In Unlikely Companions: The Adventures of an Exotic Animal Doctor (Or, What Friends, Feathered, Furred, and Scaled Have Taught Me About Life and Love), veterinarian Laurie Hess, DVM, takes readers along for a week in the life of what goes into taking care of a variety of different pets.
The book documents Hess's care of animals big and small, everyday and unusual, including one particular visit from a snake and the pet parents that were a little bit out of their depths.
In anticipation of the release of Unlikely Companions, which is available on November 1, read this petMD exclusive excerpt below:
“As you can see, Pinky is a bit more than we bargained for,” said Jim as he let his six-foot-long Nile monitor out of an extra-large gym bag.
Wearing a pressed plaid button-down shirt and crisp Dockers, Jim was handling his pet reptile with yellow oven mitts. As soon as he set the big lizard down on the floor, the animal began to thrash about, whipping his tail left and right and extending his long reptilian tongue nearly a foot in every direction. His sharp claws raked across the tile floor. Despite his energy and size, he didn’t look healthy; his skin had peeled in many places, and his coloring looked off.
Many species of lizards make popular pets. Iguanas are probably the most popular of the larger lizards because they bond closely with their owners. Nile monitors, on the other hand, tend to be quite feisty and formidable creatures, and, in all honesty, they don’t make the best pets. They’re aggres- sive, strong, and not at all shy about using their powerful bite. In order to manage pet owners’ expectations about how their interactions will go with a Nile monitor as it gets older, I’ve been known to say, “If you’re going to bring home a Nile mon- itor, be sure to have a first aid kit at hand.”
I’d expected Pinky to be grumpy, but I hadn’t been pre- pared for him to be so big. Nile monitors can grow as long as seven feet, but I’d never seen one this big in captivity. Pinky was the size of a small alligator.
“I promise you,” Jim’s girlfriend, Becky, said, giggling ner- vously, “he wasn’t even half this size when we bought him.”
She backed away just as Pinky’s three-foot-long tail whipped around in her direction.
“He was just the cutest little thing running up and down my arm.” She made a flitting motion with her fingertips on her white cashmere cardigan.
Because this was my first introduction to Pinky, I stood back initially. His owners were sure to be more familiar with their reptile’s particular moods than I was, so I watched as Jim attempted to corner the animal and pick him up off the floor. He squatted down low and extended his oven-mitt-clad hands as he attempted to back Pinky against a wall. Pinky hissed and lunged away from him. When Jim tried again unsuccess- fully, I buzzed Marnie to assist me. We needed all hands—and mitts—on deck with this one.
“We both had gargoyle geckos as first pets,” Becky ex- plained. “I guess you could say we’re natural lizard lovers.” She smiled adoringly in Jim’s direction.
Though gargoyle geckos and Nile monitors are both in the lizard family, they’re worlds apart. Gargoyle geckos are found on the island of New Caledonia, near Australia. Nile moni- tors are found in Africa. In disposition, they’re even further removed. Geckos are gentle little lizards that I recommend as first pets for small children because they’re low maintenance and easygoing. Nile monitors are not at all beginner reptiles. They can be obstinate and sometimes dangerous, and they’re almost always big. They really don’t belong in a traditional home unless the owners are very experienced reptile handlers. I imagined Jim and Becky at their local pet store, unknowingly selecting Pinky from a tank of young Nile monitors.
“They didn’t look this large in the pictures,” she said, making conversation.
I guessed that Becky was referring to the colorful book- let pet stores often provide with purchase, titled something like “Your Nile Monitor and You.” I’d seen my share of those free handouts—full of glossy color photographs but light on relevant information. “Your Nile Monitor and You” probably didn’t mention the room-sized enclosure Jim and Becky would need once Pinky reached his full size, which they would need to outfit with branches for him to climb, large rocks on which he could rub off shedding skin, a shallow pool for bathing, cli- mate control, and UV light exposure for ten to twelve hours a day. This reptile was high maintenance.
Jim finally managed to grab Pinky firmly behind the neck and wrangle him into his arms. Becky cooed, “Our baby.”
Except that Pinky could no longer be held like a baby. Jim was struggling to keep the large animal from wriggling out of his grip. Beads of sweat formed on his upper lip and at his hairline. Pinky whipped his tail and jerked his head from side to side.
“Can you, um, grasp the middle?” he asked me desperately.
Together, Jim and I carried Pinky over to the examination table just as Marnie entered the room with a large blanket. I secured Pinky by covering him in the blanket and rolling him up like a fifty-pound burrito.
“He’s a live one,” Marnie said under her breath. “Reminds me of Tybalt.”
