Interview with Mary Pinborough – Pinmoore Animal Laboratory Services

Pinmoore Animal Laboratory Services is the only independent animal laboratory in the UK equipped to test small samples from animals such as reptiles and amphibians. From tests involving multiple disciplines including haematology, microbiology, biochemistry and cytology, to professional postmortem services, they offer a comprehensive list of options. We spoke with Mary Pinborough of PALS to find out what they do and how they do it. PALS run tests for animals of exotics keepers, vets and even zoos.

What does PALS do and why are you so well known in the reptile hobby?
We provide diagnostic services for veterinarians, testing faeces, blood, tissue and other samples for pathogens such as bacteria and viruses. I guess we’re so well-known with reptile folk because we are the only independent lab in the UK that is equipped with the specialist equipment to test small samples, such as those you might often get from small species. The equipment we use is quite a big investment, financially speaking. And it’s quite sensitive kit too, requiring regular maintenance too ensure it remains accurate. Working with such a specialist market, plus the expensive, high maintenance kit is probably why we’re one of the few labs that can do what we do.

I should mention that we don’t just work with reptiles. We work with all animals, but we have a reputation for exotics. Many of our clients are zoos, but we also work with farms and wildlife agencies too.

Am I right in thinking you’re also passionate reptile keepers too?
Yes, absolutely. We keep Green Iguanas, Rhino Iguanas and Red Eared Sliders, along with 27 Reticulated Pythons. Our biggest Retic is 22ft long.

Pinmoore Animal Laboratory Services

We interviewed Tariq Abou-Zahr, the exotics vet, a few months ago, and he said that being both a hobbyist keeper and a vet is enormously helpful in his practice. Is that the same for you?
Yes, I think it is. We certainly know a lot of people in the hobby and they trust us because they know we’re reptile keepers ourselves.

It sounds like you also have clients who are not vets. Is that right?
Yes, we do testing on for keepers and stores. It’s a little contentious as many vets believe we should only work directly with them. Perhaps it is because they can add a mark-up onto the prices we charge them, but we feel very strongly that the services we provide should be available to as many people as possible. After all, it’s the animal’s welfare that is our primary focus. Not profits.

Without services such as ours hobbyists, stores and even vets are inclined to use wormers and antibiotics indiscriminately, regardless of what they are treating. We provide information which helps to identify better, more specific treatments and therefore discourages the use of crude ‘kill-them-all’ drugs. It’s important to remember that drugs are toxic and have negative effects which can cause bad reactions. We advocate a more sophisticated approach to treatment.

Are hobbyists and store owners able to interpret the results of your tests? And do they know what do so with the results?
Some do, but more often the test results are sent with the client to their vet who will then advise about the best course of action or treatment. We mark a sample either as ‘normal’ or we mark it as abnormal and advise them to consult with their vet as to what to do next.

Is testing that black and white? Normal or abnormal?
That’s a good question and one we spend a lot of time researching. Ascertaining a ‘normal range’ reading for the tests we do is an important part of our job. To work out what is normal we need to look at results from a large number of animals from the same conditions. It’s not good comparing samples from three different collections because the variables influencing the tests and the results will not be consistent. We’re lucky to have access to some large collections where these tests can be conducted with a high degree of consistency, which allows us to understand what is normal and what is not. From there, the vets are best placed to say what happens next.

You work with lots of vets. Is that something you thought of doing?
In my dreams it would be nice to incorporate an exotics practice, but not just yet. Being a vet is a tough, and often thankless job – particularly when they’re working with reptiles because treating reptiles is very difficult indeed. Most reptiles won’t show any signs of sickness until they are very sick indeed, by which point the odds of being able to treat the animal back to heath are pretty slim. It’s not only disheartening, but also opens the vet up to take lots of flack. Even if a vet finds a problem early, owners will often be annoyed because their animal looks healthy and resents the cost of treatment. They can’t win.

Did you know that vets have one of the highest rates of suicide in any profession? Just this year alone, three of the vets I have worked with have taken their own lives and many more have had breakdowns and mental health issues. It’s awful.

Why do you think there is so much resentment about the cost of testing and veterinary treatment?
I think it is because the NHS gives people a false perspective about the cost of healthcare. Don’t get me wrong, the NHS is great, but it isn’t really free – they’re just used to not paying for it. I think vets should leave a pathology pricelist for a private hospital in their reception area to give people an idea of the real costs. After all, the tests and the equipment we use are exactly the same as is used for humans, with all the same associated costs.

If I wanted to send a sample to you for analysis, how would I go about it?
We usually only get faecal samples from hobbyists because it isn’t easy or appropriate for hobbyists to provide blood, tissue and other samples. Faecal sample give vets a good overview of health by looking at the intestinal flora and diet bacteria rations, and faecal samples are easy enough to send. Full instructions of how to do it are available on our website, along with a submission form to ensure we have all the information we need. Samples need to be moist and not dried out, and they should be packed in an appropriate container such as those we supply. You can also get suitable containers from the chemist for a few pence if needs be. Remember, you can also ask you vet to take blood or tissue samples for you and you can have it tested anywhere you like.

