Whew! That feels better!

DSCN2908I got to do a really fun surgery the other day on a Bearded Dragon. The Beardie in question was Kahleesi, a single orange female who decided to form lots and lots of large follicles on her ovaries but not turn them into eggs. This condition, called follicular stasis, is not a good idea. Eventually the follicles start to break down and the critter develops a whopping peritonitis. It’s a medical problem that doesn’t seem to happen to Bearded Dragons in the wild, just to those Beardies inhabiting our living rooms. Clearly, there is something about keeping them healthy in captivity that we haven’t quite figured out yet.

x-ray showing enlarged ovaries

x-ray showing enlarged ovaries

Anyway, Kahleesi’s owner brought her in to see me because she was suddenly getting huge around the middle. Which was true – her belly looked very, very full. It felt very full too. On x-ray we could see that she had lots of rounded masses in her abdomen.

I was concerned that Kahleesi wasn’t going to turn these large follicles into eggs and lay them, but we gave her the benefit of the doubt and waited a few weeks. Unfortunately despite lots of calcium and good care she refused to cooperate, and we had a surgical case on our hands.

After an altercation where she didn’t want to be anesthetized and I had to find a Band Aid, we got our Beardie asleep and ready for surgery. As soon as I looked inside her belly I could see what the problem was. Actually it was two big problems, in the form of two huge ovaries so full of follicles that they looked like large bunches of orange grapes. She lost quite a bit of weight with their removal, a full fifth of her body weight!

the problematic ovaries

the problematic ovaries

after the surgery

after the surgery (still sleepy…)

Our much slimmer and happier Bearded Dragon went home that afternoon a bit sleepy but feeling much better. The next day she gobbled down 35 crickets and hasn’t looked back since. She is back to her happy self, with the added bonus of no more girl troubles in her future.

Hilary Stern DVM 2014

Myxomatosis Outbreak – Bring your Bunnies Indoors!


the culprit, a poxvirus

Myxomatosis is a devastating viral disease that kills pet rabbits. There is currently an outbreak going on in Santa Cruz County, California, where I live. It has been a very dry year, and as a result the streams aren’t flowing quickly, which leads to lots of mosquitoes. Mosquitoes can carry this virus from cottontail rabbits to domesticated rabbits. The virus can also spread by direct contact, and by other insects such as ticks and fleas.


swelling and discharge from the eyes is one of the first symptoms

While the myxomatosis virus only causes minor disease in wild cottontail rabbits, it is highly lethal to pet rabbits, with a reported mortality rate of 96-100%. Initial signs are seen three days after infection and can include reddened eyes with a milky discharge, lethargy, loss of appetite, and fever. Rabbits that survive this initial stage develop swelling of the eyelids, nostrils, lips, scrotum, vulva, anus, and ears. An opaque nasal discharge and labored breathing will commonly follow, leading to death within 7 to 14 days. Unfortunately, there is no effective treatment for myxomatosis; our only options are to provide supportive care and hope the bunny gets through it, or to euthanize.

While there is an effective vaccine against this disease, it is not licensed for use in the United States. The FDA won’t allow the importation of this vaccine from Europe because it also vaccinates against Rabbit Hemorrhagic Virus, a disease that we (usually) don’t have here in the U.S.


another reason to dislike mosquitoes

The only way to prevent myxomatosis here in the coastal northwestern U.S., then, is to prevent exposure. Assess your home and environs. Are there mosquitoes around? Are there wild cottontails around? If so, keep your bunnies indoors at all times. If not, it still pays to be cautious. Carefully enclose outdoor hutches with mosquito screens. Make sure that your rabbit is either indoors or behind mosquito netting during the highest mosquito activity time periods, dawn and dusk. It is also wise to make sure that all bunnies that go outside receive a monthly dose of the flea control product Advantage.

Remember, myxomatosis is highly contagious and can be rapidly fatal. If you see any symptoms of myxomatosis in your rabbit, make sure to isolate it from other rabbits and call your veterinarian immediately.

Hilary Stern DVM © 2014

I’m Not Kidding.

There are not a lot of perks to being an exotic animal veterinarian. Yes, there is the satisfaction of helping critters and their owners, and the satisfaction of a job well done. No one, however, is offering me free tickets to Broadway shows, or all-expense paid trips to scenic locales.

