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Expanding the Web of Knowledge about Pet Spider Medicine

Pet Column for the week of December 5, 2011

Related information:

Related site - Exotic Animal Services at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital
Species - Exotics

[needle drawing hemolymph from giant spider]
Collecting hemolymph, essentially spider "blood," from a Goliath bird-eating spider. The sample is being collected directly from the heart. Photo copyright Dr. Mark Mitchell.

Office of Public Engagement
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Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Andrea Lin
Information Specialist

The idea of bringing an ailing pet spider to the doctor may be enough to knock Miss Muffet right off her tuffet, but consider this: pet spiders may live 20 years or more, and some are valued at hundreds of dollars.

But unfortunately, while it may make sense to seek treatment for an ill spider, actually doing so could be rather difficult. The trouble is, not very much is known about spider health.

Dr. Mark Mitchell, a veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, is working to change that problem. He has published several articles that begin to document important markers of spider health.

If the patient were a person, pig, parrot, or even piranha, a blood chemistry might be used to gain insight into health status. Instead of blood, spiders have hemolymph. Dr. Mitchell's first study examined the biochemical profile of the hemolymph of goliath bird eater spiders and Chilean rose spiders.

His goal was to establish a reference range — a range of numbers to be considered normal — for calcium, sodium, glucose and other components of the hemolymph. Because sickness can cause certain components to increase or decrease in concentration, knowing an average range for normal healthy animals can enable veterinarians to detect abnormal values.

A second study on giant spiders by Dr. Mitchell looked at vitamin D levels in the hemolymph of goliath bird eater spiders, another area in which little prior research had been done. Vitamin D is important to the management of calcium levels. Calcium is needed for bone health in animals with skeletons (vertebrates), but invertebrates, such as spiders, which do not have bones, likely have very different calcium needs.

The study found that vitamin D is present in hemolymph. Dr. Mitchell says more research is needed to determine the role of vitamin D in the spider's metabolism.

Dr. Mitchell also participated in a study of the effects of gas anesthesia on goliath bird-eater spiders and Chilean rose spiders. The anesthetic gas studied was isoflurane, which is commonly used in veterinary medicine. The spiders were found to react to the anesthesia much like mammals. Both types of spiders fell asleep within 10 minutes of administration of the anesthesia, but the effects wore off more quickly in the Chilean rose spider than in the goliath bird-eater.

This study helps establish baseline data for developing an anesthesia protocol for spiders. Additional studies are needed to look at other anesthesia drugs for giant spiders.

"Invertebrates are increasingly gaining attention as pets and exhibit animals," says Dr. Mitchell. "These studies are important because they collect baseline information needed for good veterinary medical care."

As the number of pet spiders grows, you can be sure there will be more veterinarians studying these eight-legged patients and learning to provide expert care for them.