Nat Geo Wild’s Dr. K Promotes Exotic Education

Dr. Susan Kelleher owns the Broward Avian & Exotic Animal Hospital. It has been a dream come true: a quiet atmosphere where Dr. Kelleher can focus all her attention on the special needs of unique pets.

(photo credit: National Geographic Channels/Stewart Volland)

From hedgehogs and bearded dragons to marsupials and pigeons, pets of every kind are brought through the doors of South Florida’s Broward Avian and Exotics Animal Hospital. In fact, the facility’s founder, Dr. Susan Kelleher—or, Dr. K as she is known on the reality show "Dr. K’s Exotic Animal ER," which airs on Nat Geo Wild at 9 p.m. on Sunday nights—proudly proclaims that she sees "everything but dogs and cats." 

Charged with the critical care of a variety of exotic pets, including species whose anatomies are wildly dissimilar from the mammalian species most people are more familiar with, Dr. K considers the role of educator to be one of her key duties, for both her pet-owning clients and her TV-viewing audience. Every opportunity to educate owners of exotic pets on what they need to know to provide their companions with optimal care is a moment to be embraced, according to the long-time veterinarian. 

Dr. K recently spoke with Pet Product News to share her thoughts about her role as an educator of exotic pet owners and the synergy that can exist between veterinarians and the pet retail industry. And with passionate bluntness, she discusses what she hopes to see on pet store shelves. 

Pet Product News: Your show is a delight to watch. It’s fun and, at times, sad, but always entertaining. However, as a viewer, one of the main things I enjoy most about the show is how much I learn about the animals in your care and the needs of these animals. Is that intentional? Do you hope that viewers walk away with a better understanding of the very unique needs of the different species that you care for?

Dr. K: Yes! Feedback like this is what keeps me doing it. To be honest, my job is hard as it is—delicate species in life and death situations, and then you add a whole camera crew staring at you from every angle while you’re trying to save an animal’s life. It’s not easy. 

The camera crew is amazing, but it is a challenge to be on camera in all these situations. My goal is to educate people as much as possible about the care necessary for these animals and the level of veterinary care that is available to them. It’s imperative in these species that owners recognize illness as early as possible and get them in to me.

PPN: There are many product manufacturers and independent specialty retailers in the pet trade that are trying to promote awareness about the care of exotic pets. A good example is the Small Animal Care Standards set by the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) along with other industry professionals, which includes a section on reptiles and amphibians. What more can those in the industry do to try to ensure that owners of exotic pets understand all that they need to know in order to provide these animals with the highest quality of care possible? 

Dr. K: Wow, that’s a great question. I lean on the example of companies like Oxbow [Animal Health] out of Nebraska as a phenomenal example that I would love to see other pet and pet product companies emulate. They only sell food, treats and environmental enrichment supplies that are healthy for pets. I get frustrated when I still see unhealthy foods and treats on the market in pet stores that should just never even be offered to a consumer. My biggest nemesis is the rabbit rations with seeds and corn mixed in, "yogurt" drops—essentially, they are little chunks of sugar—that are sold as treats to small mammals, and owners being able to walk out of a pet store with a species they have no idea of how to take care of. We’ve come a long way but still face many challenges in the commercial industry.

PPN: For retailers that sell exotic pet species, how can they work with their local veterinarians to further educate the public and pet owners about animal care? 

Dr. K: Thank you! Just call me! We’re fortunate that we have local pet stores that hand our cards out with newly purchased pets, but not everyone comes in. I think that’s on us as veterinarians as well though. I wish I had more time to do public seminars on avian and exotic pet care. I think it would really save more lives by preventing bad diet and husbandry situations early on.

PPN: Are there any particular types of exotic animal care products—anything from specialized diets to first-aid tools—that you think the marketplace needs more of? Are there any other needs that have yet to be filled in the pet product industry?

Dr. K: There is such a plethora of great products out there—[for example,] the whole Oxbow line of food and treats for exotic companion mammals, great bird pellets, etc. More than anything, I’d like to see the "bad" products disappear—sugary treats, too much bird seed, mixed ration foods for rabbits, etc. I’d like to see more captive foraging toys for all species and more of an emphasis on behavior. Sell clicker training books and clickers. Host workshops in the stores on how to properly use a clicker for positive reinforcement training. 

PPN: You run a very busy practice that you also share with national TV viewers, a fact that must add to the hectic pace of your day. But it also looks like a lot of fun. What are the most rewarding aspects of filming and being a part of "Dr. K’s Exotic Animal ER"? 

Dr. K: The most rewarding parts are when we can intervene early enough in an animal’s life to set them up for great health from the beginning with proper diet and care. It’s also humbling and thrilling to bring an animal back from the brink of death and help it to continue to stay healthy. My favorite situations are when clients really stick with what we’ve instructed them for a treatment plan or lifestyle changes and the animal thrives.