New Small Mammal Veterinary Visit

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

Many owners of rabbits, ferrets, rodents (including guinea pigs, chinchillas, rats, mice, hamsters, gerbils, and degus), sugar gliders, and hedgehogs, are surprised to learn that all pets need an initial examination by a veterinarian and at least an annual check-up.

Veterinarians who treat exotic small animals recommend check-ups at least twice a year to allow for early detection and treatment of potentially life-threatening diseases. Regular veterinary care is necessary to ensure pets live long, healthy lives. The most important visit is the very first one, preferably within 1–2 weeks of acquiring your pet.

During this visit, your veterinarian will perform a physical examination and may recommend diagnostic tests to determine your pet's state of health and to see if your pet is harboring any diseases that require treatment. The visit will also include a discussion of proper feeding, housing, care, and grooming of your new pet. You should feel comfortable and confident with your veterinarian and the hospital staff.

"Make sure your pet's veterinarian has experience treating small mammals."

Ferrets will need to be caught up on vaccinations against rabies and ferret distemper virus and will also start a heartworm preventative program.

Make sure your pet's veterinarian has experience treating small mammals. Exotic pet medicine has become a specialized part of veterinary medicine, and many general practitioners are not comfortable or knowledgeable about exotic pet care. Ask about your veterinarian’s qualifications. If your veterinarian is not comfortable seeing your pet, ask for a referral to a one that is experienced in exotic veterinary medicine.

What procedures or tests does a veterinarian do during a small mammal check-up?

While veterinarians follow their own protocols when examining new pets, all veterinarians will first perform a thorough physical examination on your pet to help ensure its health.

Some exotic pet veterinarians may also recommend certain diagnostic tests, such as blood work or X-rays (radiographs). Some pets may require sedation or gas anesthesia to perform these tests, depending on the pet’s species and temperament. For highly active or excitable small mammals, anesthesia may make these tests much less stressful. Discuss the pros and cons of testing with your veterinarian. Be aware of your options.

Physical Examination. Every veterinary visit starts with a thorough physical examination. Your veterinarian will palpate (feel) various parts of the pet's body and note any abnormalities that warrant specialized testing.

During the exam, your veterinarian will record your pet's weight, general appearance, and activity level. Your veterinarian will review any information that you may have been given when you acquired your new small mammal and will discuss the pet's nutritional needs and general care.

Blood Testing. Just as a regular medical visit with your physician includes blood testing, so does a routine check-up for a pet. Blood testing can include a complete blood count (CBC), which examines the red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets, and a serum biochemical profile, which analyzes various organ enzymes, organ function tests, and electrolyte levels.

Fecal Analysis. Microscopic examination of the feces is used to detect intestinal parasites (coccidia, other protozoa, and worms) and abnormal bacteria or yeast.

Microbiological Testing. Occasionally, additional tests may be recommended, such as bacterial culture and sensitivity of feces or discharge from the eyes, nostrils, or urinary tract. A skin scraping may be needed to determine the cause of skin diseases or hair loss in small mammals.

Radiological Testing. Using X-rays, your veterinarian can examine your pet's body for abnormalities in size, shape, and position of body organs, such as the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, stomach, and intestines. X-rays are also useful to screen for masses such as tumors, look for abnormal fluid accumulation, and check the bones and joints.

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