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A Look at Exotics with Dr. Bob Ness

Feb 04, 2016

Bob Ness with Lory.jpg

Dr. Bob Ness of Ness Exotic Wellness Center in Lisle, IL has seen some pretty dramatic results with the Assisi Loop, and was kind enough to talk to us about it, and his treatment of exotics, in an exclusive interview.

Assisi: What are the intricacies of having an exotics practice? I can't imagine it's very normal.

Dr. Ness: It's an atypical day every day. We see things on a regular and consistent basis that are very rare or unique in some practices, so our routine day is different than most. It comes with challenges each day as well, which are exciting to work with.

What made you get into exotics?

When I was in undergrad and vet school, I was working at a pet store that gave me exposure to the exotic birds, rabbits, rodents and ferrets, as well as reptiles. If I thought something was sick, it kind of fell on us to treat it on the run, because there wasn't a lot of veterinary care for them. The veterinary field was just starting to see them regularly as pets in any organized manner.

In the mid to later 80's, care for exotic mammals, birds and reptiles was extrapolated from zoo and wildlife medicine. So I saw it as an intriguing area that was new and developing. I could be on the ground floor and help develop it, extrapolating things that went on in other species. It was something different, and we could help get care to this whole realm of animals that really wasn't getting much attention at the time.

Even since I've been growing up, it used to be someone had like a rodent or some sort, and they'd say, 'Oh, it got sick!' and that was the end.

Yes. Then it dies and you get a new one. We still see that a lot. I don't know the numbers, but there's a vast majority of the pets that are sold in pet stores and from breeders that never receive veterinary care - like guinea pigs, small rodents, rabbits, or even a lot of birds. And so, they come in sick after the owners had them for years, and they've never received a single veterinary exam. Or there are the ones that just get sick and die, and people don't realize that they can take that kind of animal to a vet.

Also, a lot of the medications that are common in dogs and cats can't be used in certain species of exotics, and also the formulations have to be made up special - because one tablet for a dog is going to be several times the toxic dose for most birds or small mammals. Also giving tablets to a bird is really difficult - so different things like that pose challenges unless your focus is on the exotics.

Where do you learn that kind of stuff, other than on the job?

Only recently have there been good programs in veterinary schools for exotic pet training. A lot of the veterinary schools have it, but not all of them do. So it's still a growing and developing field. That's another stumbling block for a lot of the veterinarians out there who are not trained for exotics, and have a special interest. And then you have to go beyond, and get special books, go to seminars, conferences, and really going beyond your normal training days in routine dog and cat medicine, or mixed animal practice.

Bob Ness with Macaw 2014.jpgSo in many vet schools, the exotic focus is a class that you can take as opposed to an actual rotation.

In vet school you have to do your externships in the hospitals and clinics. Some of the veterinary schools do have exotics as part of their curriculum, in clinics as well as in classes, and that makes it a little easier to get in the field and see some exotics. However, in an actual exotics practice, you do need special equipment. You need laboratory equipment, surgical equipment, even just certain items to do a standard exam or weigh a patient, to formulate medication - all that has to be set up for seeing birds and exotics in a typical practice. If there's not a lot of call for exotics care for that particular area or that clinic, then it wouldn’t be worth it for the owner to invest in all of that.

Some practices are starting to see the value of birds and exotic pets. We’re seeing that there is longevity in some of them, especially the reptiles and the birds. If a doctor sees them, then they're going to be a client for a long time. And typically someone with one ferret, for example, usually has others as well. It’s a rarity to have just one ferret or a single guinea pig, or something - usually people will have multiples.

How long have you had your practice?

In 2002 I went off on my own. I started as a house call practice and also started seeing patients out of other clinics. Then that evolved into seeing patients out of an emergency clinic where I was there during the day, and the emergency clinic was there at night. In February 2016 it will be 8 years I've been working in the facility that we're in. It's a building that we built as a freestanding hospital for exotic animals and holistic care. We do 10% dog and cat holistic therapy as well.

So do you get people that come great distances, because I can't imagine there are that many exotic-focused hospitals.

We do, actually. We’re in the western suburbs of Chicago, and we have people coming down from Wisconsin, in from Indiana, and we even get an occasional client from Minnesota. Clients have even come from as far as Florida and Pennsylvania. Our general clientele is from the entire northern Illinois area, and northwest Indiana, Southern Wisconsin, throughout the entire Chicagoland area.

The typical dog and cat practice might have 5 to 7 miles for the majority of their clients, versus 50 miles or so. Some clients will drive two or three hours to come see us. One of our regulars just dropped by last Saturday who comes down from Wisconsin once a month for me to treat her bird.

That’s commitment.

In the Chicagoland area, we do have a few practices that are known as exotic pet practices, so it's a nice little recognition for us that we do have clients that come here. There may be a clinic closer to them but they chose what we have to offer, and the relationship that we’ve established. There's a core group of clients that have been with me for 25 years.

In the time that you've been practicing, have you seen the beginnings of the sea change - people changing their minds about how exotics can be treated?

I have. I think part of it is being in more of a metropolitan area, a lot of the pets that people have are indoor, caged pets. They might not be caged all the time; a lot of people have these out as house pets, but they are beyond the dog and cats. There are a lot of apartments, condos and such, that don't allow dogs, and so people look to a rabbit or bird.

It used to be when you think of a guinea pig, you'd think they were the little kids’ pets, but we have a lot of adult clients who have guinea pigs as their pets. Also people who are retirees that have these guys as pets, and they love them like their own children.

Are there particular benefits for the Loop in an exotic practice?

