Building your exotic animal caseload (Proceedings)
Exotic animal medicine is an exciting and rapidly growing part of companion animal practice. Exotics represent roughly 25-30% of the companion animal market for veterinary services. Pet owners readily seek out veterinary care for birds, small exotic mammals, reptiles and amphibians.
Generally speaking, the most popular exotic pets meet some need that dogs and cats do not fill: more compact, low maintenance, entirely indoor-pet, can be left alone for long periods, novelty, hypoallergenic, able to talk, etc. Awareness of exotic animals has been enhanced by cable television and the internet, and the marketplace has responded so that birds and exotic animals are easier to obtain, house and care for properly.
Veterinarians have been slow to capitalize on this segment of the pet population. Caring for exotics can provide a unique service that sets a veterinary practice apart. Today's vet school graduates are often eager to pursue this niche, and there are more opportunities than ever today for learning about exotics. Practitioners with an interest in exotics can quickly get up to speed by going to continuing education for these species. The good news is that you don't have to be an expert in all areas of exotic animal medicine to begin caring for them. The key is making exotic animal owners aware you have something that they really need.Marketing
Properly naming your practice plays an important role in building public confidence. To do so, a stand-alone exotic animal hospital will usually incorporate the terms "Avian", "Bird", or "Exotic" into the practice name. Similarly, a companion animal hospital that offers competent avian and exotic animal care should distinguish that service with a name that effectively communicates the level of expertise offered (i.e. "Westover Animal Hospital and Exotic Animal Clinic", or "Pet Bird and Exotic Animal Service of Westover Animal Hospital"). Having a "separation" of the exotic practice from your dog/cat practice is less threatening to your referral base, is more appealing to your exotics clientele, and allows you to position yourself as the avian and exotic animal expert in your market.
Let your current clients know that you see exotics. Your practice logo should communicate that birds, reptiles, and small exotic mammals are seen at your hospital. The reception area should contain artwork and products that reflect your interest in exotic animal medicine. Place exotic animal brochures and client education materials in the exam room and on the countertops. There should me reminders that you treat exotics throughout the office.
Your exam room computer can passively communicate to clients which species you treat and what services you offer. Place a number of your best, most interesting photographs together in a single folder. Then, use the computer's screensaver to play a slideshow of those photographs. For Windows XP this would be: <Settings>, <Control Panel>, <Display>, <Screen Saver>, <MyPicturesSlideshow>; then, <Browse> and select the folder of pictures you have compiled. If you want to get really fancy, you can produce *.jpeg images on presentation software (e.g. PowerPoint) advertising specials, new products or services, and include these in your slideshow folder, as well.
Triage for exotic animals requires skill. In general, birds and exotics are much sicker than dogs and cats are before they begin to show signs of disease. Compounding this, many exotic pets do not get the daily close attention that traditional pets do. Often, exotic animal owners have had to call 2-3 veterinary practices before they find one that will treat their pet. As a result, many pet birds and exotics present in advanced states of disease.
A high percentage of avian and exotic cases present as emergencies. Practitioners should train the front desk to properly triage cases and schedule exotic pets accordingly. Exotic animal illness should be addressed immediately; waiting to be seen can be detrimental to the patient. If time will not allow an emergency same-day appointment, a referral should be offered.
The majority of problems that arise with exotics are husbandry related, have simple solutions, and are easily managed by practitioners whose primary caseload are dogs and cats. For more difficult cases, an in depth understanding of exotic animal physiology is needed. If this expertise is not available, a referral should be considered.