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I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Stefanie Kotschwar, a licensed veterinary technician at Lynwood Animal Hospital, Nepean, Ontario, Canada. Her practice has a strong emphasis in exotic pet care, and makes providing a Low Stress Handling® care experience a top priority.  Stefanie has been selected to present Low Stress Handling® in small mammals at ExoticsCon this fall.

Dr Foote: Stefanie, I see that you have various degrees.  Tell me about your journey into veterinary care for exotic pets. 

Originally from Austria, I grew up in Colombia. As a young adult I moved to Guelph and earned my degrees in nutrition and zoology. My first job was as an animal control officer. I later moved to England and received my zoo conservation degree. Working in zoo care was rewarding, yet I was attracted to the medical care of animals. A position opened at a practice where I decided to earn my technician degree. It was a benefit to be working in a veterinary clinic, as I could apply my education to real life experience. Dr Erin Harrison at Lynwood Animal Hospital was my mentor through this process, adding so much to my exotic pet care education. I followed Dr Harrison to Lynnwood Animal Hospital to continue my passion for providing the best, least stressful care to exotic animals and educate the owners about their pet’s welfare and behavior.

Dr Foote:  How did you become a speaker in exotic pet care?

I attended ExoticsCon last year where I attended Low Stress Handling® in Avian species, and assisted in the handling lab. This inspired me to submit my presentation in Low Stress Handling of small mammals. I was chosen as a speaker, which is exciting! October 1, 2019 is the day – St Louis is the place. I hope a lot of people can come. It is a great conference.

Dr Foote:  How did you specifically learn about reducing stress in your patients?

The specific training came from working side by side with Dr Harrison. She taught me so much about bunny behavior, or bunny culture, as she calls it.  In tech school there is just one module to cover the care all exotic species. Basic handling skills are taught, yet specific behavior considerations are not.  It is so important to know and understand body language, and behavior needs of these exotics in care. Some of the techniques taught can create stress to the exotic patients. Current techniques and information need to be more accessible to them.

Dr Foote:  What are your thoughts on the ability for small mammals to be stress free in care?  In short, these are prey species – can they be comfortable and calm in care?

Many of our exotic, small mammals can be calm, happy patients in care.  By taking the time to allow them to explore, providing rewards, and using handling techniques that reduce stress they learn to like exams. Yes, they will have some level of stress or fear as they are in a different environment, and it may take multiple visits to achieve a positive experience. We do have to acknowledge that when the patient is ill, they are stressed, and they may not achieve complete calm. We can reduce the fear in some, or it may be individual parts of the exam. You fit the level of exam to the patient, to prevent escalation of fear. Finding the balance is important. Not freaking them out is essential. Some of the techniques taught in school are actually stressful. Changing handling techniques can be a challenge to veterinary staff, yet once you try the techniques you will be amazed at the improvement in your ability to provide care.

Dr Foote: What specific techniques have you adapted from Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs and Cats by Sophia Yin, DVM? 

The first technique is understanding the impact of intction – approach, the exam or treatment area, providing the treat tray and allowing the animal to explore. All species are provided a tray of treats. Offering hay, bananas, apples, cheerios, ferret one for ferrets – allows us to see what they want. There is no rush into handling – watch the body language of the animal. They are speaking to us – I point this out to the client which is how I educate about their pet’s body language. This helps a lot for home care.

For handling, we use the bunny burrito towel wrap. This is an adaptation of the half burrito towel wrap from the book. I rely on this wrap primarily for mouth exams but can be used for home care.

Setting up towel wrap

We also use the treat bin as a base for exams, similar to how a carrier base is used for feline exams.

I avoid pinning the head down during an exam as a restraint technique. I follow the rules of knowing exactly where to put my hands based on the knowledge of the head anatomy for comfort over restraint. Support under the jawbone to hold the head in a neutral position, similar to how a cat’s head is held for exam, is less stressful and they don’t struggle. 

Towel wrap

Dr Foote: What information would you like Low Stress Handling®/ Cattledog Publishing to provide to continue building on positive exotic animal care?

Publishing posters and handouts in a similar style to the cat and dog posters we have published, information about normal and abnormal exotic pet behavior, a ladder of anxiety for small mammals. Webinars, more blog posts, newsletter – however you can help to get this information out to the veterinary, shelter, and pet owner.

Dr Foote: Those are great ideas, and we are already working on them! Any last words or thoughts you would like to share?

In every day that we provide care, we should try to create the least stressful care experience as possible. The animal may have stress that cannot be eliminated that day, but all steps to decrease that stress count towards creating a better experience. Lynwood Animal Hospital is not the only place using these techniques. I thank and credit the other practitioners who are creating a low stress exotic care experience in their practices. It is often a process to reduce stress during exams, and that may take a few visits to achieve. Talking to the client, explaining why you are offering the treat tray, pointing out how they can do the same at home is also an excellent way to educate the owner about reducing stress in their pet.

Thank you, Stefanie, for your help in creating a Low Stress Handling® care experience for exotic pets.  Good luck with your presentation! 

If you would like to contact Stefanie, please email me at [email protected].

All photos are used with permission from Stefanie Kotschwar BScH (Zoology, Nutrition), MSc (Zoo Conservation), AAS (Vet Tech), Diploma (Web Design and Equine Science), RVT

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