Adventures in Veterinary Medicine

Adventures in Veterinary Medicine – Finding a New Vet

For the first time in over fifteen years, I find myself in a position of having to find a new vet for Allegra and any future feline family members, and I’m finding that it’s not an easy thing to do.  During the years I worked in veterinary hospitals, I always had an up close and personal knowledge of the vets who worked on Feebee, Amber and Buckley, from their medical skills and proficiency to their dedication and “bedside manner.”  I thought I’d never find better vets than the husband and wife team who owned the practice I managed for eight years.  Janet and Jack were the kinds of veterinarians you read about in James Herriot-style books. They were both completely dedicated to their profession. In addition to practicing exceptional, cutting edge medicine, they had elevated the art of compassionate care for their furry patients and their humans to levels that are rare even in a profession that is based on caring for animals.  There were many nights when, instead of leaving a sick pet at the practice overnight, they’d take him home and watch over him in their bedroom or bathroom.  Both of them loved their work, and they were always learning and growing in their fields.  They were a tough act to follow. 

When I left their practice to start my own business, I began looking for a new vet.  The clinic I had worked at was a forty-five minute drive from home, and neither Amber nor Buckley ever did well on the long drive.  I never thought I’d find someone as good as Janet and Jack.  And then I met Fern (some of you already know Fern from my book, from some of the articles she’s written for The Conscious Cat, and from our first Ask the Vet teleseminar).  Fern and I hit it off immediately.  Not only were her practice philosophies in synch with what I was looking for, she is the consummate cat vet, and one of the most brilliant people I ever met.  And even better, we became very good friends in a very short time.  Unfortunately, she recently had to make the difficult decision to retire, at least for the foreseeable future, from her beloved profession due to a family health problem.  While I am fortunate that she will always be available to me for advice or a second opinion, I still need to find a new vet, since she’s not currently affiliated with a hospital and can’t do much beyond basic physical exams without that affiliation.  As you might expect, with my background, my standards of what I expect in a vet are very high. 

I’ve previously written about how to tell whether your vet is cat-friendly, and how to choose the right vet for your pet.  One of the things I always stress when I talk to people about this subject is that I think it’s a good idea to make an appointment without your pet when evaluating a veterinary clinic.  By going to see potential vets without your cat, you will be more relaxed.  Ask for a tour of the hospital.  If you want to speak with a veterinarian, offer to pay for an office visit.  Most vets won’t charge you for this introductory visit, but it sets the right tone for a future relationship of mutual respect.  Come prepared with a list of questions.  Some of the questions I’ll be asking on my search are:

  • How many veterinarians are at the practice?
  • Will I always see the same vet?
  • Are there vets at the practice that specialize in working with cats, or that have a preference for working with cats?
  • Are they open to holistic modalities, even if they don’t practice them?
  • Are appointments required?
  • How are emergencies handled?
  • What is their policy for visiting hospitalized pets?
  • Are diagnostic services such as x-rays, blood work, ultrasound, EKG, endoscopy done in-house, or will they be referred to a specialist?
  • Do the veterinarians use VIN (the Veterinary Information Network)?  This is generally an indicator that they’re interested in pursuing continuing education and that they are staying on top of the latest developments in their profession.

I’ve narrowed my own search down to two hospitals – one of them a feline-only practice, which is what I would prefer, but it is further from home than I would like (about a half hour’s drive), the other a small animal practice with a terrific reputation much closer to home.  I’ll let you know which one I pick when it’s time for Allegra’s first check up.

Picture shows Allegra on the day I first met her, on an exam table at the veterinary clinic I adopted her from.

Adventures in Veterinary Medicine – Ingrid

Yes, you read right.   This Adventures in Veterinary Medicine post is about me, not one of the animals I encountered in my years of working in the profession. 

In Buckley’s Story, I share my story of how Buckley helped me take the leap to start my own business.  But this wasn’t the first step on my journey toward finding my bliss.  Prior to starting my Healing Hands business, I worked in various facets of the veterinary profession for twelve years. 

It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I started my professional life by translating manuals for a computer manufacturer.  Then I wrote and translated ad copy for a magazine about diesel and gas turbines.  After that, I worked as a travel agent for a while.  Eventually, I ended up at a financial services corporation, beginning as a receptionist and working my way up into middle management.  After fifteen years in corporate America, I had enough.  At that point in my life, I was looking for purpose and meaning in all areas of my life, including my work.  That’s where veterinary medicine came in. 

