Parasites in Exotic Animals

Pet Tales
by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

Parasites and Parasiticides in Small Exotic Animals

Most pet owners are aware of the risk that parasites pose to the health of their pet. When people think about parasites that are a problem, they usually think of intestinal worms. They know they are most likely to threaten the young puppy or kitten. In young animals in particular, infection with intestinal parasites contributes importantly to generalized unthrftiness, diarrhea, weight loss or failure to gain adequate body weight. Veterinary care will be required to ensure parasites are eliminated, if present, and do not cause illness or ill-effects for the pet.

It is important to remember that parasites are a potential danger to the health of not only dogs and cats, but other animals as well. I want to focus, this time, on parasites as a problem in the exotic species of animals kept as pets.    

A parasite, for this discussion, is an animal that lives on or within another animal (called the host) from which it derives protection and/or sustenance without making compensation. Parasites come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they live outside the animal, sometimes inside. There are parasites that can infect just about every kind of host animal.

A parasiticide is a poison that is more harmful or toxic to parasites than to their hosts. Usually parasites are much more sensitive or able to be harmed by them than the host animal but using a parasiticide always means some hazard to the host.

This discussion focuses on parasites that live inside the animal, commonly called worms. Parasiticides used against them are called wormers. The choice of worming medications for use in small exotic animals ( hedgehogs, sugargliders, squirrels, birds and reptiles) will require careful consideration. Such creatures often are living in a more fragile health state. Conditions of housing, diet and stress may be influencing this fragility.
 
As a result, I suggest that worming treatments for these animals should only be given under the direction of a veterinarian - preferably one with experience dealing with these exotic species of animals. As with other animals, ideally, treatment for parasites will follow identification of a specific parasite involved. This diagnosis is usually accomplished by examination of fecal samples of the patient.

It will be important when parasites are identified to determine what health risk they pose to the host animal and the effectiveness and safety of the worming drugs to that particular host animal. 

For example, there are no reported diseases caused by parasites in sugar gliders. Sugar gliders do have parasites and it may be very appropriate to eliminate them in an individual animal. There are a number of commonly used parasiticides that have shown to be safe for use in this species. The decision about when and how to do this will be determined by several factors including the status of the patient and the potential risks of having parasites. The owner in consultation with their veterinarian will determine proper steps to be taken.

The most common drugs used as wormers in the small exotics are the same ones used for other companion animals. Ivermectin and fenbendazole are probably the most common parasiticides used to treat nematodes (round-shaped worms). Praziquantel is used to treat most cestodes (flat-shaped worms). Metronidazole is a drug frequently used to treat protozoan parasites. Various sulfa medications can be used in the treatment of coccidiosis, especially in birds. There are established safe dosage guidelines for each of these medications in small exotics, reptiles and birds. Proper treatment schedules and repeat worming requirements will depend on the parasite involved and the health status of the patient being treated. Certainly, parasite control is an important aspect of the health care for any small exotic animal.