Exotic Paws and Claws

Dr. Shannon Dawkins examines stuck eye caps on a ball python, Snickers. The snake had been unable to shed properly due to a previous injury causing discomfort. Tuesday, July 7, 2020. (Rising Rock/Cat Webb.)

While most prospective pet owners will opt to have a cat or dog, others may opt for something a bit different. Some may choose a pet that is categorized as an “exotic”. This broad category of pets includes common pets such as snakes and other reptiles, rodents, tropical birds, and amphibians like axolotls and salamanders.

While there are plenty of vets in Chattanooga that will perform regular examinations on exotic animals, it may be harder to find emergency veterinary care for exotic pet owners. 

Dr. Shannon Dawkins aims to make emergencies easier for exotic pet owners with Claws and Paws Mobile Veterinary Services. She has formal training with exotics and has worked with wildlife rehabilitators and vet since a young age. Claws and Paws began as a side gig while doing relief work at overburdened animal hospitals, and slowly grew into what it is today. She sees all kinds of animals, from cats and dogs to snakes and opossums. Exotics make up a large amount of her business.

“I would say maybe 20 percent are exotics,” she said, “I tend to actually get more surgeries that are exotic because I don’t know that there are a lot of people that are doing surgeries.”

Dr. Dawkins’s setup is small, confined to a trailer she pulls behind her pickup, and therefore isn’t set up for handling most emergencies. During the week, she can handle most routine procedures, but off-hours are a different story. She has no staff on weekends and due to lack of space, she doesn’t have a setup to keep animals overnight. 

“I recently had a rabbit client, for instance, that I had to send all the way to Knoxville because it needed to be seen by a vet that could hospitalize it on the weekend,” Dawkins explained, “and I couldn’t get anyone here. I couldn’t get any of the emergency clinics to do that.”

Because Chattanooga lacks emergency exotic vets, pet owners may have nowhere to turn. Not everyone can drive two hours for veterinary care, and not every emergency can wait two hours. According to Dr. Dawkins, that is why she may sometimes see exotics outside of regular hours.

“It’s not that I want to see emergencies on the weekends,” Dawkins said, “I just know that sometimes people are really left high and dry with no other options.”

Dr. Shannon Dawkins attempts to take the weight of her patient, a ball python named Snickers. He was underweight and hadn’t fed in a while due to discomfort from an injury. Tuesday, July 7, 2020. (Rising Rock/Cat Webb.)
Dr. Shannon Dawkins prepares pain medication for home administration for her patient. The patient was a ball python which had sustained an injury previously. Tuesday, July 7, 2020. Photo by Cat Webb.
Snickers, a ball python, awaits the end of his appointment. He visited Claws and Paws Mobile Veterinary Service for a follow-up on burns due to equipment failure and stuck shed related to that injury. Tuesday, July 7, 2020. (Rising Rock/Cat Webb.)

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