Written by Mike Corcoran, DVM, DABVP (R/A), CertAq
Spring has arrived! With so many warmer, sunnier days this month I have been getting out to walk the beach and doing some kayaking. I hope that everyone has been enjoying some sunshine, too.
The sun can be so good for your health, and it can also be good for the health of your exotic animal pet. Well-supervised time outdoors on sunny days can be beneficial for almost all animals.
What the sun does for us (humans)
Precursors of Vitamin D are converted to Vitamin D when UVB hits skin. Vitamin D helps us absorb calcium and utilize it properly. Calcium helps bone strength, muscle tone, nerve conduction, immune function, blood clotting and numerous enzyme functions.
There is also some speculation that sunlight exposure releases endorphins. Those are the “happy” hormones that help produce feelings like the runner’s high.
What the sun does for our pets
Reptiles, the obvious ones
Most people who have cared for a reptile have some understanding of the need for UV light exposure. Snakes do get enough vitamin D and calcium from their diet alone, but most turtles, tortoises and lizards require exposure to UVB lights. The ones that don’t require exposure most likely benefit from some low level exposure. For example, Leopard Geckos can live normal, healthy lives without UV lighting, but studies are now seeming to find hat some low level exposure for a few hours a day helps them do better.
What many people don’t know is that the lights we use lose their effective UVB spectrum long before the light burns out. Most should be replaced at the 6 month mark even though the light still comes on and has visible light. Fewer people know the power of the sun. Despite the impressive advances that have been made in the manufacture of these lights, when we compare Vitamin D3 levels in animals held indoors with UV lights to those that have natural sun exposure, the results are astounding.
The animals with outdoor time in the sun have Vitamin D3 levels 10-20 times higher than those with artificial UV lighting! We still have a long way to reproduce the sun.
Many reptiles also have a special scale on the top of their heads. This scale allows light through to another retina. This area is called the parietal eye. The retina in this “eye” connects directly to the area of the brain that produces melatonin and serotonin. Light levels, day length and changing day lengths in this area regulate seasonal changes in physiology. It’s likely that many of the immune deficiencies and reproductive diseases seen in reptiles are related to poor regulation of light cycles in captivity.
It’s for the birds (and mammals)
Okay, so we’ve known for years that most reptiles in captivity need access to UV light for normal development and ongoing health. Guess what? When we look at some of the same type of issues in pet birds and mammals we find the same benefits with UV exposure at the right levels. Just like us, levels that are too high can lead to burns and cancers, but no exposure is also not the best. Parrots, macaws, cockatoos, cockatiels and our other pet bird species live in areas where they get a lot of sun exposure every day.
It may be no surprise to learn that when birds live indoors, their bones are not as strong.
Injury, arthritis and weakness can result in extreme cases. There are now UV lights designed for indoor birds to help reverse these problems and help indoor birds live healthier lives. On your next wellness visit, be sure to ask if UV lights should be provided for your pet bird.
Rabbits and Guinea Pigs are a similar case. Recent studies show weaker bones in indoor rabbits when compared to their wild or outdoor counterparts. In coming years you may see some time with UV lights as a routine recommendation for rabbits and other mammals. I have even prescribed this for one of my favorite patients, a bunny that needed surgery for a fracture. The fracture was slow to heal and required a second surgery. After a biopsy of the bone, we set him up with a “prescription” for time in the sun, and we saw his bone density increase in the following weeks!
Fun in the sun
So far we’ve decided that pretty much all the pet species we have looked at get some benefit from the right amount of UV and that even the best bulbs we have are nowhere near as good as the sun, so…let’s talk about some time in the sun for our pets!
Getting safe, supervised outdoor time can probably be good for almost all the exotic pets we have.
What makes it safe?
- The correct temperature: We’ve had some good upper 60s and lower 70s lately that could be great for some chinchillas, rabbits, some larger birds and pot-bellied pigs, but not quite warm enough for all of the Guinea pigs and definitely not yet reptile weather. As it warms up, more of our pets can get outside and some of the ones who are out now may need to stick to morning and evening times to avoid excess heat. Make sure the temperature is good for your specific pet. If it’s not warm enough for your pet yet, you can enjoy some time outdoors making a fun enclosure!
- The correct enclosure: Most indoor pets are not well equipped for the outside here. Flighted birds can easily escape, and even those with clipped wings may not have behaviors that help defend against predators here. Birds should have outdoor enclosures that allow them to get into the sun at the right temperature, but also provides a shaded area. Small mammals should have some type of enclosure that prevents escape from the yard and keeps them away from any plants that have been treated with pesticides, fertilizers or other chemicals. Reptiles need to have enclosures that prevent escape, often including protection from digging under the enclosure. Enclosures for all should ideally include a closed top to keep out predatory birds, access to shade, and easy access to water in multiple locations.
- Protection from wild animals and parasites: Remember that parasites can live outside along with mosquitoes, wild mammals, and wild birds. I don’t think we need to be paranoid, but just aware. Ferrets should be protected against heartworm just like your dog. Ferrets, rabbits and a few other mammals can be treated with the monthly topicals to help prevent fleas, ticks, and other parasites. Going out at the proper time of day can help with mosquito exposure. Mosquitoes are most active at dawn and dusk. They can transmit heartworm to ferrets and can transmit West Nile to birds. Use sprays or citronella candles cautiously, especially with birds (they have sensitive respiratory tracts), but using screened enclosures can help. You can also eliminate standing water around your home and avoid outdoor time when mosquitoes are most active. Supervise your pet to avoid encounters with skunks, coyotes, and raptors.
In addition to having some great health benefits for both you and your pet, some time in new environments is good enrichment and can be a lot of fun, so get outside with your exotic pets and have some springtime fun!