Feebee, my first cat and the love of my life for almost sixteen years, who got me through a period of great upheaval in my life in the mid-90’s when my marriage of thirteen years ended and my mother died, all within a four month period, developed bladder stones (most likely, as a result of trying to absorb some of my stress).  We ended up spending a lot of time at various veterinary hospitals while he was going through treatment, and ultimately surgery (he fully recovered and lived for many more years).  One afternoon, I was sitting in the waiting room of an animal hospital while they were taking x-rays of Feebee in the back, and I looked around and found myself wondering what it might be like to work in an environment like that.  The thought wouldn’t let go.  I started to do some research, and saw an ad for an office manager position at a nearby vet clinic.  I knew I was well-qualified for the position from a business perspective, even though I knew very little about the inner workings of a veterinary practice at the time.  I applied, and was invited for an interview.  The clinic’s owner offered me the position.    Sadly, I couldn’t afford to take it at the time.  The one aspect of veterinary medicine I hadn’t researched very well ahead of time was the pay – the salary offered was not enough to support myself.   So, instead, I asked whether I could volunteer at the clinic .  The clinic’s owner laughed and said sure, why not!

My first day as a volunteer at the clinic arrived.  I was so excited.  I didn’t really know what to expect.  I was introduced to the head technician, who I was going to be shadowing all day.  I was told that, due to insurance restrictions, I wasn’t allowed to touch any of the animals there, which was a bit of a disappointment.  I had sort of figured that if I was going to be allowed to do anything, it wouldn’t be too terribly glamorous.  I was prepared to do lowly things like cleaning cages and emptying trash if that’s what it took.  I just wanted to be in a clinic environment and learn as much as I could through observation and by osmosis.  

The first thing the technician showed me how to do was to set up a fecal test.  In retrospect, I think it was a test on her part to see how dedicated I was to this volunteering gig.  She showed me how to separate out a small amount of stool from the (giant! smelly!) sample the dog’s owner had dropped off, and how to set it up in a small plastic vial with a solution that would allow any parasites that might be in the sample to float to the top.  Icky, stinky, nasty work.  I was in heaven.  That’s when I realized it – I had found my bliss.  If I could feel this happy playing with a fecal sample, surely I had found my calling!  

It was the beginning of a twelve year journey.  I was eventually hired as a part-time receptionist at this clinic, then went to work part-time at my own vet’s clinic, where I was trained as a veterinary assistant.  I did everything from cleaning cages to answering phones to giving injections and monitoring anesthesia.   I reduced my hours at the day job as a business analyst at a financial services corporation to part-time status, and for the next three years, I worked pretty much seven days a week at either the day job or the vet clinic.  Being at the vet clinic never felt like work, no matter how many hours I spent there – another sign that I had found my passion.  In 1998, I quit the day job and took a hospital manager position at a vet clinic, in essence combining my business background with my newfound love for veterinary medicine.   It was the beginning of my adventures in veterinary medicine.

You really can find your bliss in the most unexpected places.

Adventures in Veterinary Medicine – Oliver

When I first began working in veterinary hospitals, I did a little bit of everything.  I worked as a receptionist, veterinary assistant, and kennel attendant.  Being a kennel attendant involved taking care of animals that were boarding at the hospital, which included everything from cleaning their cages, making sure they had fresh food and water, walking them, and giving them medications if needed.  I loved kennel duty despite the less glamorous aspects of cleaning cages and litter boxes and cleaning up after the dogs after taking them out in the hospital’s small backyard.  Kennel duty, especially on weekends and holidays, gave me a chance to spend time with individual animals, time that wasn’t always available during the busy work week when we had surgical patients and pets coming for vet appointments.  I became particularly fond of several frequent boarders, and one that still sticks out in my mind after all these years was a cat named Oliver.

Oliver was a 19-year-old white cat with some brown and black tabby markings.   He was hyperthyroid, and he had kidney disease.  He was skin and bones.  His owners traveled frequently for a few days at a time, and they would board him with us, feeling more comfortable having a veterinarian available in case one was needed rather than leaving Oliver at home in the care of a pet sitter.  He was the first of many geriatric cats that I fell in love with.  There’s something about these wise old souls with their sweet old faces that has always touched my heart.  Oliver needed a lot of special attention while he was boarding, and I gladly gave it to him.  He often needed to be handfed because his appetite was hit or miss.  He wasn’t always cooperative when it came to taking his medication.  But he always, always wanted lots of affection, and he was very vocal both about requesting it and in his appreciation of it – he would start out demanding to be petted with a loud, plaintive cry, and then he’d show his appreciation with a faint, but steady purr.

