Many of the exotic species we deal with have evolved to mask their illness to avoid predation. Although this method of self-preservation
is valuable to these animals in the wild, it can make disease diagnosis in captive animals a challenge for the veterinarian.
Historically, mammalian diagnostic methods have been used to characterize pathogens in exotic species. Unfortunately, some
of these diagnostic assays may not have been sensitive or specific enough to characterize non-mammalian pathogens. Veterinarians
have also been limited by the amount of research specifically focused on the identification of pathogens from these animals.
Historically, bacterial diseases were considered the primary/only pathogen associated with exotic species because microbiological
culture was the only diagnostic test available to veterinarians. In the past two decades, there has been a movement in the
scientific community to develop diagnostic assays specifically tailored to diagnosing diseases in exotic animal patients.
The purpose of this presentation is to introduce veterinarians to the diagnostic assays that are currently available for exotic
animal patients and discuss the advantages and disadvantages associated with these assays.
Historically, microbiological culture has been used to detect bacterial organisms from various tissues and excretions. Although culture has been considered the gold standard for detecting microbes, test characteristics, including sensitivity
and specificity, are unknown. In general, culture is considered to have a moderate sensitivity and high specificity. There
are a number of parameters that can affect the reliability of culture, including method of specimen collection, quantity or
type of sample collected, temporal or seasonal variation in shedding, and method of culture. An additional limitation of microbiologic
culture is the time required to confirm a diagnosis, which may exceed 48 h to isolate an organism and 96 h to confirm the
organism with biochemical tests. The delay imposed by culture techniques may defer initiation of appropriate antimicrobial
therapy and control procedures. Culture of certain microbes can be difficult, if not impossible, based on our current knowledge
of growth requirements. The inability to confirm the presence of a fastidious organism can influence the management of a clinical
Necropsy is generally regarded as the gold standard for disease diagnosis in veterinary medicine. However, this diagnostic
method is subject to misclassification. Sample collection during the necropsy may be subject to sampling bias. Macroscopic
lesions are generally sampled without error, whereas microscopic lesions may be overlooked. The number of samples collected
at the necropsy can also affect the outcome. The author has observed two sampling methods among pathologists, those that collect
a series of samples from a single organ and those that collect only one sample from an organ. Microscopic interpretation of
the histologic samples may also be subject to misclassification. One pathologist's interpretation of a histologic lesion may
be vastly different from another pathologist. Although necropsy provides important insight into the disease processes in exotic
animal patients, veterinarians should consider that it is subject to misclassification.
Hemagglutination inhibition assays are used as screening tests for a variety of different pathogenic organisms. In brief,
gander red blood cells are used to measure the ability of serum to protect against agglutination when challenged with a pathogen.
The absence of red blood cell agglutination is considered a positive test result. Hemagglutination inhibition assays are susceptible
to cross-reactions with related organisms. This can make it more difficult to characterize a specific virus within a group
of viruses. Because the HI assay is susceptible to cross-reactions between similar viruses, it may be more useful as a screening
test. Other tests, such as polymerase chain reaction assay, may be more useful for characterizing a specific pathogen among
similarly related pathogens.
The impact of infectious diseases on exotic animal health has created a need for rapid and accurate detection methods for
pathogens from both animal and environmental samples. Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays combine a specific anti-immunoglobulin
with an enzyme to detect a specific microbial antigen or antibody. Benefits of the procedure include speed and low labor requirements
compared to culture. The sensitivity of the ELISA is generally considered to be higher than the sensitivity for culture. Because
the ELISA detects antigen or antibody, it is not necessary for a sample to contain live pathogen. ELISA generally requires
fewer overall organisms for detection than culture. Further research on the diagnostic value of the ELISA as a method to detect
pathogens from exotic animals should be pursued.