
An ethical issue for veterinary professionals

"In many cases, I feel as if I should be working my way out of a job," said Molly Varga at the BVNA Congress. "A lot of these exotic species are not great pets and there are ethical questions as to whether they should be kept as pets at all?"

What motivates people to own exotic pets? Sadly, many people are not motivated by a desire to learn more about the species and do their best to look after it properly. Unfortunately, status is a significant reason for ownership and financial concerns can sometimes be an issue. Peer-group pressure, television and social media have much to answer for too.

When grappling with the ethical issues of keeping exotic species as pets, the basis for forming an opinion must be to revert to the Five Freedoms as championed by the RSPCA – and the extent to which they can be fulfilled by owners. There is a divide between welfare and ownership; and the regrettable fact is that the answer to this dilemma is a compromise.

Molly posed the questions: "What is the dichotomy between these animals in the wild and these animals as pets? How are we measuring their welfare? How much will the owner pay or do to promote the pet's welfare? How much do owners know about welfare?"

The speaker used the example of the use of rabbit hutches. In general, she said, hutches are too small – the minimum dimensions should be 6' x 2' x 2'. We need to remember that in the wild, rabbits will range over territories at least the area of a football pitch and they are, therefore, not simply furry pets that can be shoved away into a hutch and ignored. They are a complicated species and do not necessarily make good childrens' pets.

Molly questioned the ethics of clipping birds' wings simply for the convenience of owners. "BIrds fly," she said. "And in some cases, by doing this, we are affecting natural behaviour and are messing with their heads." She pointed out that there is a connection between bladder stones in guinea pigs and stress; and emphasised the fact that they are prey animals, such that owners and other pets are perceived as predators.

There are exotic pets that cost a relatively small amount, which makes them readily accessible to owners. There is a disconnect between the cost of subsequent veterinary consultations and this initial financial outlay, even though the costs of a professional examination and treatment for exotic animals are the same, indeed more complex, than for a cat or dog. This leads to the concept of 'disposable pets' and this has to be challenged by veterinary professionals through client education.

As veterinary professionals, nurses should be aware of reliable and objective sources of advice towards which they can direct pet owners. All the staff in a veterinary practice must be aware of all the different legislation that applies to exotic animal species that may be presented in practice.

Molly concluded that in order to educate clients, nurses need to:
• be able to define and provide a suitable diet
• be able to recognise normal from abnormal; and
• be prepared to do their best but know when to seek and refer for specialist advice.

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