Even when I had a kennel full of pets to take care of during my shift, I always made extra time for Oliver.  I wasn’t required to be there all day on weekends or holidays, the animals needed to be taken care of three times a day, and depending on their needs, there was often time in between the morning, mid-day and evening shifts to go home for a couple of hours, but when Oliver was boarding, I usually stayed between at least two of my shifts and just sat with him purring away in my lap. 

Each time Oliver went home after boarding at the hospital, I always wondered whether I’d see him again.  At his age, and with his multiple health problems, I knew he didn’t have that much time left.  So each time he was boarding, on my last shift during his stay, I made sure to say a proper good-bye, just in case it was going to be the last one.  And I hoped that if, in the end, he reached a point where euthanasia was indicated, it would happen on a day when I was working so I’d get another chance at one last good bye.

Sadly, I got my wish.  A few days before his 20th birthday, his family brought Oliver to the clinic.  I was asked to assist with his euthanasia, and I got to say good bye to my grizzled old friend one last time.  I had assisted with euthanasias before, and usually managed not to cry until after the client had left, but this one was different.  I couldn’t hold back my tears as I assisted the vet.  Oliver passed away peacefully, surrounded by his family, and one veterinary assistant who’d fallen in love with him.

Photo: morguefile

Adventures in Veterinary Medicine – Virginia

As those of you who read Buckley’s Story know, Buckley was my office cat at the animal hospital I managed for eight years before she came to live with Amber and I.   She wasn’t the first one, though.  Not the first tortie, and not the first office cat.  Before Buckley, and even before Amber, there was Virginia.

I first met Virginia when I went for my first interview for the hospital manager position at the Middleburg Animal Hospital.   The hospital was then owned by Drs. Jack Love and Janet McKim, a husband and wife team.  I had spoken to Janet on the phone briefly before my interview, but really didn’t know what to expect.  This was in the days before every animal hospital had a website.  I knew what I was looking for in a potential employer as far as practice philosophy, and in addition, I was looking for a clinic that had that intangible right “feel.”

As soon as I walked into the waiting room of the hospital, I knew I had found the right place.   There was an old-fashioned wooden bench, a rocking chair, and the walls were covered with photos of dogs and cats.  A large free-standing cage held several kittens.  When Janet came up to greet me, I was even more sure.  I instantly liked her.  She took me back to her office and began the interview.

After a few minutes, a beautiful tortoiseshell cat walked into the office.  “That’s Virginia,” explained Janet.  “She’s one of our two hospital cats.”  Virginia proceded to walk over to me, looked up at me, and then dug her claws into my legs and used them as a scratching post.  I wondered whether that was part of the interview – a test, perhaps, to see how I would react?  In hindsight, I realized that, of course, this was the moment she marked me as her own.  I had dressed up for the interview and was wearing a skirt and pantihose – I can honestly say it was the first and only time in my life I left an interview with runs in my pantihouse caused by kitty claws!  The interview went well, and I left feeling hopeful that I would be offered the job.

A couple of weeks later, Janet called to invite me to go out to dinner with her and Jack.  We sealed the deal over dinner, and I spent the next eight wonderful years working at the Middleburg Animal Hospital.  And the fact that Virginia was part of the deal only increased my happiness.

She was estimated to be about ten years old.  She was FIV positive.  FIV is the feline version of the aids virus.  It is contagious, but is primarily spread through bite wounds.  Casual, non-aggressive contact does not spread the virus, and it is not zoonotic, which means it cannot be spread from cat to humans.  However, Virginia’s owners were not comfortable keeping an FIV positive cat and had left her at the animal hospital for euthanasia.  Somehow, the hospital staff never got around to it, and by the time someone remembered, she had wormed her way into too many hearts for them to go through with it.

Virginia was the poster child for “tortitude” – that unique personality of tortoiseshell cats.  She had definitely read the manual.  She was feisty, independent, and set in her ways.  The only other animal she liked was Marmy, our other hospital cat, a sweet, wise old medium-haired orange cat.  You could often find Marmy in his cat bed, with Virginia curled around him, squeezed into the small bed with him.

She liked most of the staff members, but this was not always mutual.  She thought nothing of using her claws if she felt like someone wasn’t doing her bidding (ie, petting her properly, feeding her on her schedule, or committing any number of transgressions only she knew about).  None of these were exactly the kinds of  qualities you’d look for in a hospital cat!  At one point, early on during my time as manager, there was talk of sending her to a nearby sanctuary for FIV positive cats.  I was nervous about doing so, but I set an ultimatum:  if Virginia went, so would I.  Thankfully, by then Janet and Jack had come to rely on me, and took my “threat” seriously.  Virginia got to stay.