You say that in such a way that implies you sometimes get sent samples that are less than ideal.
Oh, you wouldn’t believe some of the stuff we get sent. We’ve had dead budgies in a jiffy bag, all flattened out by the rollers in the postal sorting system. We’ve had carrier bags, sandwich bags and surgical gloves full of poo sent the same way, flattened out in the post. I can’t tell you some of the messes we’ve had to clean up when we’ve opened a package in the lab. We’ve had poo sent to us in plastic fizzy drinks bottles, in perfume bottles and even in a jewellery box – you know, the kind you’d get a ring in. It’s crazy. Sometimes we can still work with these though, so that’s not the worst.

We often get a faecal sample mixed in with substrate and it is so dried out that it’s unusable. We also get urates sent to us as faecal samples by people who think it comes out of the same orifice so it must be poop, and because it’s easy to pick up urates, that’s what we get sent. And we regularly get samples of poo with no information to tell us who it’s from, what animal it is or what they want us to do with it. Believe it or not, we sometimes manage to work out who sent it and do the required work. We do try our best, but boy, we’re tested to the limit sometimes.

So how should it be done?
Get a sample pot from us through our website. There’s a little spoon in the pot which allows you to scoop a small amount of poop. Avoid picking up substrate with the sample and try to get it when it is fresh. We recommend catching the poo as the animal does it, using a sheet of cling film or tin foil. Scoop a little and put it in the sample pot. The lid of the sample pot has a rubber washer which helps to lock in the moisture, because dried poop can’t be tested. Oh, and while we’re on the subject, don’t freeze a deceased animal if you want it tested. We can’t test frozen samples.

Next, download the submission form from our website and fill it in. Send both to us in the post as a small package. It’s that easy.

I guess vets are pretty good at sending samples correctly?
On the whole yes, but we do get some…err…dubious ones.

Really? That sound interesting. Tell us more.
Well, let’s just say that some samples we get probably aren’t from animals. It may have the name of a dog on the submission form, but we’re pretty sure it’s not from an animal. It’s a dead giveaway when the vet seems unusually interested in the results of the test. We don’t mind really. It’s the same tests and the same cost. We’re happy to help.

What’s the most common frustrations you experience in your role at the lab?
That’s easy. Misidentified yellow fungus disease – CANV. People are paranoid – hobbyists, shops and vets alike. Anything yellow and they’re immediately worried about CANV. It’s usually just a retained shed in our experience, and it can be easily removed. Unfortunately I’ve seen limbs amputated because a yellow substance was misidentified. Let me tell you, if you see something yellow on your reptile, it probably isn’t CANV. We’ve only ever seen one case of positively identified CANV in the animal laboratory.

Salmonella is another common one. While reptiles can carry many bacteria and parasites in the wild these are usually within tolerable levels and don’t overwhelm the host. Most of the salmonella we see in reptiles just happen to be the same types that are carried by humans. Those which are not carried by humans are rare to see in captive reptiles, which tells us something about where the animal is being infected. It’s also common for a captive reptile to be treated and eradicated of salmonella infection, only to have it reoccur because they have been re-infected. You can get rid of it. All of my animals are treated until they are pathogen free.

It’s also worth mentioning again the over use and inappropriate use of antibiotics. Because most vets have a limited training in antibiotic use, and especially reptile related antibiotic treatment, they are often compelled to use a broad-spectrum antibiotic as a ‘cure-all’ instead of testing to see which antibiotic is most effective. Very few do proper testing before administering, and fewer still do proper testing afterwards to see how effective it has been. Again, this isn’t always the fault of the vet as they’re often trying to keep the cost of treatment down by not doing the necessary tests. Cost is almost always the issue, but mistreatment can be harmful, counterproductive, more expensive and helps to promote antibiotic resistant strains. It’s very frustrating. There are already antibiotic resistant strains found in animals and these animals have to be put to sleep. It’s only a matter of time before there’s an antibiotic resistant strain which can affect humans, and what do we do then?

Finally, I’d like to strongly discourage the old wives’ tale treatments you see being recommended on the internet. Soaking reptiles in apple cider isn’t at all effective or helpful and neither smothering them in oil a good way to get rid of mites. But worst of all is the practice of hobbyists sharing their animal’s drugs with their mates. Just because it worked for you, doesn’t mean it will work for them. Same goes for using one treatment on another animal with similar symptoms, and storing drugs for use with other animals at a later date. Please stop doing this and tell your customers to stop doing it as well.

What do you see in the future of laboratory testing in the reptile hobby?
It will be interesting to see the new issues resulting from bioactive set ups. While bioactive is an interesting progression in the hobby, we need to be vigilant and ready for new issues which may occur as a result. We’re currently researching the effects of the excretions of the clean-up crew insects and we’re finding respiratory pathogens and other flora that is not normally part of the host animal’s system. We’re also seeing issues caused by the damp conditions, such as fungal spores. It’s an interesting new trend and there’s a lot of new stuff we need to learn. We’ll be doing our part to find out all we can.

Interview with Mary Pinborough – Pinmoore Animal Laboratory Services

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