Finding A Herp Veterinarian
©2001 Melissa Kaplan
The best way to find a reptile vet is not to look in the yellow pages, or just to drop in at your regular cat-and-dog vet. The vast majority of the veterinary school curriculum is spent on the most popular (and best documented) animals: dogs, cats, pigs, horses, cows, and rabbits. Vet schools do spend a little time on exotics, during which time (anywhere from 1-6 weeks, total) they cover the other 3,994 species of mammals, 9,000 bird species, 5,500 herp species, and maybe even one or two of the 18,000 fish species. Unlike a medical doctor, who spends the long years of medical school, residency and internship learning about only one species, small animal vets are dealing with potentially hundreds of species during the course of the year for whom only a few of which were covered in any depth in veterinary school.
So, how does a vet learn more about species not covered to the same extent as our furry companion and farm animals? By taking courses offered by veterinary organizations, attending conferences and taking wet labs put on by the various exotic animal veterinary organizations, subscribing to specialized vet journals, buying the growing number of vet med books devoted to specific types of exotics, etc. In other words, you need to dig deeper than "what vet school did you graduate from and when" to find out if the vet has been learning about and keeping up with the advances in knowledge being made in all areas of exotics.
For reptile vets, that means membership in and reading the journals, compendiums, and conference proceedings (or, better yet, going to the conferences) published and presented by organizations such as the Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians, exotic vet societies, and zoo vet societies. There is also an increasing number of online continuing education courses for vets covering various aspects of exotic medicine.
So, where's the best place to start? With your local herp society. Talk with several society members and find out who they go to and why, and who they don't go to and why. Be prepared to hear conflicting opinions about the same vet. I personally like two vets in my area; call them Vet A and Vet B. Both are very knowledgeable and I've always been impressed with the way they handle my animals as well as me, though because Vet A is significantly closer to me than than Vet B, I generally see Vet A. But one person I know can't stand Vet A and so she sees only Vet B, while someone else I know can't stand Vet B but adores Vet A. The things they have stated for disliking the vets they dislike are not things I've experienced from those vets. So, just as with a medical doctor, the vet you end up liking and the reasons you liking them may be more due to how you respond personally to the vet - consciously or unconsciously - rather than due to any shortcoming or failure of the vet.
When you live in an area where there is more than one vet to choose from in relatively close proximity to you, that's great. When the closest vet is a 2-5 hour drive, you won't have as much an opportunity to be so picky.
Another sign, to my mind, of a good vet is one who isn't afraid to admit that he or she doesn't know everything AND one who is willing to go the extra mile to learn something new, whether that is doing research on the 'net, looking at information the client brings in, getting on the phone or fax to talk to other vets who specialize in reptiles, etc.
If there are no herp societies in your area, contact the local wildlife and bird rescue organizations in your area and find out who they use. Contact their vets to see if they have experience/training in reptiles or if they know someone who does. Zoo vets may also be a useful source of such information, though they may be more difficult to get ahold of.
If you still cannot
find a reptile vet
Be prepared to widen your search, geographically. Unfortunately, not only are there no laws mandating that pet stores must know anything about the animals they sell, there is no law mandating that they sell only those species for whom there are competent vets in the area who can examine and treat them. People living in rural or otherwise less metropolitan areas who buy exotics must commit to traveling the distances required to get their exotics to a vet trained in their treatment. Depending on where you live, that may entail trips of one or more hours - one way. If you aren't prepared to go the distance, don't get the pet.
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