SARAH SINGLETON chats to Dr Tom Dutton, a vet who takes care of our most exotic pets

If you have a sickly skunk, a poorly parakeet or a frog that has swallowed something strange, a specialist Swindon animal hospital is ready to help.

While many of us have more usual pets, such as cats and dogs, those who choose exotic animals, including birds. amphibians and reptiles, need vets with a different field of knowledge and expertise.

No two days are alike for Dr Tom Dutton and his team at Great Western Exotics – they never know from one day to the next what poorly beast might need their care and attention.

And now they have a new reptile ward – one of only a few in the country – they are all set to give tortoises, lizards, snakes and frogs the best chance of recovery from ill health.

“We have eight thermostatically controlled enclosures for reptiles,” Tom said. He explained that cold-blooded animals were particularly reliant on warm temperatures to recover from treatment, and they needed heat to metabolise drugs and recover from anaesthetics.

“Temperature is very important. If they aren’t warm enough the recovery just stalls – they can almost re-anaesthetise.”

The hospital for exotic animals, in the County Business Park off Shrivenham Road, serves patients from as far afield as Wales, Norfolk, Scotland and Cornwall.

Vets all over the country refer to them for specialist knowledge, and people needing treatment for their exotic animals do not always have easy access to 24/7 vets with the necessary expertise.

GWE is also the contracted vet for a number of zoological collections and wildlife rescue organisations.

A bearded dragon is recovering from an operation to treat his eye, when we visit. He is recovering in a warm enclosure in the reptile room.

“They are one of the most commonly kept exotics, and eye issues are quite common,” Dr Dutton says.

We also meet a tiny dart frog. It turns out frogs often come in needing treatment for fractures, and to remove foreign bodies such as stones and marbles – which they sometimes eat by mistake.

GWE is also a specialist in avian medicine, offering residencies for vets wishing to gain specialist expertise when it comes to caring for birds.

Tom took up such a residency at GWE and is now an avian consultant, supervising the only UK-based European College of Zoological medicine avian residency programme. He also lectures internationally.

The team of four vets and five veterinary nurses are specialists in their field. The nurses all have post-graduate qualifications in caring for exotic animals.

Around 60 per cent of the animals they treat are birds, with a mix of small mammals and reptiles making up the rest. They have an avian ward, an isolation ward, one for raptors and carnivores (such as ferrets) and one for small mammals.

“Basically anything that wants to eat anything in the small mammal ward is kept separately,” Tom explains.

They even have skunks on their client list – which, perhaps surprisingly, are sometimes kept by Swindon residents as pets. Tom said it was against the law to remove their scent glands, so handling an anxious poorly skunk could result in staff being sprayed.

“Skunks do need space, but they are very trainable, intelligent animals,” he says.

The caseload for reptiles is increasing.

“Owners of reptiles are more aware of specialist vets’ and actually search them out. Also, reptile medicine is rapidly developing. There is more we can do and more we know, so there are increasingly complex treatments. They may also need longer periods in hospital for these treatments.”

As well as the popular bearded dragons, the vets see many tortoises, leopard geckos, monitors and various species of snake. As tortoises are preparing for their winter hibernation, many are brought in for health checks.

Tom himself kept reptiles as a teenager and at university, and his colleague Dr Tariq Abou-Zahr is a keen herpetologist, who keeps a range of reptiles at home and is involved in conservation projects.

“We enjoy the variety of species coming through the door, the different medical problems and personalities.”

He confirms that reptiles do indeed have personalities.

“I know it is always tempting to anthropomorphise animals, but bearded dragons do seem to actively seek out interactions with people.”

He reckons bearded dragons, leopard geckos and corn snakes make the best reptile pets for novice owners.

“Their requirements are fairly easy to meet in captivity,” he said. “It’s difficult to say if they enjoy being handled, but some do seem to seek it. These species are relatively hardy, and have been kept and bred for the longest.

“If you are thinking of keeping a reptile, it is important to seek out advice before embarking. There are some good resources on reptile keeping. I would encourage people to think about it carefully. Reptiles are often long-lived, and they take time, and are a financial commitment. You have to make a significant outlay for the correct living environment.”

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