Veterinarian Shannon Thomas owns Avian & Exotic Clinic of the Monterey Peninsula
By Robert Walch, Off 68, September 3, 2010
Shannon Thomas carpools every day from her Watsonville home to work in Ryan Ranch. Unlike the other commuters whizzing along the highway into Monterey, Thomas shares her auto with her dog and, on some days, a pet parrot.
The owner of the Avian & Exotic Clinic of the Monterey Peninsula at 20 Lower Ragsdale Drive, the veterinarian not only cares for animals but also has quite a menagerie of them at her home.
Besides a golden retriever, three blue-and-gold macaws, horses, four cats and a 75-pound African tortoise, Thomas, her husband and 7-year-old twin boys have a ball python, two donkeys, sundry chickens and a small green gecko.
A 1989 graduate of Carmel High School, Thomas attended the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she received a degree in zoology. She then went on to the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and graduated as a doctor of veterinary medicine in 1997.
Thomas said her interest in exotic animals dates back to her youth. Her mother was an elementary schoolteacher and, as a youngster, Thomas had plenty of opportunities to care for her mother’s classroom snakes, lizards and other critters during the summer. She had her own collection of animals as well.
“I knew in the first grade that I wanted to do something with animals,” Thomas said. “In fact, I remember a teacher telling me once, ‘You can’t be a veterinarian if you can’t spell it!’”
It didn’t take her long to master that word.
During high school and summer vacations in college, Thomas worked at the Monterey Animal Hospital and while at UCSB, she spent time at the Santa Barbara Zoo.
Because she wanted to focus on birds and exotic animals, when Thomas returned to the Monterey Peninsula, she went to work for Mike Murray at the Avian & Exotic Clinic of the Monterey Peninsula. Five years ago, she bought the practice so her boss could work full-time at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Thomas met her husband, Ben Wilson, while at Davis. The year they graduated, the couple was married and moved to the Central Coast. Also a vet, Wilson worked in Watsonville for a while, then switched over to the Monterey Animal Hospital. The same year as his wife became the owner of the Avian & Exotic Clinic, he purchased the Monterey Animal Hospital.
Their first year of marriage was rather hectic; not only was she a new bride and starting her career, but Thomas had been diagnosed with lymphoma.
“I was working a couple of days a week and then driving to Stanford for treatment,” she said. “Fortunately, that is all behind me now.”
Along with two associate vets, Amy Wells and Hilary Stern, Thomas cares for a variety of animals. “The practice is about 65 percent birds, including chickens and ducks, and the rest ranges from rabbits, guinea pigs and reptiles to mice, potbelly pigs and some fish,” she said.
Although these animals, like other pets, should have regular check-ups, Thomas said that, unfortunately, she usually only sees them when they are injured or ill.
She encourages new bird owners to bring the bird in when it’s first acquired. Thomas likes to talk to the individual “at length” about starting out right. She discusses proper diet, caging, mental stimulation for the bird, grooming and a number of other issues.
“Birds hide symptoms well, so I recommend some tests looking for any infections or other problems,” Thomas said. “We want to start off with a healthy bird. If the bird is older, this is especially a good idea.”
The veterinarian guesses that she probably sees more cockatiels than any other type of bird. After birds, the clinic’s vets see a lot of rabbits and tortoises.
On a cautionary note, Thomas warns rabbit owners that if their pets have gone more than 12 hours without “pooping,” they are looking at an emergency situation.
“It’s not just a constipated rabbit,” she said. “The whole gut is stuffed, and we treat that situation seriously.”
There is usually an underlying cause of this situation and, more often than not, it is the rabbit’s back teeth. The bunny can grow spurs on its back teeth, which result in it not chewing its food properly or, sometimes, it just stops eating.
The situation can be fixed by trimming the back teeth. Short-nosed rabbits seem to be more prone to experience this and other dental problems, Thomas said, adding that problems with the teeth can lead to eye problems.
It’s not a good idea to keep any pet but especially an “exotic” outdoors, Thomas said. She often has to deal with the damage that raccoons can do when they tangle with pets.
Because many of her pets are rescue animals, Thomas encourages people to check with the SPCA and local rescue groups when they are thinking about getting a new animal.
“The SPCA has many exotic animals and it is a good place to start,” she said. “We also do free post-adoption checkups for the SPCA, so that if a person gets a bird, rabbit or other exotic, we’ll check it out within a week of the adoption. This gets the pet and new owner off to a good start.”
