Taking a Walk on the Wild Side
With Dr. Angela Lennox
Midwest Veterinary Conference Preview Series See All Episodes »
Admit it: You always dreamed about caring for exotic animals, even if you didn’t end up working at your local zoo or wildlife center. On today’s episode, get a glimpse into life as an exotic animal veterinarian—and a sneak peek at the 2023 Midwest Veterinary Conference!
Dr. Angela Lennox joins us on this episode to preview her MVC sessions in the Pet Animal Exotics track, which will focus on exotic companion mammal medicine. But that’s not all she works with! Listen in to hear her stories about treating everything from hamsters to tigers.
Registration for the 2023 Midwest Veterinary Conference is open! Featuring 300+ hours of live and on-demand CE in 25 tracks, 75 expert speakers, and more than 100 exhibitors, this is another event you won’t want to miss!
DVM, DABVP, DECZM
A graduate of Purdue, Dr. Lennox owns the Avian and Exotic Animal Clinic of Indianapolis and is a diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners and European College of Zoological Medicine
Learn More »
Mia Cunningham: Good morning. How are you doing today?
Angela Lennox: Doing good. Everything’s okay. It’s early, but, you know, so far good.
Krysten Bennett: Well, thank you very much for joining us today. Why don’t we start off with learning a little bit about you? Can you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your background?
AL: Yeah. Hi, I’m Dr. Angela Lennon of the Avian and Exotic Animal Clinic in Indianapolis. Our practice is exclusively exotic animal, and we’re established I understand that we were established sometime in 1985. I was not a veterinarian then, and it has grown and grown and grown every year. There seems to be no end to the number of people who really want high-level quality service for their exotic pets.
MC: What inspired your interest in exotic animal medicine initially?
AL: Well, I was a wildlife rehabilitator in high school, believe it or not. I was licensed in the state of Indiana. And so that was a lot of opportunity to work with injured birds and injured raccoons and things that were a little bit kind of different. I was working with some other rehabilitators, but senior year in veterinary school, one of the anatomy professors, Nicole Van der Hayden, was running on the side, probably one of the first in the United States remote exotics clinics, where she was treating just birds. She would go to people’s house and treat birds, and she said, oh, come along with me. And so I started kind of hanging out and watching this, and she developed it, and then it became freestanding. Then she developed a clinic in Indianapolis. I worked one year in a dog and cat practice and realized, man, this is just, you know, this is not it. I really missed (working with exotics). So I called her and I said, Will you hire me? And she was kind of quiet for a minute. She was sure, okay. Just like that.
So I started doing all exotics my second year out of school, and by my third or fourth year out of school, I was a practice owner—which is not the trajectory most people take. And doing this with my children. I had my first child in vet school, and so what I did was part time. The kids came with me most of the time, and my husband worked at home, so we were able to manage the whole family and the whole veterinary thing in kind of a very unique way. And I didn’t actually work full time until all my children were in school all day. So I’ve been very lucky and fortunate that that sort of happened. Yeah.
MC: Thank you for sharing that.
KB: Do you find that there are a lot more pet owners who have exotic pets these days?
AL: That’s an interesting question. If you look at the AVMA pet ownership statistics, it does seem to indicate some increases in a lot of exotics, whereas some may be going down—for instance, bird ownership. But I really think what’s going on is more and more people are discovering that there are veterinarians who will see these pets. So yes, there’s more, but there’s also more that more folks that are deciding they really love these pets and they want the same level of care as for their dog and cat. Because years ago when we started, the biggest comment we’d get when somebody would come in with their rabbit and said, I had no idea anyone would ever see this animal. It was like a big learning curve.
KB: I’m curious: In the COVID pandemic, with people having so much trouble getting in to see veterinarians just for their cats and dogs, I imagine it’s probably even more difficult for exotics because there’s probably not as many exotic veterinarians out there.
AL: Absolutely. COVID just did a number on us like it did on everyone else. I think a lot of what happened was many of the dog and cat veterinarians who were just overwhelmed decided to make that choice that, we’re just going to not see the exotics that we did. So suddenly the case numbers just shot through the roof, and we went from four veterinarians to six veterinarians and the number of staff members were in a facility that’s too small. We need a new facility based on what happened to us during COVID.