We’ve been using the Assisi Loop for about a year and a half now, and we find it to be extremely useful in some of the exotics. Particularly in cases that relate to arthritis, or pain and inflammation, as well as cases needing a boost to heal. Sometimes we use it as a adjunct to laser therapy. It’s something the client can have at home to treat on a daily basis, sometimes 2 or 3 times a day. Some clients tend to want to have a home treatment to get some of the anti-inflammatory and pain relief for their pets rather than bringing them in for laser and not using a medication.

It’s an optimal thing for that, in particular smaller birds - you can put the Loop around the bird, and you can treat the entire patient. We’ve had some cases that have been older arthritic patients that have stiffness in their wings, and some arthritis as well in their feet and legs. They just get more limbered up, and be able to lead a more normal life again, rather than stand in one place on their perch.

And also in situations like gout. Gout is common in certain species of birds. It’s a uric acid deposit in the joints that is very painful, for the feet in particular. These guys can actually regain some use of their feet again. It frees their mobility and reduces the pain, which is beyond what we see in any other type of treatment for gout at this point.

In rabbits, we use it a lot there, for spinal arthritis and spondylosis, hind leg weakness and paralysis of the hind end. They can improve dramatically with the Loop. Or ones that have neuropathic conditions too, ones that have a numbness in the feet - we use the Loop to help with that. In neuropathy type patients, their chewing on their toes or feet, that can be improved with the Loop as well by reducing inflammation.

I've even used it with some reptiles too, that have inflammation and swelling. I have a bearded dragon right now that I'm using it with that has swelling and inflammation around one of his eyes, and it’s helping keep that in check.

P1030182.JPGSo, are there any cases that pop out in your head as particularly impressive?

The first patient that I used the Loop on was Daji, a cockatiel that was 30 years old. They're supposed to live into their teens, but he lived twice that, he's still alive - he was arthritic and rather stoic, just sitting in one place in his perch. He had sores on the bottom of his feet from decreased activity. We decided to use it for him. The client came from hour and a half away for visits, and we used laser on Daji a couple times, but him they wanted something they could use at home. We just looped it around him, and they were using it a couple times a day initially. They found that his energy level came back, his joint flexibility and his limberness improved dramatically, his arthritis just ‘melted away’ as they described it. The sores on his feet healed up. He was actually able to fly again, which he hadn't done in years. He's kind of become a younger bird, probably a bird more in his twenties than thirties. He still has some limitations but is much more comfortable than he ever was.

Another bird was an African grey that had a lot of stiffness and tension in his neck, and was having trouble eating. He had arthritis in his neck and spine, and also in his feet too. The client was near the point of considering having him euthanized. He would come into the clinic and just tell me to stop it - when I went to do anything to him, he'd go, 'Stop it, stop it.’

Poor guy.

Even inflammatory pain medication weren't doing a whole lot for him, and then we treated him with the Loop and he got a lot better, and actually improved his quality of life dramatically.

What is it about the Loop do you think makes it useful particularly for exotics?

It can be very useful for them. It can be a little bit of a hindrance for some birds or little critters because they don't want to stay still for 15 minutes. But if the patient doesn't want to sit within the Loop for 15 minutes, even if they get five to eight minutes of treatment, they still are getting some decent improvement. I have found that in a lot of cases you don't need the entire cycle for these guys.

It's useful because you can minimize the use of pharmaceuticals, which we really don't have everything worked out with how it works in their body, and what the consequence will be in chronic use of pain medications and anti-inflammatories and such. It's a lot safer, in my opinion, to use something like this that's non-invasive to reduce their pain and manage them. Also, just the client having to come in and out for other types of therapy, like  laser therapy or acupuncture and chiropractic, can be minimized when you're using a Loop at home.

I love it as an at-home therapy that they can use. No one has come back and said 'I don't see that this has done anything for me.’ They've all had at least some type of improvement and many very dramatic.

P1030230.JPGThat’s wonderful news.

If they even kind of mention that they aren't getting any results, then we discuss with them, and retrain about the use. Anyone that's using it appropriately has had results. It might not be a full cure, but if we can improve the quality of life and reduce the pain and discomfort and inflammation, then I say that's a success.

You use a number of the 4 inch/10 centimeter loops. What kind of cases do you tend to use those on?

If it's just the paw that's affected in a rabbit, say, or a ferret, or in a hip area, it fits nicely over that. I just had one that were discussing with a client who has parakeets that have arthritic changes in their feet from gout and different things. They’re going to use the smaller Loop for that because it’s the perfect size for a little budgie, and the entire bird can fit in the loop. And also if I'm treating the medium to smaller lizards, those can treat nicely with the smaller loops. The larger one can be a little bit overwhelming for some of the smaller animals.

Any final thoughts?

This has been a godsend for someone to be able to take home and use in between other treatments to relieve pain and improve the quality of life in patients without overdoing medications.


Dr. Robert Ness graduated from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in 1990 with a strong interest and determination in avian and exotic pet medicine. His first employment as a new graduate was as an associate veterinarian for the only all avian and exotic pet practice in the Chicago area at the time. He spent 9 of the next 12 years at that practice, with the other 3 years serving as head exotic veterinarian for a prominent group of veterinary practices, also in the Chicago area. During his tenure at these practices, Dr. Ness continued to expand his knowledge and training, but kept thinking that there was more to being an animal healer than just mainstream medicine. As frustrations grew over the limitations of standard conventional care for chronic diseases and common problems encountered in his patients, Dr. Ness began exploring the realm of holistic medicine and, as they say, the rest is history.

In June 2002, Dr. Ness started Ness Exotic Wellness Center as an alternative to the typical veterinary hospital. He continues to develop his wealth of knowledge by adding new and innovative treatments to his practice, becoming widely respected and regarded in the field of Avian and Exotic Pet Medicine, especially in the field of Holistic Therapy. He is presently one of the very few practitioners in the country practicing Holistic Therapy for Avian and Exotic Pets.



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