Annual Veterinary Visit for Small Mammals

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

Many owners of small exotic pet mammals (like rabbits, sugar gliders, ferrets, hedgehogs), and various rodents (such as guinea pigs, chinchillas, hamsters, gerbils, rats, mice, and degus) are surprised to learn that at least once a year these pets need to visit a veterinarian experienced with the unique anatomy, diet, and diseases of these fun pets.

Exotic pet veterinarians typically recommend check-ups at least once a year for young, healthy pets and twice a year for geriatric animals for the following reasons:

  • Most pets, including small mammals, have shorter lives than people do. Getting a checkup only once a year for a small mammal would be like you only going to your doctor every 5-10 years. This is too long to wait to find out if something is wrong with your pet.
  • Early detection and treatment of disease is very important for giving your pet the best prognosis for recovery, and is less expensive than waiting and treating a serious problem progressed over time.
  • Most importantly, small exotic mammals are great at hiding symptoms of disease until it is too late to reverse (in many cases) even with hospitalization.

Regular veterinary care and routine medical testing is necessary to ensure your pet lives a long, healthy life. This is what veterinarians call practicing preventive medicine.

What will my veterinarian do during a routine small mammal checkup?

Veterinarians follow their own individual protocols when performing routine annual or semi-annual check-ups. The following are commonly recommended tests to help keep your pet healthy:

 Physical examination. Every visit starts with a thorough physical examination. During the exam, your veterinarian will record your pet's weight, general appearance, and activity level. Your veterinarian will also ask you about your pet’s recent history and evaluate its diet. Your veterinarian will feel (palpate) various parts of your pet's body to check for abnormalities and note any changes that have occurred since the previous visit (which may warrant specialized testing). Your pet’s oral cavity will be examined to assess dental structure and proper tooth alignment, their eyes and nostrils will be checked, as well as the overall skin/hair coat condition. A stethoscope will be used to hear heart and lung sounds.

Blood testing. Just as your own regular medical examination may include blood testing, so does a checkup for a pet. Blood testing can include a complete blood count (examining the red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets) and a serum biochemical profile (which helps determine liver function, kidney function and blood values for protein, calcium, phosphorus, glucose, sodium, and potassium levels), or special testing for a specific set of diseases.

Fecal analysis. Microscopic examination of the feces allows detection of intestinal parasites (including coccidia, flagellated and ciliated protozoa, and intestinal worms). Some intestinal parasites may be transmittable to people. Depending on the findings of the fecal analysis, medications may be required to treat the intestinal parasitism.

Microbiological testing. Special stains (including Gram's stain), may be used to stain fecal samples, skin scrapings, or other tissue samples to detect the presence of abnormal bacteria, yeast, or parasites under the microscope. Depending on the findings from the Gram's stain, additional tests, such as a bacterial culture and sensitivity may be performed. This test is used to determine the types of bacteria or fungal species present in the sample, and to identify the best antibiotics or antifungal drugs to be used to treat the illness or infection. The sensitivity testing allows the veterinarian to see if the bacteria or fungal organisms are resistant to certain medications.

Radiological testing. Using X-rays your veterinarian can examine your pet's body for abnormalities in the size, shape, and position of body organs. X-rays can also be used to screen for masses such as tumors, to look for abnormal fluid accumulation, and to check the bones and joints.

Most physical examinations and blood testing can be performed on pets while they remain awake. However, depending on the temperament of your pet, some of these tests may require short-acting sedatives or gas anesthesia to minimize your pet’s stress level and keep them still enough to take a blood sample or radiograph. If your pet is easily stressed, it may be easier to sedate them first, as they will be less stressed when being examined or having blood taken for laboratory testing.

To find a veterinarian that has experience with exotic small mammal pets, check with the Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians website –

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