Cats, dogs just too ordinary for exotic-animal veterinarian

July 6, 2009

Clad in iguana-patterned medical scrubs, Angela Lennox moves quickly around the clinic laboratory, administering barium to a ferret and ordering a guinea pig X-ray.

From there, she moves to an exam room, taking blood from an unruly bird and diagnosing an injured pet duck—all in the span of about 30 minutes.

The 46-year-old veterinarian doesn't spend her days treating cats and dogs; that grew dull 20 years ago. Instead, she followed her calling to a career as an exotic animal vet.

Staff at Lennox's practice, Avian & Exotic Animal Clinic, cares for as many as 75 animals a week—everything from rabbits to Bengal tigers. More than a dozen received treatment on one recent Thursday, including a 37-year-old parrot with heart disease, a sluggish ferret with low blood sugar, and an iguana suffering seizures because of a lack of UV ray exposure.

Two veterinarians, two technicians and a revolving door of students perform everything from skunk de-scenting to hamster hysterectomies in the one-story house-turned-clinic off of Michigan Road at Interstate 465. Heartening scenes, like a bonded pair of rabbits cleaning each other, offset the occasional dispiriting moments, like a ferret's cancer diagnosis.

"One day is never like the one before it here," Lennox said. "Every day is fresh and new. That's why I got into exotics."

Lennox begins her days at 9 a.m., performing surgeries until about noon—mostly routine spays and neuters—and handling patient appointments in the afternoons. She eats a quick lunch in between as she answers e-mails and phone calls from "pet parents" asking for advice on raising their out-of-the-ordinary companions.

"It would be best if you bring the raccoon in to see us," Lennox tells one concerned owner who has called about a medical issue.

Lennox's clinic will treat any pet imaginable with the exception of dogs, cats, horses and cows. The puppies and kitties are just too ordinary, and the large livestock are left to their own specialists.

A checkup for any species is $48, and other procedures—such as X-rays and blood work—range in price from $100 to $400. The most frequent patients are rabbits, mostly with digestive problems.

With only one other specialized exotic practice in Indianapolis, All Wild Things Animal Hospital on North Keystone Avenue, Lennox doesn't have to worry much about competition. Her clinic's only marketing efforts are its Web site and Yellow Pages ad.

"Our business is 90 percent from word-of-mouth from traditional vets who don't want to treat exotics," Lennox said. "We don't spend a lot of time or have a large advertising budget because we have as much business as we need."

Not all exotic animals are fondly welcomed at the clinic, though. When people adopt undesirable pets—such as macaque monkeys—Lennox tries pushing owners in a different direction.

"Primates are not considered good pets because it's nearly impossible for the private owner to provide for their complex emotional needs, which are met in the wild in a large, social setting," Lennox said. "When owners can't meet these needs, we see monkeys with depression and psychotic behavior, including self-mutilation."

The exotic pets Lennox suggests as ideal are guinea pigs, hamsters and rats because their care is fairly simple and they are not prone to many diseases. Ferrets, rabbits and parrots are also among the most popular. Her daughter owns a 6-year-old rescued hamster named Arlene that survived uterine cancer thanks to a surgery performed by Lennox herself.

"That will be a happy phone call," Lennox said, post-tumor removal. "That could have gone either way."

Lennox is a mother of four girls ranging in age from 11 to 22, so controlling her own work schedule is key. She makes sure she can greet her younger daughters at least twice a week when they get off the school bus.

For many women, such flexibility is one of the draws of veterinary medicine. In fact, every member of Lennox's current staff is female. Veterinary medicine as a profession has experienced a female takeover in the past few years, with nearly 80 percent of all applicants to veterinary schools being women, according to Veterinary Medical College Application Service.

Lennox is a graduate of Purdue University's School of Veterinary Medicine and is a certified avian specialist. To gain a veterinary specialty, graduates can do internships or residencies at clinics specializing in their chosen field of study and then take an exam. Lennox is on a committee to create the first exam for a specialty in exotics.

By Lennox's design, Avian & Exotic Animal Clinic serves as a teaching facility for veterinary and veterinary technician students. She also teaches about once a month at universities and state and national continuing education sessions.

"This is a new growing specialty. People have been treating these animals for a long time, but now we are raising the bar, making [the] standard of care as high as we can," Lennox said. "It used to be, 'Oh, that's a rabbit. We can't do much for it,' but now people expect the same level of care as for cats and dogs."

Indeed, pet owners are becoming increasingly interested in exotics, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. This is due in part to an increasing population, resulting in more pets in general, but Lennox also said living and care requirements of exotics makes them appealing.

"People are moving to smaller homes, and animals that live in cages and don't require walking are becoming increasingly popular," she said.

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