Thomas said she has the only practice in the tri-county area devoted exclusively to exotics. The clinic’s equipment is specially designed for the types of patients it sees. Because of this, the clinic draws clients from the Santa Cruz and San Jose areas as well as Monterey County.
The clinic also provides boarding facilities for exotics when their owners go on vacation, provided the animals are in good health.
With two vets in the household, one might think that there would be a rule of no shoptalk at the family table.
Thomas laughed and said that’s not so in her home. “It’s more fun to share our day while we are eating,” she said.
Thomas admits that she’s living “a little girl’s dream,” but it’s one that was realized because of a lot of determination and hard work.
“I definitely feel very lucky to be doing what I do and what I love doing,” she said.
Is pet insurance worth the price? Not really, according to Consumer Reports. Their findings suggest that pet owners may save some money if they run into major health issues, but for the average pet, most vet visits will be for minor issues, many not covered by the insurance.
While living in the UK, we used Pet Plan, the only pet insurance company that covered rabbits. Our monthly premium was approximately 10.00 GBP per month, per rabbit (we had four rabbits). But over a couple of years we found that for every vet visit, we also had to meet a separate deductible (per health ‘incident’, and per rabbit), and pay an administrative fee for our vet to process our claims forms. In the end, we decided we weren’t really saving any money and canceled our policy altogether.
However, other households have benefited from having pet insurance coverage. Vet bills can add up quickly when you have multiple pets, disabled rabbits, or pets with chronic illnesses. But be sure to read the fine print before signing up for any policy, and be clear about what is and isn’t covered.
In the USA, Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI) is the only company currently issuing policies to rabbits under their “Avian & Exotic” plan. The premium is about $10 per month (less if you register multiple pets), and includes lab fees, treatments, prescriptions, x-rays, surgery, hospitalization, emergency care, and even cancer treatment. You can continue to use the rabbit-savvy veterinarian of your choice, too.
Read the entire Consumer Reports article here, consider your own situation, and decide for yourself if pet insurance is worth the cost for your household.
Speaker Series Spotlight on Elder Buns
This Saturday, August 14, join us for our regular Speaker Series as we welcome Linda Knox, DVM, of Palomar Animal Hospital, who will give a presentation on Health Issues of the Elder Bun.
With advances in medical care and better-educated caretakers, our rabbit companions are living longer lives. With longevity comes a host of other issues our buns may experience; arthritis and spinal degeneration, cataracts, chronic weight loss and potentially, even cancer.
Older rabbits can develop diseases related to higher levels of calcium. For example, did you know that pellets should contain no more than 0.6% calcium? Many popular feeds contain more than 0.6%, so to reduce calcium intake you must reduce the amount of pellets fed or make them a smaller portion of the diet. An excellent pellet for rabbits of all ages is Bunny Basics/T made by Oxbow Hay, and available at the San Diego HRS Bunny Store. BB/T is timothy-based rather than alfalfa-based, so it naturally contains fewer calories and less calcium.
Older rabbits generally need fewer pellets and more hay and vegetables. However, frail, older rabbits may need unrestricted pellets to keep weight up. Alfalfa can be given to underweight rabbits, only if calcium levels are normal. Annual blood workups are highly recommended for geriatric rabbits.
Dr. Knox will discuss the variety of health issues we may see, and how to manage them. She’ll give tips for keeping a closer eye on our older rabbit friends, and what to watch for and when to take them to be seen by their vet.
Health Issues of the Elder Bun
presented by Linda Knox, DVM
4 to 6 p.m.
4805 Mercury Street, Suite C (on the Ronson Road side of the complex)
Corner of Mercury & Ronson Road
See a map to our location
$5 Donation at door covers refreshments
Thanks to Alison Giese’s Photo Creations (www.alisongiese.com) for use of her image of Scooter with his cane!
August and September are when we begin to see a glut of vegetables at the Farmer’s Market, as nature’s bounty comes rolling in. But that’s no bad thing if you’re a bunny! Safe vegetables that are in season now and available at your farmer’s market, include:
For a small treat (a one-inch piece), fruits available now are:
Always be sure and remove any pips and seeds from apples and stone fruits, as they can be toxic to rabbits.
And following on from last week’s article on removing pesticides from your fruits and vegetables, be sure to buy organic versions of the boldface items, and wash all fruit and veggies thoroughly before you or your rabbit consumes them. Salad Spinners are great for washing and drying bunny greens in a snap.
Get to know your local farmers and tell them whether you have house rabbits or if you volunteer with rescued rabbits. Many will set aside the tasty leaves that customers don’t want, such as carrot tops, or the outer leaves of broccoli and cauliflower. These would otherwise go to waste, so why not treat your rabbits with them?