Also, a couple of the universities have closed their exotic programs. I’m not sure why, it probably each is an individual reason, but some of them weren’t too far from us. So we’ve ended up now seeing pet owners that are coming from as far away as Canada and Michigan and Ohio and Kentucky and all the states around because there’s just not that many people doing that level of care.
KB: Wow. So you guys are pretty busy.
AL: Yeah, I’ve never seen anything like this in my 30 years of practice. I have not ever seen anything quite like this. But we’re doing fine, we’re doing well, we’ve got people, we have a good team philosophy, a good team here and we’re surviving and actually thriving. But I would not like to see it grow like that every year.
KB: Yes, that would probably be a little overwhelming.
AL: Exactly. Yeah.
KB: It’s amazing the ripple effects that the pandemic has had on everything. But I digress. So, Dr. Lennox, you are speaking at the 2023 Midwest Veterinary Conference in February. I know it’s far away, but it will be here before we know it.
AL: Absolutely will be.
KB: We just wanted to have you on to introduce our listeners to you and kind of get them excited about your sessions. So could you tell us a little bit about what you’re going to be talking about during the pet animal exotics track at the MVC?
AL: I am speaking about a lot of things that are very important to our practice. A lot of these things have made huge differences in how we handle these exotic pets. There’s things I learned from other people, we kind of used and tweaked for our purposes and would just love to teach these.
The biggest one is how to mitigate anesthetic risk for exotic mammal species. Many people—and I hear this from owners and veterinarians—that they have trouble with anesthesia. They don’t want to anesthetize a hamster or a guinea pig because most of them die, but the truth is they don’t. These are animals that, in the laboratory, handle anesthesia so well. We just need to, in our practice, take all the steps that we do to mitigate risk in dogs and cats, apply these to the exotics, and we find that the risk is not nearly as high as people think it is in our practice. We have a survey that was done on 1,200 guinea pigs to establish our own in clinic anesthetic risk, and it’s in the 2% to 3% rate. That’s good. And people can do this. We’re not doing anything that a clinician just starting out can’t do. So those are the kinds of things we want to share.
We talk about different ways to do elective altering, spays and neutering. There’s not just one way to do it, there are multiple ways in each species. We need to select the correct method that’s best for that species.
And then palliative care is a real hot topic in dog and cat medicine, hospice and palliative care. So we’ve been able to take some of the great things that are being done in dogs and cats and kind of apply them to our exotic species and a few more.
KB: Sounds great. You touched on this a little bit with the surgical altering methods but is there anything else that you want to highlight that might be particularly interesting or new methodologies, new research, anything like that?
AL: Absolutely. So, for guinea pigs and some of the other rodents, we have found that doing a flank approach rather than a traditional ventral midline is easier, and they tolerate the surgery, and the recovery period is much faster. And that’s really interesting, because that’s not something that we’re really taught here in the United States. In Europe, many dog and cat surgeries are done using the flank approach, and it’s found to have the same kind of benefits. I’m not sure why we’re really not kind of getting hold of that here in the United States. And then neutering some of the larger rodents is a little technically difficult and for a lot of anatomical reasons. But an abdominal castration approach is relatively simple and a great alternative for some of these guys too. So it’s just thinking outside of the box, and we found some of these things to be very appropriate.
KB: Interesting. And I see you’re also speaking on dentistry of exotic companion mammals, which is intriguing to me, thinking about a hamster getting a dental exam or a cleaning. How does that work? What kind of animals do you see for dentistry?
AL: That’s a very good question, because typically when we think of veterinary dentistry, we’re thinking about the canine and feline model where their teeth do not continually grow. And that’s kind of simple. That’s how we’re taught. Suddenly in exotics, we have a whole class of animals—rabbits and rodents—whose teeth continually grow. So if there’s anything at all wrong with that particular critter, that will alter the anatomy, that will cause elongation and all sorts of problems, including pain, as those teeth start to grow and enter soft tissue space. So anything that alters occlusion—and that could be a dietary thing. And there’s not wearing because those teeth are kept in place by the action of the tooth upon the tooth, so it has to be perfect. So we even find things like otitis in guinea pigs and facial nerve paralysis and altering of the chewing mechanisms: All of a sudden you have these animals whose teeth are overgrowing and there’s no room in the mouth. So untreated, this is generally death by severe pain and starvation. So it’s a whole different model and very life threatening for these guys.
