Whether it’s spaying a parakeet or checking blood glucose on Cocoa Chanel, the diabetic guinea pig, Dr. Nancy Alperson’s day is never boring.
These days, Dr. Nancy Alperson checks blood glucose for diabetic guinea pigs, saves parakeets, and treats tail rot in snakes. But she wasn’t always a veterinarian seeing exotic pets at VCA Plainfield Animal Hospital in Plainfield, Connecticut.
“This is a second career for me,” she says. “First, I went to law school.”
Exotic animal medicine can be difficult, sure, but Dr. Alperson says she vividly remembers her hardest class in law school—contract law. She passed, but she remembers thinking, “I’ll never have to take a class as hard as that.”
It seemed like contract law “seldom had one answer,” she says, and it felt like, with every new contract, “either you were trying to get one over on your opponent, or worried your opponent was trying to get one over on you.”
When she decided law wasn’t for her, she applied to, got accepted, and took classes in Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. And, challenging as they were, none of the classes were as unpleasant as that contract law—not even the typical future-vet barriers like organic chemistry or inorganic chemistry.
“Turns out, veterinary medicine seldom has one right answer either,” she says. “But it was a lot more rewarding to work with animals,” she jokes.
At age 41 with two teenagers, Dr. Alperson graduated in 2017 as a veterinarian with her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) and a Masters in Lab Animal Medicine. Obviously, she planned to dive into lab-animal medicine. Her interest in law and regulations from law school seemed to carry over perfectly to lab rules.
“I found all the laws behind [caring for lab animals] fascinating, because they’re not well understood,” she says.
Dr. Alperson didn’t complain when she couldn’t immediately find a lab-animal job because she found another way to scratch her itch to work with unique animals: private practice at a hospital with a steady stream of exotic-pet patients
At VCA Plainfield Animal Hospital, Medical Director Dr. Jenna Schmied had been handling small animals, large animals and exotic pets for years. Now, Dr. Alperson could employ all her lab-animal knowledge across a variety of species—mice, rats, rabbits, reptiles, frogs and more—with hands-on help every day in a hometown hospital, healing pet owners’ four-legged, feathered, or slithering friends.
“Dr. Alperson says it's a true "partnership in veterinary practice” between the veterinarian and knowledgeable exotic-pet owners that keeps pets healthy.”
“Because of my lab animal work, I wasn’t scared to see a variety of patients, and if I didn’t know the answer for a particular species, I could look it up or consult with a colleague,” she says.
Her zest for research comes in handy with the pet owners themselves as well. During appointments, Dr. Alperson takes the time to ask and ask again to make sure she has the whole picture on a pet’s home life.
“You can’t assume the pet owner tells you all the information at the start,” she says. “I’ve got that lab doctor mentality, where every last bit of food was recorded.”
Dr. Alperson says it's a true "partnership in veterinary practice” between the veterinarian and knowledgeable exotic-pet owners that keeps pets healthy. It doesn’t hurt that exotic-animal owners tend to be “fun and quirky,” she says, and a pleasure to work with. Patients have included rabbits, guinea pigs, bearded dragons, chameleons, ferrets, pet chickens, corn snakes and more. Dr. Alperson is also the veterinarian on record to help with diagnostics or dispensing medication for two local wildlife organizations.
The variety of species keeps the hospital’s other team members on their toes, too, says hospital manager Kate Fantoli.
“When it comes to exotics here, we never know how the day will go,” Fantoli says. “We can go weeks without seeing anything, but then we see a ferret, a guinea pig, a ball python, a water monitor lizard and a bearded dragon all in one day.”
It’s exciting, Fantoli says. One day, there was a parakeet to spay. “You never think one of those is going to come in. Those are big memories for me.”
A recent offbeat example with a serious medical condition was guinea pig Cocoa Chanel. Cocoa came in because she had been vocalizing and crying out at night. She was also losing weight and urinating more and more frequently.
An X-ray, however, didn’t show a bladder stone or a mass causing discomfort, weight loss or inappropriate elimination. Dr. Alperson wondered if it might be diabetes.
An average blood glucose level for a guinea pig could be anywhere from 60 to 125. Dr. Alperson tested Cocoa Chanel’s blood, and the number was 685. Because Cocoa’s owner couldn’t easily check the tiny guinea pig’s blood sugar levels at home with the standard needle-sticking devices, Dr. Alperson attached a Freestyle Libre blood glucose monitoring device to Cocoa’s side. The human device is used off-label in dogs and cats. That blood glucose monitor stayed on for 14 days. Shockingly, the little guinea pig did quite well with the Oreo-cookie-sized unit attached to her.
“A lot of cats and dogs will scratch at it, so we give them little shirts to wear,” Dr. Alperson says. Dr. Alperson made a little dress for Cocoa to cover up the device, but the guinea pig never picked at it.
Cocoa’s diabetes adventure also made her a bit of a star. Cute photos of the little guinea pig with a big medical device have been an inspiration for other pet owners as well as children with conditions that require them to wear medical devices, Cocoa’s owner is even writing a book in honor of Cocoa, who eventually passed on from other medical issues.
The little diabetic guinea pig was such a unique case that Dr. Alperson recently presented the medical details of the diabetic-device-wearing pet at the exotic-medicine conference ExoticsCon in Denver, Colorado.
What’s next for the hometown exotic-pet vet? Dr. Alperson says she needs to get one teenager off to college and another through high school. Then she's going to focus even more on her ongoing project: to become board-certified for Exotic Companion Mammal practice through the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners (ABVP).
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