“Let’s hope for a different outcome,” I whispered back.
Tybalt, a seven-foot-long iguana, had become a legend at the hospital the day he wriggled out of my arms and vaulted off the X-ray table, and—snap!—two entire feet of his bright green tail fell right off. The broken half skittered to the floor and slid under the examination table.
“Grab his body!” I’d screamed at Marnie. “I’ll get the tail!”
In general, lizards should be handled gently and held under the body when picked up. They should never be picked up by their tails because, as we’d just experienced, the tail can break off. More accurately, their tails don’t really break; they detach from the body. Referred to as “tail autonomy,” it’s a common defense mechanism for many lizards. If they feel especially threatened, they will distract a predator by detaching their tail. The separated tail thrashes and wiggles about, increasing the lizard’s chances of escaping to safety. I’d seen geckos perform this trick time and again, but never an iguana the size of Tybalt. Whereas the smaller gecko’s tail grows back fairly quickly, I feared it would be years before Tybalt’s grew back, if at all, and even then it would likely be an entirely different color from the rest of his body. I couldn’t help but think of one of Brett’s favorite childhood books, The Mixed-Up Chameleon by Eric Carle, in which a cha- meleon wishes to be like other animals in the zoo and ends up with the head of an elephant, the neck of a giraffe, and the tail of a fox. I could only guess what Tybalt might look like should his tail ever return.
“He's starting to settle,” I said to Jim and Becky. “I’m going to remove the blanket now.” I readjusted my grip and carefully examined the areas of skin Pinky hadn’t shed yet. I noted that his skin was an orange-brown color, not the bright green it should have been. This color change could stem from a num- ber of factors: inappropriate diet, the wrong environmental temperature, not enough UV light.
Whenever I examine an animal whose behavior or health status has changed abruptly, I ask its owners questions about any changes in the family, any recent moves or events that might have disrupted a regular routine. In veterinary school, students learn to look for the most obvious causes for a disor- der before considering the more obscure possibilities. It’s called differential diagnosis—moving from one possible cause to an- other, taking into account all of the animal’s symptoms. The saying “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras” reminds us veterinarians not to discount the obvious when looking for the cause of a problem—although, as an exotic animal vet, I am inclined to think about zebras before horses.
“Has anything changed lately with his care?” I asked.
“He recently outgrew his tank,” Jim said, “so we converted the guest room.”
“Jim completely transformed it,” Becky said, beaming, “with peat moss and a bunch of plants from Lowe’s. He even bought one of those long metal tubs people plant tomatoes in. Pinky uses it as a bathtub.” I briefly imagined the guest room in my own house converted into a tropical wonderland. It sounded kind of magical, except—
“Except”—Jim sighed—“now that he’s out of his cli- mate-controlled tank, we have to crank the central heating throughout the entire house to keep him warm enough. It’s like a sauna.”
Becky giggled again. “More like a hot yoga class.”
Just thinking about the heat seemed to elevate Jim’s body temperature. He wiped another bead of sweat from his upper lip.
When it comes to exotic pets—feathered, furry, or scaly— the temperature of their world is often critical, so providing the proper climate to help keep the animal healthy is paramount. Perhaps more than any other type of pet, reptiles have specific temperature needs and requirements. Most captive lizards re- quire enclosures with a warm basking zone, often in the range of ninety to one hundred degrees. This often means adding supplemental heating elements such as heat bulbs and heating pads to enclosures when seasonal temperatures fall and remov- ing them when they climb again. If Jim and Becky were turning up the household thermostat to match this level of heat, Pinky was probably comfortable, but they were likely roasting.
“And our heating bill is astronomical.”
Becky chimed in, “The heat we can get used to, but”— she looked over at Jim—“now that we no longer have a guest room, we’re not sure where to put my parents.”
“They’ll be visiting from Santa Fe for the holidays,” Jim explained.
“Well, then they’ll be used to the heat,” I joked. “Are your parents reptile lovers like you? New Mexico sure has its fair share of them.”
Becky and Jim exchanged looks of concern.
“Not really,” Becky said slowly. “They’re more like . . . cat people.”
“Ah,” I said, understanding. “They like animals that cuddle up on your lap?”
Becky nodded just as Pinky broke loose from the grip I had around his throat. I reached toward him, and he lunged at my hand—his way of warning me that he no longer wanted to be restrained, or probably held at all. “Well, if that’s the case,” I said, sizing up the frightened lizard, “then Pinky may come as a bit of a surprise. Have you considered putting them up in your nearest Comfort Inn?”
Image via Da Capo Press