Laurel Harris: Exotics are her pet projects

Dr.LaurelHarrisLaurel Harris found her “calling” when she was just 4 years old—a love of animals and a desire to care for them. Since that time, Dr. Harris’ passion has never wavered.

As owner of Wasatch Exotic Pet Care in Cottonwood Heights, Harris treats almost any kind of pet, except dogs and cats. To the surprise of many, there are lots of exotics that owners across the Wasatch Front, and across the nation, embrace in or around their homes other than canines and felines.

“People are a lot more mobile now,” she says. “They are looking at smaller pets, and exotic companion animals make up the fastest-growing segment.”

A native of northwestern Ohio, Harris graduated from the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1992, worked three years in general small animal practice and two years in an emergency clinic in Chicago, establishing exotic care programs in both. She completed a zoo internship in Alabama, became staff veterinarian at the Lee Richardson Zoo in Kansas, and moved to Utah in 2001. For four years, she was associate veterinarian at Hogle Zoo, and now provides veterinary relief coverage for Tracy Aviary.

“I became particularly interested in birds very early on,” she says. And her love for exotics continued to expand—rabbits, horses, reptiles—anything other than just dogs and cats. “There needs to be different treatment for exotics—there is the misconception that what works with dogs and cats will work for them.”

So in 2004, she started her practice in Cottonwood Heights, in a very small clinic. Once she focused on just treating the exotics, her business exploded. Only one other veterinary clinic along the Wasatch Front currently deals with exotics, and that’s on a part-time basis. And neighboring states also have limited care facilities for exotics. So Wasatch Exotic Pet Care now has over 6,000 clients coming from four states.

“Specialized treatment is what savvy exotic pet owners want,” she says. “Rabbits make up about 25 percent of the practice, but we’ve seen a lot of other types of pets. We’ve even had pot-bellied pigs brought to the clinic—which are a challenge to handle, as you might guess—as well as goats and sheep that have become backyard pets for many clients. We’ve also seen free-range and wildlife animals at times.”

Construction is progressing on a new 5,000-square-foot facility for the clinic that should open in the spring. It will provide much more room for her staff of three doctors and 12 other staff members.

Harris says that 90 percent of the health problems in exotics are related to husbandry—owners not knowing what their animals need for proper care.

“We recommend wellness exams, and we’re very thorough,” she says. “We spend 60-90 minutes for first-time patients of every species. Then we create a care or treatment program for them.”