Monday, January 25, 2016

Chomp Chomp

Many people assume that veterinarians get bitten a lot. In the ultrasound referral part of my practice where I don't know the patients I often get comments accompanied by a wry chuckle along the lines of, "It's a good thing you're seeing 'Killer' today, 'Precious' would take your arm off!" (This also illustrates a general principle that there is an inverse correlation between the name of the patient and its behaviour.) I'll sometimes catch people mentally counting my ten intact fingers. The truth is that I've only been badly bitten twice. I've been in practice 25 years and see somewhere in the neighborhood of a couple thousand patients a year. These are much better odds than you probably guessed.

That being said, the exceptions form an indelible mental rogue's gallery. Every veterinarian has one of these.  At the top of mine is Oscar Westenheimer. Oscar was a little chihuahua cross (of course he was) who resembled a baked potato with four toothpicks stuck in for legs and an angry walnut for a head. Oscar was in for a nail trim. We knew that he had anger issues so we were careful to muzzle him. The nail trim was done up on a table and afterwards Oscar was set back on the floor and then the muzzle was taken off. Have you guys been to Sea World? Or at least seen a video clip of when the trainer stands on a high platform and holds a fish out for Shamu who leaps cleanly out of the water to get the fish? Well, Oscar was Shamu, I was the inadvertent trainer and my right index finger was the fish. How that little baked potato could catch so much air astonishes me to this day, but as soon as the muzzle was off, up he came. Sailing through the air, fangs sharpened and then chomp, right through the fingernail. Off it came. This hurt. Fortunately the client wasn't there so I was able to verbally express myself in an honest and uncensored fashion.

The second time was more surprising. Despite the name I generally trusted Peaches so I thought nothing of examining her mouth. I carefully opened her mouth, holding the upper jaw steady with my left hand while gently levering the lower jaw down with that poor right index finger. Chomp. I still don't know why. She always wondered what it would be like? I didn't wash my hands thoroughly after lunch? Early onset doggie dementia?  

This is why we get bitten so rarely (relatively). The great majority of dogs will warn you using body language. I was probably too intent on chatting with the owner and on Peaches' tartar to tune into her warnings.

Occasionally though you will encounter a sociopathic dog. A dog who does not conform to the norms of dog communication. A dog who is going to bite you just for the heck of it. So although it was not a "bad bite" (i.e. no wound dressings and antibiotics required), Daffodil deserves honorable mention in my rogue's gallery. She was a Brazilian German shepherd. Very expensive, very fancy. She sat perfectly beside the owner in the waiting room, just as a very expensive, very fancy dog is expected to. The owner and I were talking and I was leaning on the reception counter, perhaps as far away from them as the distance across the average living room. Daffodil looked very relaxed and at ease. And then, before I could flinch or even blink, she was across the room with her jaw clamped on my thigh. Half a second later she was back beside the owner, sitting primly again, as if nothing had happened. The owner seemed unfazed. I, however, was thoroughly fazed and excused myself to go take my pants off in the washroom. She hadn't broken the skin, but had given me temporary red dental chart tattoo.  

What about cats? I've been lucky. Cats also generally give plenty of warning. A cat that is going to bite you radiates tension like a force field. I've also become very adept at carrying them gingerly like unexploded ordinance and handing them over to my staff, who are almost magical in their ability to manage the exploding cat. Usually. I do get scratched with tiresome regularity though. Once the nails went right through my lab coat and through my shirt, raking me across the chest and giving me a faintly piratical scar that I bear to this day.

But Oscar, oh Oscar, when I am one hundred years old and drooling and cannot remember that shoes go on my feet and not on my hands I will remember you.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Purr

It's time for a cat story. Just a little one. A little one about one of this mysterious species' most asked about mysteries: the purr.

Little gladdens the heart of a veterinarian like a healthy kitten check-up, especially if it is after a long series of messy, complex, sad, smelly or chaotic appointments (in other words - a normal day). You walk into the room, introduce yourself and then proceed to stroke a fluffy happy kitten while discussing various easy kitten care subjects with the happy owners. I imagine that when some of you picture the life of the small animal veterinarian you picture something like this. Well, it represents somewhere between 2 to 3% of what we do (see reference to sad, messy, complex etc. above), but it is a lovely 2 to 3%. After the stroking and chatting you begin to examine said kitten. This is also pleasant as it hasn't learned to hate you yet. Then you place the stethoscope on the kitten's chest and hear.... amplified purring. This may sound cute, but it is annoying as you really do want to hear the heart and lungs. There are a few different tricks to get them to stop,  but my favorite is to carry the kitten with the stethoscope still in place over to the sink and then turn on the tap (slowly and carefully, lest you freak the kitten out and the visit shifts into the messy, complex, chaotic column). This almost always surprises them enough to make them stop purring for a few seconds.

