Neighbors in the Buffalo, N.Y., suburb of Hamburg got used to seeing Susan Kelleher delivering their newspaper as a chicken sat on her shoulder.
Then there were the chicken sitting in her family’s front window, the duck swimming in the swimming pool and the rabbit running around the backyard with a bell on its collar.
So it should be no surprise that young Susan wound up becoming Susan Kelleher, DVM, an exotic animal practitioner in South Florida. She’s also the star of the new Nat Geo Wild series “Dr. K’s Exotic Animal ER,” premiering Oct. 4 at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific.
“Dr. K,” as she is known to clients, graduated from the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine and moved to Florida to focus on avian and exotic pet medicine. After a few years working in small-animal practices, she started Broward Avian and Exotic Animal Hospital.
Nat Geo Wild cameras document her day-to-day challenges at the clinic in the six-part series.
“Nat Geo Wild found us on the Internet,” Kelleher explained. “They wanted to do a show. They have Dr. Pol’s show [‘The Incredible Dr. Pol’] and wanted to do a show involving exotic animals. So they basically Googled and found exotic pets and then they Skype-interviewed us.
“They liked the people at the practice, they liked our mission and they liked our philosophy and our passion. They came out and shot a reel and they liked it and shazam! It’s really unreal.”
Though she will treat an occasional nonexotic brought in as an emergency, her practice is overwhelmingly exotics.
“The animals that I care for are mostly prey species,” she said. “And when you are a prey animal and you are already sick and already stressed, it just escalates your physiological stress when you have a predator up in your grill in the waiting room.
“When I used to work in a dog and cat practice, I would have a plan: The wife would wait in the waiting room and the husband would wait in the car with the chinchillas. When they got called to the exam room, the wife would call the husband and have him bring the animals in. My clients were also really stressed about their pets being around the dogs and cats.
“When I started my own practice, I started in a 1,200-square-foot space, and I thought after two years I might need another vet and after five or six years I would need more space. But after six months I needed a second vet and after two years we moved into a 4,000-square-foot building. Once the clients found we dedicated ourselves to the care of exotic animals in a quiet and safe environment, they came pouring in,” she added.
Early on, Kelleher knew she wanted to be a veterinarian.
“When I was in grade school everyone in the neighborhood would bring me any injured wildlife,” she said. “I started reading James Herriot books when I was 10 or 11. I actually met James Herriot’s son when I lectured in England.”
Pets were a big part of her life growing up.
“My first pet was a parakeet named Trixie that flew loose in the house and had a plate at the supper table. My dearest childhood pet was a bunny that I got when I was in third grade. And then my dad and I built a chicken egg incubator and we hatched chickens in the kitchen,” she said.
Her exotics cases come in many sizes and shapes—from rabbits and ferrets to rodents and fish to marsupials and all types of birds. Her toughest cases?
“Geriatric care,” she said. “I have rabbit patients that are living 12, 13, 14 years. We have ferret patients 8 or 9 years old.
“I have many, many bird patients in their 30s and 40s that have problems, including liver disease. Those are the toughest cases that tug at my heart; imagine having a pet for 35 years.
“Most people don’t have a continuous relationship with a human being that long; that bond is incredible,” she noted. “I feel such a weight of responsibility. I have a Macaw on a regimen of four or five different medications for its liver and heart disease, and the owner is following through with it. He’s doing a great job. And the bird is thriving and doing great.
“And then there are certain disease classes like insulinoma in ferrets, where the ferrets get a little tumor on their pancreas that secretes excessive insulin and their blood sugar drops very low, so it is the opposite of diabetes. And that disease is very, very complicated.
“Sometimes when you get into geriatric care you are doing what I call ‘spinning plates’ where [the patient] needs this medication for this disease but that would put a strain on the heart, but it needs this for the heart but that would put a strain on the kidney."
Kelleher has endured some tough surgical cases.
“I did an open abdomen surgery on a 140-gram bird, a conure,” she said. [140 grams is equal to the weight of 70 pennies.]
“And on the show you will see me spay a little 100-gram chameleon where we take out 36 grams, so it would be like me having a 40 pound baby.”
Difficult issues crop up every day.
“I am used to things being critical and fragile,” she said. “That is difficult, and it is hard for my interns to get used to that when they come in, but I am used to it.
“We have really good compliance with our owners, [perhaps because] the doctors personally do callbacks like, ‘How are you doing on the diet change?’ and I email my clients to be sure they keep up with the compliance.”
A working mom with two girls and one boy, Kelleher’s work week is usually 35 to 40 hours.
“It’s not bad,” she said. “Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and every third Saturday. Now I am going to pick up Fridays again, so it will go back to the 40- to 50-hour-a-week range.”
Family is important to Kelleher, whose husband manages the practice’s business end.
“I love just spending time with my kids—taking them to the science museum, doing crafts with them, swimming.” she added. “Being a full-time working mom is very consuming, so when I get a chance to do stuff with the kids I love it. I love volunteering at school.”
Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Veterinary Practice News