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.