The owners typically chuckle about this and then sometimes ask, "So why do they purr?"
My answer: "We don't know."
I was tempted to end the post there, just for dramatic effect, but that would be irritatingly glib. And it is also disingenuous as although we don't know for sure, we do have some decent guesses now.

First of all, what actually is a purr? There used to be all kinds of wacky theories, but the answer ends up being the most obvious one: the purr comes from a vibration in the larynx (voice box) controlled by the rhythmic pulses of a neural oscillator in the brain. Ok, the "neural oscillator" part may not be that obvious, but you might have guessed at the voice box. Cats with laryngeal paralysis can't purr. Some of you may have a cat that doesn't seem to purr. This does not mean that they have laryngeal paralysis as that is quite rare, but rather the thinking is that some purr so quietly that you cannot hear it. These cats will still have a vibrating larynx, but you would have to know exactly where to feel, how to feel and, most importantly, when to feel in order to detect this. The number who truly never purr is likely really very small, like people who truly never smile.

Which brings me to the main question, the why. Is it like smiling? The answer that is emerging from the fray of competing theories is that purring does resemble smiling in that it is used for social bonding, especially between kittens and their mothers (and cats and their owners with can openers). Moreover, like smiling, it results in endorphins being released. This also explains why cats don't just purr when they're happy, but also when they are injured or in pain. The endorphins provide natural internal pain relief. (Does this means you should smile when someone punches you in the gut? Of course it does.) Even cooler, to my mind, is the well supported suggestion that the vibrations from the 25 - 50 Hz frequency range of a cats' purr actually encourage tissue healing. The time may not be far off when we are told to strap a cat to our knee when we tear our ACL. Obviously some practicalities would have to be worked out first.

So, is there any downside to purring? Potentially yes:

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Ballad of the Prairie Flea

I have listened to my restless readers who have been quietly grumbling, "Ostriches, seeing eye dogs, killer rabbits, Christmas gerbils... that's all well and good, but when are you finally going to tell us something useful Schott? When??" When is now. My intent is to balance the blog between quirky animal stories, insights into the experience of being a veterinarian and actual pet health information.

Which brings me to fleas.

I'm willing to wager that if you were visiting your psychiatrist and he said "What's the first word that comes to mind when I say 'dog'?", a reasonable percentage of you would say "fleas" (those of you who didn't say "bone", which is worthy of a post on its own). Most cartoon dogs have fleas and children tune ukuleles to "my dog has fleas". An itchy dog is presumed by many to have fleas. But not so fast. Most of you reading this live on the Canadian Prairies, and woe betide the poor Prairie flea. You see, fleas love heat and fleas love humidity. Consequently there are many many many fleas in Tallahassee and no fleas at all in Tuktoyuktuk. For better or worse Winnipeg, and the rest of the Prairies, is a lot more like Tuktoyuktuk than Tallahassee. Next time you're in Florida pay attention to how many veterinary clinics you see. A lot, right? Fleas. It's all because of fleas.

Despite this ground truth the culture still teaches people to assume that an itchy dog or cat has fleas. It used to be the number one myth I would bust. We would see the occasional case of fleas, perhaps two or three a year, versus the literally hundreds and hundreds of dogs and cats itchy because of allergies (yes, allergies - extremely common). I would marvel at this tough or perhaps misguided little Prairie flea and wonder how she got here and what her plan for the winter was. A year ago this would have been a quick and simple post to write - your pet does not have fleas. Done. This last fall however... something has changed. They are still very rare, but we had perhaps eight or ten cases, quadruple the average. We're not becoming Tallahassee any time soon, but we seem to be inching a little closer. Add fleas to your running list of climate change consequences. Al Gore didn't warn us about this.

And how do you know your pet has fleas? Ideally you see the mighty flea itself, but they are tiny and astonishingly quick and they are only on the animal to feed, the rest of the time they are - gulp - out and about in your house. Instead we rely on a gross flea fact. Fleas drink blood and then poop out the digested blood. Consequently flea poop looks like little black dirt particles in your pet's fur. Take one of these particles, place it on a white sheet of paper, wet it slightly and then streak it with your finger. If it streaks reddish brown, like the "Indian Red" in the old Laurentian pencil crayons, then you, my friend, have fleas in your house and it is time for you to panic. No, I'm kidding, you should never panic, but you should be very slightly grossed out. (Note: cats may groom the flea dirt off, complicating matters somewhat.)

I won't go into treatment in any detail except to say, perhaps predictably, that you should talk to your veterinarian as it is a bit complicated. However I will say a word about flea collars. That word is "useless". I have had clients come in and declare that the flea collar works well because Bozo doesn't have any fleas. This is akin to the man wearing the tinfoil hat declaring that it's working because aliens have not been able to zap him with mind control beams. The Prairie flea may have a little more swagger these days, but your pet would still have to be extraordinarily unlucky to encounter one.