Dekalb Business: Exotic pets keep veterinarian hopping
Updated: Sep 21
Jen Christensen for the Journal-Constitution / Published 03/01/07
A childhood passion for animals turned into a profession for Decatur veterinarian Jason Hutcheson. A rebellious act led to his specialty.
Hutcheson says he was always caring for some injured animal he brought home, as a child. His mother appreciated her son's compassion -- with one exception.
"I came in one day wearing a green snake around my neck. My mother practically beat it off of me," Hutcheson said. "Dogs, cats she was fine with those. Snakes were the forbidden pet."
But not anymore. Hutcheson bought For Pet's Sake late last year from Dr. Mimi Shepherd. Shepherd started the practice in 1990, in the quirky pink and turquoise house-turned-office building at 3761 N. Druid Hills Road in Decatur.
It was one of the first veterinarian offices in Georgia to specialize solely in avian and exotic animals. There are no dog or cat patients at For Pet's Sake, but there are plenty of ferrets, rabbits, rodents of all varieties, snakes, lizards and a big bird business.
Shepherd had been the sole vet on staff, but her business grew, so she hired Hutcheson in 2001. He had worked a summer job there when he was in vet school in 1996. Hutcheson said he expects the business to grow as the number of exotic pet owners has increased over the years.
"It's not always feasible to have a dog in the city," he said. "A little guinea pig fits better in an apartment than a Great Dane."
Guinea pigs don't need regular vaccinations like cats and dogs do, and snakes aren't spayed or neutered. So, the business of For Pet's Sake is a little different from most traditional vets.
"We typically see animals when there's a serious problem," he said. While he does encourage regular checkups, he says not all gerbil and parakeet owners think these little critters need as much medical attention as a cat or dog.
"More often than I care to think about it, we see people balk at paying for even medical emergencies. They say: 'He only cost $12. He's just $5 to replace,' " he said.
The many clients who do consider their little animal one of the family can board their animals there when they go on vacation. The practice also sells exotic and avian pet products.
One of For Pet's Sake's biggest clients is the House Rabbit Society. North Georgia chapter manager Debbie Trantin said about 150 of her rabbits were in the vet's care last year.
The chapter rescues, fosters and places domestic rabbits. Before the rabbits go to their permanent homes, Trantin takes them to For Pet's Sake to be spayed or neutered. The vet also addresses their medical needs.
"There are lots of great vets out there, but a specialized vet has more in-depth knowledge," Trantin said.
Anesthetics can be pretty tricky for rabbits, she said, and an improper dose can be fatal. "People who specialize know this, plus we love Dr. Hutcheson," Trantin said. "He's got a great bedside manner."
Hutcheson said the science to help these animals has improved enormously.
"Before we had specialty vets, often the breeders knew more than the generalized vet did. A lot of the medicine was trial and error, hit or miss," he said. "But we've handled a bearded dragon's blocked intestine, bladder surgery for rabbits."
Like any good vet, Hutcheson says he loves all his clients equally, but he still has a real passion for snakes. He keeps five as pets. "I like the king snakes and milk snakes."
The "bunny people," as Hutcheson affectionately calls them, say they don't mind their vet's scaly personal preference. "He feeds them frozen food, not live animals, so he's OK by us," Trantin said. Sometimes, though, things can get tense.
"The waiting room is always fun until the 50-pound, 12-foot python waits next to the dwarf rabbit," Hutcheson said. "You can tell because the bunny people may protectively glare a little at the snake people. Throw our bird people in the mix and it get a little noisy in here. But for me it's fun, because you just never know just what will walk in that door."
Original story published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution Dekalb Metro section. Also available online at www.ajc.com