Veterinary Insight into the World of Reptiles
February 19, 2021
If you are reading this post, you are probably wondering who I am and why my blog post title mentions reptiles. Well, I’ll introduce myself! Hey, my name’s Kris and I’m a phase 4 vet student at OVC. There are plenty of posts dedicated to getting into vet school, and though it’s an important aspect of my life, instead, I want to focus on my experience with exotic animal species. My journey to veterinary medicine was pretty similar to many of my colleagues, however it was not necessarily the same to get into vet school.
In first grade, my friends and I wanted to be vets when we grew up. As we grew older, many of my friends changed passions, but my love for veterinary medicine never faltered. After completing 3 years of undergrad, volunteering, and submitting my first application, I was accepted into the OVC class of 2021. The volunteer and application process really and truly made me think critically about this future profession—far more than I had ever before. I went from believing that veterinary medicine was a job where I would be playing with puppies and kittens all day, to realizing my impact and how I could do so much more.
In my first year at the University of Guelph, I met a friend who told me about a summer internship program at Reptilia Zoo. Prior to this experience, I had never really worked or even thought about working with reptiles. However, I kept thinking about how I couldn’t pass up such an invaluable experience, so I decided to apply.
I completed the 4-month unpaid internship and it was one of the most career-changing experiences in my life. Working with reptile species ranging from snakes, lizards, crocodiles and turtles brought me an appreciation and understanding for these animals that I had never had for any other species. I was able to appreciate how misunderstood and feared these animals are. When I started the internship, I had poor preconceived notions of what reptile handling and husbandry (care, food, and shelter) would be like. To my surprise, this experience was fantastic. Initially I felt that these animals were scary and solely survival based, but throughout time I got to know each animal’s personality. These animals surprised me in ways you could never imagine. The internship was not without hard work, but I developed skills that I would use for the rest of my career.
Education and outreach became a part of my goal as I continued working with Reptilia. Being able to watch and mediate the shift in visitors’ perspectives, from being deathly afraid of snakes, to learning so much that their fear for these animals dissipated to the point of touching them, was one of the most rewarding aspects of the job. Along with this crucial experience, I was exposed to many of the health concerns exotic animal veterinarians are faced with from husbandry to trauma and infectious disease. It was during this job experience where I realized my future career needed to have impact on the health and wellbeing of reptiles in the form of both exotic animal medicine and public education.
After an internship and 3 additional years of working with Reptilia, I was finally able to start my goal of working with exotic animal species in a veterinary setting. During my first year of veterinary school, I started looking for opportunities to expand my practical reptile knowledge into something more medical. I was able to work with an incredible vet at the Toronto Zoo, where I assisted with anesthesia research in ball pythons. This experience was unforgettable and strengthened my husbandry and care knowledge into something more medically based. My experience at the Toronto Zoo demonstrated to me that my passion for veterinary medicine and love of reptiles could be established into a career, with additional research allowing me to incorporate education into my future as well.
For example, some of the biggest differences with working with reptiles as opposed to small animal or large animal medicine is how vast reptiles really are. Canines are a species, felines are a species, but reptiles are a class. Treating 2 different dog breeds is still treating 2 dogs but treating a ball python and a red-tailed boa constrictor are 2 different species of animals. With a different species comes a whole heap of anatomic and physiologic differences that need to be considered for medical management, and these differences may not even be understood. This lack of foundational understanding of reptilians has resulted in very little advanced research in the field, and the research that has been done tends to be centered around a more common species like the ball python. Reptile veterinary medicine is a field of extrapolation, attempting to identify a better-researched species of reptile that may be most closely related to the species you’re treating.
Reptilian veterinary medicine is also a field primarily directed at husbandry, care, and prevention. This in part is due to the fact that reptiles are so good at hiding their health conditions, making it really difficult to know if something is wrong until the condition is highly developed. This poor detection makes it difficult to provide appropriate treatment, as treating a bacterial infection after it’s already walled off is a lot different than treating a bacterial infection when you’re first starting to see respiratory symptoms. These were just a few of the differences that really became apparent to me while working with exotic animal species.
Now that I’ve explained some of the ways I was able to get involved with these incredible animals, I want to share some key lessons I learned throughout my journey. When it comes to veterinary medicine as a profession, there really is so much you can do. Though the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) program is primarily directed towards establishing new veterinary healthcare providers in areas such as small, large, mixed and exotic animal medicine, there are many DVM alumni working outside of clinical veterinary medicine. Some DVM graduates work in corporate fields with food companies to help formulate diets, and other DVM alumni work at zoos exclusively as zoo animal vets. Additionally, many DVMs also work with laboratories to ensure adequate medical treatment and welfare for laboratory research animals such as mice, rabbits, pigs, and chimpanzees. There are even DVMs working exclusively in academic settings designating their lives to research, emergency animal medicine, referrals, post-mortem clinical pathology, and teaching their future colleagues about this incredible profession we get to call ours.
With that being said, if you’re looking at pursuing this profession, I urge you to step out of your comfort zone and experience different aspects of the field. Take some time working with reptiles, exotic animal species, large animal species or even in academia, because you never really know what you’re going to love until you give it a try. If anyone is ever conflicted or wants more information on how to approach this incredible career I’m always available by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for taking the time to read this post and I hope this helped solidify and expand your understanding for the veterinary profession.
Kristopher Afshaun Zaman
OVC Class of 2021