And of course, we need all sorts of different crazy equipment, and we have to be able to get inside the teeny tiny little mouths, and we have to be able to work with rotating burs and dental equipment to get in there and to reshape these teeth. So it’s quite a learning curve. It’s very, very interesting, and it’s one of the most common procedures we do every day. There’s going to be at least one dental and I know some days I walk in when everything is a dental. It’s very interesting, but we like it.
KB: So it’s more like an emergency procedure or something that’s as needed rather than preventive?
AL: Yes. For this rabbit and rodent group, we’re not generally doing a prophylactic cleaning, because the teeth grow and regenerate so rapidly that tartar and things like that aren’t generally going to be a problem. It could be, but for ours generally, the first time they present, that first time, it’s usually weight loss and food preferences and maybe dysphasia.
But once we get these teeth corrected anatomically, usually what got them into trouble is not correctable. So then they’re on a schedule for a lifetime treatment, and that’s more of an as-needed kind of approach. But yeah, we generally it’s very rare that we pick these up. Sometimes you’ll pick them up on a routine exam or something else, but most of the time we’re going to pick them up when it’s become a problem.
KB: Do you find that—and this may not really apply to you because you are exclusively exotic—but do you find that people are more reluctant to get care for the smaller exotic animals like pocket pets beyond just the physical exam? Some of these procedures may cost exponentially more than the animal itself. And so I would expect a lot of clients to be resistant to spending that kind of money. You know, even with standard canine and feline medicine, it can be hard to get clients to buy into dental care, for example. Do you hear a lot of that for exotic animals as well?
AL: We see ferrets also, and then we’ll have people that have other pet carnivores, and sometimes they’ll get that we really need to clean these teeth up. We will do that—those procedures and extractions and things. It’s just a minority of the practice. And sometimes they’ll accept that. But when you explain to the owner that this dental problem in your rabbit or your rodent is going to lead to starvation, generally they’ll pick to treat. But I will tell you also that it’s a huge commitment. And for some owners, this first-time dental workup—which involves diagnostic imaging and quite a bit, and sometimes we’ll have secondary effects like abscesses—may be a big investment. And then to continue to come in on a regular basis, which could be as often as every three months, sometimes even more, is a big commitment. So in those cases, some people will choose humane euthanasia, which is a good choice. Just waiting in the middle for them to die of these consequences is not acceptable. But euthanasia is not a bad choice if they cannot make that commitment.
KB: I’m also curious, as a side note, I see you have a dog. What other kinds of pets do you have at home?
AL: Well, that’s very funny because my pets are traditional: One dog, one cat, and one horse. And the reason for that is I play with my exotic pets all day long, and when I go home, that’s okay, yeah, I don’t need to have one at home. So that is a little interesting.
KB: Yeah, that’s not what I was expecting, but it makes sense.
AL: I will tell you, exotic pets are pretty cool and they’re great and they’re wonderful. But the best pet that has the best pet qualities is the dog. They have wonderful pet qualities. They have been bred to be pets.
And then here we have folks calling us and saying they want a monkey. And we have to go through the whole litany of why the pet quality of the monkey does not match the pet quality of the dog and doesn’t really turn out to be a child surrogate as they kind of hope they would. So there’s a lot of education in our job and a lot of discouraging people. If somebody calls and says, “I want to get a cougar,” my staff immediately goes, “Okay, let’s schedule you for a free pre-purchase consult with any of my six doctors.” And they just do a very compassionate and very calm—not like, “What are you thinking? Why would you think such a thing?” But (they explain), “Here’s kind of what happens. Here’s what we see.” A lot of these end up being relinquished. Veterinary care is difficult because your pet raccoon is very cute when he’s little, but when he comes to see us as an adult, he will go in the squeeze cage and be sedated. Can’t touch him. This is so problematic, so we spend a lot of time in the education and let’s redirect you. I think the funniest one is one of our staff members talked a lady out of a monkey to a chinchilla.
KB: Nice work.
