The gap between pet retailers and veterinarians: Zoonosis edition

March 11, 2019
Anissa Fritz, contributing writer

Veterinary professionals weigh in on pet retailers lack of client education for exotic pets.


We asked exotic veterinary professionals why they think pet retailers don't educate clients on the possible risks and diseases that come with owning exotic pets. Here's what they said:

Q: Why don't pet retailers tell clients about the risks that come with owning exotic pets? 

Lack of understanding 

The reasons for this are, of course, multifactorial. Some veterinarians feel that the sale of pets through stores is unethical and hence frown on these practices. Some retailers feel that veterinarians aren't able to understand the nature of their businesses and can cause problems in part due to lack of expertise with the species of concern and their beliefs against the sale of captively bred or retail animals. On the flip side, there are many progressive and informed veterinarians as well as retailers and breeders of these animals who have an excellent working relationships and work together to produce and place these animals in well-informed homes.

Progressive and continual education on both sides of the fence is key.

Progressive and continual education on both sides of the fence is key. Not all people choose to be as informed as they should. Not all sources of information that are obtained are of equal medical and scientific merit, and the misinformation that is so readily available these days can add confusion.The players in progressive educational improvement and consumer protection include veterinarians, breeders, retailers and others, and variability is considerable.

Corporate stores like PetSmart and Petco have overseeing veterinarians who help chart the health screening of animals purchased from vendors in an effort to reduce the prevalence of zoonotic disease concerns, as well as working within their stores to raise the standard of healthcare and education about husbandry and management to the retailers and hopefully their customers. Many private stores also work with veterinarians to ensure that optimal customer education and health management of their animals is optimal.

-Brian Speer, DVM, DABVP, DECZM, Medical Center for Birds, Oakley, California 

No vet visit recommended

Pet retailers don't educate people about habitat. They don't educate about enrichment or quality of life. They don't educate about normal behaviors. Of course, they wouldn't have to educate at all if they would at least tell people to go to the vet. That way we could educate pet owners.

Clients don't come here educated. That's what's missing. I don't expect these corporations to educate the kids that they hire on the frontlines that are selling animals because I think they have high turnover and probably face some major business challenges that don't allow them to do that. But I think that at the bare minimum, pet retailers should direct consumers to exotic veterinarians for education. It's the pet owner's responsibility to do research, and maybe pet retailers feel they are putting their businesses at risk if they tell people that.

At least 90 percent of the animals my practice sees are really sick and brought in as a last-ditch effort. Pet owners often go to the pet store first. It happens all the time. They call the breeders before the vets. They go to the pet store and ask these kids who that are paid minimum wage to sell hamsters what to do with their sick reptile. It's criminal.

-Lorelei D'Avolio, LVT, VTS (Exotics), CVPM, The Center for Avian and Exotic Medicine, New York, New York

It's all about integrity 

Large pet retailers don't  teach their minimum wage employees what Chlamydia and Salmonella infections are. So mostly it's naivety. But listen, I'm not going to try to sell a car and say, “You could die in this vehicle but buy it please!” No one is going to emphasize that. Most people are going to do everything to avoid the negative implications of a transaction.

I've had personal experience with retailers selling birds they know are sick and potentially contagious-the same with small reptiles. What reputable retailer with integrity is going to sell a 1-year-old bird that can live to be 60 to a 70-year-old couple? It's all about integrity. Some retailers aren't honest with the customer about the hazards associated with a particular pet. 

-Don J. Harris, DVM, Avian & Exotic AMC, Miami, Florida 

Asking the wrong questions

Most people aren't informed about the possible diseases when they are getting these animals for obvious reasons. Most retailers don't want to highlight those possibilities because they freak people out and people wouldn't want to buy them. The problem is that most people don't bring exotic animals to a veterinarian either for an initial check-up when they first get them or for routine check ups yearly like they would for a dog or a cat. So if the animal develops zoonosis, the client is really surprised.

How does this affect the patients and clients that come to you?

Lorelei D'Avolio answers ...

Clients come in all the time and they are not prepared for what we tell them and it's awkward because here they are thinking they've been doing a good job for the last 10 years. It's really hard for them to go ahead and do the right thing and when they end up at the vet they're frustrated; they're mad at us for telling them they're doing a bad job and they are also never prepared for the cost.

It's a weird thing because nobody would ever buy a dog or a cat and not go to the vet. But for some reason, it's perfectly fine for pet stores to sell any other kind of animal that actually requires much more guidance than a dog or cat and they don't even give the pet owner the bare minimum of, “This rabbit should be spayed or neutered,” or, “Hey, your reptile needs UVB light or it's going to get metabolic disease and die.” These are the most basic things, and we see them over and over again. It's frustrating. 

Retailers want to sell the pets. They want people to buy them-that's their job. They may not be highlighting this but they also aren't asking questions such as, “Hey do you have a chemo patient at your house?” or, “Do you have a 90-year-old mother living with you?” As a vet, these are important questions I would ask.

-Laurie Hess, DVM, DABVP (Avian), Veterinary Center for Birds & Exotics, Bedford Hills, New York