Today we welcome a guest post from Marlene Larkin, an HRS Educator in North Georgia. Marlene talks us through how making a small change in feeding organic produce to your rabbit can make a significant difference in their health (and yours!). Be sure to write down the “dirty dozen” fruits and vegetables that contain the highest amounts of pesticides, and make certain you get the organic versions when shopping for your rabbit’s veggies.
You Want Me to Buy Organic Food for a Rabbit?!
By Marlene Larkin, HRS Educator
A recent five day illness, culminating in an eventual trip to the hospital for what my physician diagnosed as pesticide poisoning from an unwashed mango skin, taught me a very valuable lesson. Although you can’t see them, smell them or taste them, the overuse of pesticides and failure to properly clean fruit and vegetables to rid them, including discarded skins, can have serious and in some cases lasting consequences to humans and animals alike.
Pesticides are active poisons which are purposefully added to our environment because of their toxicity and ability to kill undesired types of plants, insects or fungus. In 1939 only 32 pesticide products were registered for use in the U.S. By 1993 there were over 22,0
00! Today more than one billion pounds of pesticides are used annually in the U.S. alone.
Misuse or accidental exposure to higher-than-safe amounts of pesticides may produce poisoning effects which range from slight to severe. Pesticides which are labeled with the word “danger” are considered to be highly toxic, capable of killing a 150 lb human with an oral lethal dose from only a few drops up to one teaspoon. Moderately toxic pesticides carrying the word “warning” need only one teaspoon to one tablespoon for the same lethal effects. If so little is required to kill a 150 lb human, imagine how little is required to be lethal to your small five pound bunny.
Although different toxins can produce different effects, in general animals respond similar to many toxins and have higher absorption rates than humans; thus they can be more easily poisoned by conditions which are considered safe to people.
Some of the effects of pesticide poisoning, from either chronic exposure or a single toxic dose, may not appear until years after the exposure. These are called delayed systemic effects, meaning it takes more than 24 hours for the effects to occur, and may manifest in the form of cancers, skin disorders, liver or kidney disease, respiratory illness, and negative effects on the brain and nervous systems in both humans and animals.
Although symptoms also vary by toxin, the most common symptoms of rabbits with acute pesticide poisoning may include loss of appetite, abdominal pain and distress, excessive salivation, coughing, difficulty breathing, fur loss, skin sores, lethargy, weakness, paralysis, or restlessness, hyperactivity, seizures and coma. Because individual symptoms can mimic many other illnesses in rabbits, if the real culprit is either chronic or acute pesticide poisoning the true cause may never be detected.
What can you do to reduce pesticide consumption?
According to a list compiled by U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, there are twelve fruits and vegetables which were the most highly contaminated with pesticides, occasionally referred to as the “dirty dozen” list. Of that list nine of the twelve are items which you may commonly feed to your rabbit either as part of their normal diet or in treat form. The “dirty dozen” list, in the order of their contamination criteria* include:
- Peaches 97% contaminated w/ pesticides (made worse by the fact that their soft skins allow pesticides to penetrate into the pulp)
- Apples 92%
- Celery 94%
- Sweet Bell Peppers 86%
- Strawberries 92%
- Pears 87%
- Grapes (imported) 85%
- Spinach 70%
- Lettuce 59%
- For those of you interested in the remaining list for human consumption nectarines, cherries and potatoes also made the list.
It is estimated that switching to organics in these fruits and vegetables alone could decrease pesticide consumption up to 90%, improving the health of both you and your bunny.
The regulations to label food as organic vary by country, but generally require the avoidance of synthetic chemical inputs including fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, food additives, or irradiation, as well as other storage, packaging and processing requirements. Because pesticides can also build up in soil over time, organic farms are generally required to also be free of synthetic chemicals for a number of years (three or more.)
Hay, which is the staple of the rabbit’s diet, is grown by most commercial farmers using pesticides. Since you cannot wash hay prior to feeding it to your bunny without some very funny looks, consider feeding one of the organic hay varieties grown specifically for pet consumption. Oxbow Animal Health is one producer which makes organic hay, pellets and treats.
Finding a local organic provider in your area is another economic alternative. Although in 2005 only 0.5 percent of total U.S. farmland was certified as organic, the demand for pesticide and chemical-free feed to produce organic milk and other products has resulted in increasing alternatives in many local communities.
What can you do if your budget can’t accommodate the cost of organic foods?