AL: I know, that’s just—wow. So if we can accomplish those little things like that, that would be great.
KB: Does Indiana have a wild animal law?
AL: Yes, this is individual state stuff. The federal government regulates migratory birds like hawks and owls. That’s why, I’m sorry Harry Potter fans, we can’t all have owls. It just can’t happen. But on a state level, Indiana is very permissive. And there aren’t specific regulations except for our native wildlife. If you were to go catch a raccoon out of the wild, we really can’t do that without proper permitting. But if the guy wants to go and buy a tiger, he can. There will be some permitting, but you can do it. Now, I’m not a big fan of that, but that is the way it is. That we provide care for whatever pet that people have. With the exception of we’re not really comfortable working with venomous reptiles or poisonous reptiles.
KB: But tigers, somebody could walk in with a tiger.
AL: They don’t walk in with a tiger. The tiger comes in a large cage, and then we work with it, so we can we’re set up to do that. It’s not a preference. It takes a whole afternoon and lots of people and safety and the whole bit. But sometimes with a carrier, they may have a baby servo, which is a much smaller cat. But they all have to come in an escape proof container of some kind. If they can’t, then they can’t be our client. They have to go find somewhere else to go.
KB: Very smart. I’m just picturing somebody with a tiger on a leash walking into your clinic. Doesn’t work that way!
AL: No, absolutely no. He’ll eat the other patients! (Laughs) It’s just not safe. I get pushback on that. Especially with large, exotic birds. They want to walk in with them on their shoulder, but they have to be in an escape-proof carrier for their safety. You never know who else’s pet’s going to escape. We’ve got so many odd things going on that everything has to be in an enclosure. We’ve lost some clients over that, too, and that’s okay.
KB: Lost as in they went to another practice, or lost as in they went to another plane of existence?
AL: Both ways. Lost to another practice, and then we also have the heartbreaking story of somebody walking in with a baby African gray parrot who was spooked in the parking lot, flew to the ground, and another person hit the baby bird and ran over it.
KB: Oh my gosh.
AL: I know. I hate to say that. Still very emotional to think about it, but that could have been prevented by a carrier.
KB: Wow. Yeah. Rules exist for a reason.
AL: Yes, they do.
MC: I’m just intrigued. This is really fascinating.
AL: It is. I still go to work every day, and I can’t believe I get paid to do this job because it’s just so interesting. I mean, everybody has bad days and burnout days, but wow. I still really love what I do.
MC: That’s really great.
AL: Something different almost every day.
KB: I bet.
MC: Did any of your kids follow in your footsteps?
AL: My oldest is my practice manager. She’s been with us for a long time. And the second is a professional videographer who works for us. She got a degree at Purdue in videography and does a beautiful job with whatever we want. During COVID, we’d say, “We need to show this owner how to give an injection to a chicken.” And she made a beautiful video. Beautiful video of showing its anatomy; we put graphic overlays of where the muscles are. And then we kept all that so we don’t have to repeat it. That’s one of the big benefits of COVID: Our education video and instructional library video is huge, and we’re using them over and over again. Need to give your rat some medicine? Watch this video.
KB: And that’s a perfect segue into our final question for you. Where can attendees find and connect with you online prior to and after the conference?
AL: Well, certainly there’s a Facebook channel. I’m an old person; I’m not going to talk to you much about Facebook. But I will tell you what I know. Exoticvetclinic.com is the website. If you go up to the education and the video links, the entire video library is there. We would be most pleased if any veterinarian wanted to use any of these educational care videos, handling videos, education videos on how to prepare for the veterinary visit, how to give medication, how to support feed. We’d be pleased to find that you were using these. That would be great.
KB: What a great resource. That’s awesome. Anything else that you want to share with our listeners and potential attendees?
AL: I’m glad to come to Ohio, mainly—well, for a lot of reasons. And the big one is it’s a short drive!
KB: That’s convenient, especially in February. You don’t want to be driving too far.
AL: Exactly. And I have some friends there that I’m looking forward to connect with, so it’ll be nice to kind of stay local instead of going really far and changing time zone.
KB: Will this be your first time at MVC?
AL: Yeah, actually, yes, it will be.
KB: We’ll show you a good time.
AL: Good. Can’t wait.