Thursday 12 December 2019

Small pets can need expensive vet care too

The hamster needed complex surgery to help him
The hamster needed complex surgery to help him

Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

The man pointed to the hamster in the cage, on my consultation table. "He's got a swollen tummy and it's getting bigger. How much would it be to operate on this?"

I examined the small creature carefully: I could feel a solid lump in his abdomen, around 2cm diameter, the equivalent of a human having a cauliflower-sized mass growing beside their stomach. Technically, it might be possible to operate to remove it, but it would be a complex and delicate procedure, without guarantee of success. I gave the man an estimate of the total cost, at around €300. He grunted "I can get a new one for a fiver", and he stared sullenly at the floor.

As a pet vet (or "companion animal vet", to use the internationally favoured term), most of my work involves dogs (65%) and cats (30%). There's a general agreement of "terms of engagement" with these pets: they are seen as family members, and people generally want to do the best they can possibly do for them when they have accidents or fall ill.

If someone brings a sick dog or cat to me, they expect that I will suggest an investigation, including blood samples, x-rays and perhaps ultrasound. They will assume that I will reach a firm diagnosis, and that I will then be able to give appropriate treatment. They will appreciate that it might take several hundred euro to make the diagnosis, and there could be an operation costing up to a thousand euro, and there could be ongoing treatment costs of up to a few hundred euro every month. This level of care is now taken as standard for cherished pets like dogs and cats. Not everyone can afford to pay for this, which is why pet insurance is so popular, but there's always an underlying understanding that this is the normal type of expectation for high quality care.

However there is a minority group of my patients where expectations are often different: the 5% that are not dogs or cats. This group includes rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, birds, reptiles and fish. In fact, any animal that is not a dog or a cat. I don't see many monkeys or stick insects, but sometimes, they have been brought in to see me when they've had accidents or fallen ill. As a vet, I have been trained in the care of every one of these types of creatures, and I am able to treat them successfully. But all too often, the expectations of owners is different, and this can present challenges, as it did that day with the hamster.

There's no doubt that some of these creatures are treated like members of the family.. From rabbits with complex dental disease to parrots with feather abnormalities, some cases need intensive investigations and follow up treatments. Their owners are often well clued in to preventive approaches too, such as vaccines against Myxomatotis and Viral Haemorrhagic disease in rabbits. As a vet in general practice, I enjoy treating these creatures when owners are as engaged as this, and I will often even refer complex cases on to specialists, if I feel that my own level of expertise is not sufficient. And just as with dogs and cats, the costs for ther most detailed work ups and treatments can run into thousands of euro.

If you think about it, why should it cost any less just because the animal is a different species? Bloods tests, x-rays and treatments cost the same, regardless of the type of animal involved. Dedicated owners of these exotic species understand this, and they are prepared to pay the cost because they really do see their pets as part of their family.

However, some owners of exotic species are not so involved with their pets, and they resent paying for complex veterinary care when it's needed. They like their pets, and they want to care for them, but they have not budgeted for the veterinary care that may be needed.

I remember the rabbit owner who didn't get his pets vaccinated: he found all three rabbits dead in their hutch one morning. The post-mortem examinations showed that they had all died of Viral Haemorrhagic Disease, which could have been prevented with a vaccine.

I recall the terrapin owner who brought his ailing pet to see me: the poor creature had such severe shell disease that he had to be euthanased. If his owner had come to the vet earlier, the terrapin could have been cured. It was a simple case of calcium imbalance caused by years of being fed an imbalanced diet.

Then there was the parrot who had picked out all of his own feathers, due to stress because he was being kept in the wrong environment. If the bird had been taken to a specialist at an early stage, measures could have been put in place to nip this in the bud. As it was, the bird was completely bald, apart from his head. Again, an earlier focus on looking after the parrot properly would have prevented the problem.

And what about that hamster? I ended up agreeing a special deal, charging €200 for an operation to investigate the lump in the abdomen. It turned out to be a tumour on the hamster's liver, and I was able to dissect it out successfully. The little hamster came through the surgery successfully. After all, there was no need for the man to buy that new hamster.

If you have any type of pet, remember that vet care may be needed one day.

Wexford People

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