(Darn, my mom  was right… I should have been a doctor for humans.)

Given the dearth of swag I am offered at work, a free lunch is always eagerly accepted. I am happy to sit through the most boring or irrelevant information just to have someone bring me lunch. Case in point: my free lunch last week courtesy of Royal Canin. Royal Canin is a pet food manufacturer that makes prescription diets for dogs and cats. Their product line for birds, reptiles, and rodents is, however, rather limited (meaning non-existent). Luckily the rep didn’t seem to know she was wasting her time on me, and I got a free salad out of the deal.

While I and my coworkers sat and munched, the Royal Canin rep began presenting her company’s two new products for dogs with food allergies. I was planning on sitting quietly in the corner and saying nothing until she mentioned the name of the first food: Anallergenic.

Anal what?

Anal what?

Now, no doubt the Royal Canin scientists sitting somewhere in their lab coats thought this a great name – “an”, as in “not”, and “allergenic”, as in “causing allergy”. But really, did the marketing people call in sick that day? Who in their right mind would give a product a name whose first four letters were A-N-A-L?   How were we supposed to sell this stuff with a straight face?

There were a few glances between the staff and I over this faux pas, but we were still happily eating and (mostly) kept our mouths shut. So the rep went on to discuss the next diet she had to offer for dogs with allergies. This one required a lot of explanation. It was a special diet for special owners who wanted to do the best for their dogs.  It was currently available in Europe, but could be made available to those few Americans discerning enough to ask for it. This diet was special because it had all the proteins broken down into individual amino acids.

Now, to me each of those italicized words meant dollar signs, and the words were accruing quickly. So I asked the price. I was unprepared for the answer however, because when the rep said “$100 for a 20 pound bag” I think my jaw hit the table. I would like to apologize now to the person sitting across from me, as I was mid-chew at the time.

Finding out the cost of this food created quite a stir, and derailed the rep’s orderly presentation.  Apparently, however, there was more to disclose, so she soldiered on. She told us about how ignorant pet owners who read the ingredients list on this new food might be turned off, and therefore it would be our job how to explain to them why it was so great. She had our attention again. What was in this stuff anyway? What could possibly be that bad?

mmm... yummy!

Mmmm… yummy!

Chicken feathers. The $100 a bag dog food is made out of chicken feathers.

The selling point: this is a green protein source, and therefore more eco-friendly.

My question to the rep: were the feathers voluntarily donated by the chickens?


If you are unemployed and looking for a job in marketing, please send your resume to Royal Canin. I’m pretty sure they have recently available openings. We in the veterinary field thank you.

A Bird with Three Names

Wild baby jays have it rough. After a short 10 weeks of being fed in the nest, they are down on the ground trying to earn a living. You may have seen some of these fledglings yourself. Fully feathered, but with a short tail and wings, they are able to walk, hop and flap, but cannot yet fly. Mom and Dad still come by and feed them for a while, but otherwise survival is left up to them.

The numbers are not stacked in their favor. Depending on the bird species in question and the specific habitat, their chances of surviving to their first hatchday are generally in the 11-30% range. The biggest obstacles they have to contend with are 1) predation, and 2) starvation. If there are cats around, feral or no, their chances of survival are much worse.

a scrub jay named Lucky CatFud Bluebell

a scrub jay named Lucky CatFud Bluebell

The Bird with Three Names was a baby scrub jay found by my friend Jenna in her yard. He was standing immobile in a corner with cats all around, so Jenna brought him inside. Jenna’s daughter Makenna loved the little bird and named him Lucky. And then Jenna brought the bird to me.

One thing you may not know about people in the veterinary field is that we are a superstitious lot. We are particularly wary of saying something good, for fear it will soon be proved wrong. If I am ever foolish enough to say something like “wow, we really aren’t busy!”, or “wow, the clients are being so nice!” the vet techs all groan in protest. Surely now the gates of hell will open up, and chaos and discord be unleashed!

So, you can imagine how we feel about the name Lucky. This name is pretty much the kiss of death. Any animal with the misfortune to be named Lucky will surely have a panoply of terrible things happen to it, each worse than the last. As far as we are concerned, you might as well have named your pet “I Hope you Suffer and Die Horribly”.