Many pesticides are intentionally designed to remain on during wet conditions, therefore rinsing with water alone may not remove them. Worse yet, waxes or other sealants may also be applied to make the produce appear more attractive to consumers while sealing in the pesticide residue and making it even harder to remove. One effective means to remove both waxes and pesticide residue is to use one of the many commercially available liquid produce cleaners sold in many grocery stores specifically designed for this purpose. A less costly alternative is to mix equal parts of vinegar and water in a bowl and to soak the produce for a few minutes, followed by a good rinsing with water. You can also mix two tablespoons of baking soda and two tablespoons of lemon juice per 2 cups of the vinegar and water solution to make your own produce spray.
Making even small changes in your purchasing and food preparation can have lasting benefits in the long term health of both you and your bun.
*Contamination criteria includes % of samples w/ pesticides, % w/ 2 or more pesticid es, average # of pesticides, average concentration of pesticides, maximum # of pesticides on a single sample, total # of pesticides found.
Marlene is a HRS Educator and HRS member since 1991. She shares her home withher husband and four beautiful bunnies adopted from the North Georgia House Rabbit Society.
Anyone who lives with a house rabbit knows that they are only silent on first glance. Rabbits actually have a wide range of expressions and methods of communicating. It’s easy and rewarding to learn the language of lagomorphs. Just sit back and let them teach you!
Today we look at that most wonderful of bunny states: pure joy. How do you know when you’re rabbit is happy?
A happy, relaxed rabbit will often lay on its stomach with the forepaws and hind legs stretched out. From above they look like they are flying like Superman, or they are flat as can be. Sometimes rabbits lay with their legs extended out but more to the side, as opposed to the loaf position where all limbs are tucked under the body. These extended feet indicate a happy rabbit. For a prey animal that must be constantly on guard against danger, happy feet are a great indication that the rabbit feels comfortable and safe in their environment.
Witnessing a binky is one of the greatest joys of living with a rabbit. It looks like dancing or leaping in the air, often with body gyrations and kicks and flips. Sometimes rabbits get a running start before a binky; some just leap into the air from a sitting position (the latter, I believe, is called a ‘boink’). Other rabbits begin and end a binky with an impressive run of zig-zags and switchbacks, or repeated laps, called the Bunny 500. The binky indicates pure happiness and joy, and it’s contagious. Other bunnies may join in, and you’ll surely be moved to smile or laugh.
The flop is another way of expressing contentment and happiness. The rabbit goes quickly from a sitting or standing position to lying on its side, like a tree falling in the forest. The eyes roll back and the rabbit looks lifeless. This is different from a rabbit gradually lying down to nap. The motion is quick. New bunny people are often alarmed when they see this because the rabbit indeed looks ill or dead. As long as they continue to breathe, never fear. This is actually a sign of bunny bliss. It usually doesn’t last long, so Do Not Disturb!
In addition to the binky and the flop, rabbits enjoy a variety of ways to play. They push or toss objects around, bunch up towels, or shred and tear cardboard or paper. Some play hide and seek or chase games. They may race madly around the house or jump on and off of the couch. All this is very important to the wellness of the bunny psyche. It provides exercise, mental stimulation, and fun. Get down on the floor and get in the game! Get happy!
These are just some of the signs of happiness that we have observed. How does your rabbit show their joy? Have you captured a binky in a photograph? Send in your evidence, please!
Early summer brings a bounty of fresh vegetables to farmers’ markets, so load up your basket with a yummy variety of fresh foods for your rabbits (oh, and yourself, too!). Vegetables that are in season now, June and July, and that rabbits enjoy, include:
- Beet Greens
- Mustard Greens
- Peaches (as a treat—no pits or stones!)
Warning about avocados!
This is also a good time to remind everyone that avocados are known to be toxic to rabbits and have caused too many deaths already. The green fruit contains persin, a fungicidal toxin, which can be fatal for animals such as rabbits, birds, mice, cows, goats, sheep, and horses. Symptoms to watch for include a pet suffering stomach pains, vomiting, diarrhea, or breathing difficulties. If owners are worried they should visit their vet immediately.
Enjoy summer’s bounty, but pass on the avocados for the buns.
Want to be the coolest person at the Farmer’s Market? Get our great shopping bag, which already has your bunny’s veggie list printed on it! Order by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow with a check to the address below. Please make checks payable to “SDHRS.”
P.O. Box 261553
San Diego, CA 92196-1553
Bags are $6 ea or 2 for $10 (tax is included).
Shipping is $5 for up to 3 bags.