CatFudI knew, therefore, as soon as I met Lucky that I had to change his name. In a vain attempt to remedy the damage, I quickly named him CatFud. My son Micah, however, was having none of it, and thought CatFud was not a nice name at all for a baby bird. So shortly after being named CatFud our feathery protagonist was re-christened Bluebell.

Lucky CatFud Bluebell was a very adorable baby bird but Not Quite Right. While he was bright and alert, he wouldn’t gape for food like hungry jay babies do. Even after a few days of fluids and antibiotics he didn’t want to feed himself or be fed. He was interactive and curious, and the tests I ran came up normal, but the fact remained that he wasn’t thriving the way he should have.

Sasha and Lucky CatFud Bluebell

Sasha and Lucky CatFud Bluebell

Poor Lucky CatFud Bluebell passed away quietly and unexpectedly the night after this picture was taken. Perhaps he had a disease we couldn’t identify, or a birth defect we couldn’t fix. Perhaps Mother Nature had written him down on the deficit side of her balance sheet before we even met him. All I know is that we are sad he is gone.

Rest in peace, Bird with Three Names. We will miss you.

Meet Scar the Snake and his friend Brandyn

I met a new species of snake this week, a Macklot’s Python (Liasis mackloti) named Scar. This snake is a non-venomous python species found in Indonesia, and sometimes in people’s living rooms in Santa Cruz, CA.

Brandyn and her snake Scar

Brandyn and her snake Scar

Scar was aptly named because he has a huge scar running all the way down his belly. The scar is from a very bad burn he received a few years ago from a poorly placed heating element. After his injury he was taken in by the good people at Trop-Aquarium pet store and nursed back to health. He is a gorgeous snake now, his scales full of an iridescence that I tried to capture in this photograph (but couldn’t).

Burns in snakes are actually pretty common. Snakes (and other reptiles) will sometimes cozy up to heating elements and not get off even when they start to sizzle. Why this happens is a mystery – perhaps they don’t have well-developed heat receptors in their skin. No doubt in the wild they don’t come across many 500 degree surfaces, so perhaps evolving a response to such a situation wasn’t a priority. In any case, it is super important that all reptile owners realize this and make sure that their pets can’t come into direct contact with heat bulbs, heating pads, and the like. Heated rocks are just a really bad idea and should never be used for all the reasons stated above.

As I always do when faced with a new species, I rushed to the internet to read all I could before the appointment. I quickly learned that Macklot’s python’s have a reputation for being “irritable”, which isn’t a great feature in a 7-to-9 foot snake whose mouth you need to look inside of 10 minutes from now.

I shouldn’t have worried, because Brandyn (one of the owners of Trop-Aquarium) is a snake whisperer and had transformed Scar from an angry teenage snake to a pussycat of an adult. Scar is so tame that he goes to kids’ birthday parties and gets passed around from sticky hand to sticky hand. Apparently his only bad habit now is that he likes to stick his head in your mouth while you are talking. Which is naughty – doesn’t he know he can catch Salmonella from people?

Stinky the Rat

StinkyTheRatMeet Stinky the Rat. He is a very cute rat, and wasn’t stinky at all. However, he refused to hold still to have his photo taken, so yes he is a tad blurry.

Mr. Stinky was a itchy rat. You can’t see it in the photo, but he had scratched a sore onto his neck with his sharp little toenails. The culprits? Well, probably a bunch of Radfordia ensifera making their presence known where they weren’t wanted.

What, you may ask, are these unpronounceable creatures? Here’s a microscopic mug shot:


Luckily for us humans, Radfordia mites are generally host specific, meaning they will usually attack only a certain species host. This is a good thing. I did get Sarcoptes mites once from some unknown mammal, and let me tell you, they were perfectly happy to take up residence on my body. But that’s another story.

We started our rat friend on antibiotics for the skin infection and Revolution for the mites, and he is well on his way to feeling better. Hooray for Mr. Stinky!

Pet Rodent Etiquette Tip: Do not call rodents vermin, varmints, or plague-carriers. Their owners don’t seem to like it if you do.