She loved me fiercely.  She would be at the door to greet me each morning.  When I took a few days off, the staff would tell me that she’d been looking for me, and when I returned to work, the look on her face made it clear that she did not appreicate being abandoned like that.  She had her routine, and it didn’t vary much from day to day.  In the morning, she’d sleep in a cat bed I had placed in front of a sunny window on my desk, next to my computer.  She’d spend most mornings napping, but she also made sure that I paid attention to her, often clawing at my “mouse hand” to get my attention.  As lunch time got closer, she would park herself on the bench in the exam room adjacent to my office, where most of the staff gathered for lunch each day.  She loved to mooch off of peoples’ lunches, with morsels of meat or cold cuts and yogurt, especially peach flavored, being favorites.

For four years, she made my office my home away from home.  She showed no symptoms of her disease.   Then, in the spring of 2002, she started to decline rapidly.  She seemed to lose energy, and her always healthy appetite started to wane.  She couldn’t make it to the litterbox in time and had frequent accidents outside the box.  She wouldn’t come to greet me at the door in the mornings.  An ultrasound showed that her heart and liver were in bad shape.

On a sunny April morning, we decided that it was time.  I spent her last morning in the office with her in her bed by my side.  When I wasn’t crying, I was calling staff members who were not on duty that day to let them know, in case they wanted to be present for her final moments.   I held her on my lap in the office, surrounded by all the people who had been a part of her world, as she took her last breath.  I don’t think there are many cats who got the kind of send off she did.

I still miss her.  The photo above was on my desk at the animal hospital until I left; now, it’s on a shelf in my office here at home.  She was my introduction to and beginning of my love affair with torties.  She still has a piece of my heart.

Adventures in Veterinary Medicine – Diesel

In this second installment in our Adventures in Veterinary Medicine series, meet Diesel.  Diesel was brought into the animal hospital by a client who had found him by the side of the road, barely breathing and clearly in pain.   His long black and white coat was matted, and he was covered in gasoline and motor oil.  The fumes coming off of him were enough to warrant wearing a gas mask – and yes, you guessed it, that’s how he got his name.  Veterinary clinic staff members sometimes have a warped sense of humor when it comes to naming strays.

When our veterinarian examined him, it turned out that he had a broken pelvis, and multiple contusions.   They gave him pain medication, and then the staff went to work with a mild detergent, washing the gas and oil off of him.  Diesel was patient and didn’t resist any of these treatments, he simply seemed relieved that his ordeal by the side of the road was over.  He was set up in a cage with a soft blanket, plenty of food and a warming lamp.  Once his fur had dried from the bath he was given, he got a gentle brushing.  The cat underneath all that gasoline and motor oil was a beauty.  He was a bit emaciated and had clearly been living outdoors fending for himself, but he had a loving and affectionate disposition, which made us believe that at some point, he may have been someone’s pet.   His wonderful personality  got him plenty of attention, petting, and being fussed over by everyone on the staff while he was recuperating.  The type of pelvic fracture he had did not require surgery, he simply needed to be kept quiet to allow the bones to heal naturally, and he received supportive care during his recovery.  No owner came forward to claim him during this time, so after a couple of weeks, he went to Casey’s House – coincidentally, the same private rescue group where Buckley came from.  Given Diesel’s personality, we didn’t think it would take long for him to be adopted.

A few days after he went to Casey’s House, Diesel began to develop some disturbing neurological symptoms, so he was brought back to our animal hospital for observation and care.   Since he initially came to the hospital covered in gasoline and motor oil, there was certainly the possibility that absorbing these toxic chemicals through his skin could have caused these symptoms.  However, since his vaccine history was unknown and he had clearly been a stray, rabies could not be ruled out.

Rabies is zoonotic, which means it can be transmitted from animals to humans.  The only way rabies can be diagnosed with 100% certainty is through a dFA test on the animal’s brain tissue, and for this, the animal has to be euthanized.   The thought of euthanizing a beautiful cat like Diesel without being sure that he really had rabies was emotionally challenging for all of us, but we also had to think of the risk to the humans who had come into contact with him.  Rabies is transmitted by the saliva of an infected animal, and contact with even a minor skin wound on a human can present a risk.  Rabies, once contracted, is always fatal if prophylactic injections are not started within 24-48 hours after infection.  Our hospital had a policy that only staff who was vaccinated against rabies could handle the occasional injured wildlife that was brought into our clinic, but we had not enforced this policy for stray cats, even though in hindsight, we should have.  Almost everyone on our staff had at some point petted and touched Diesel, whether they had been vaccinated or not.

The thought of euthanizing this beautiful cat if there was even a chance that he could recover was devastating.  Thankfully, Diesel made the decision easy for us.  He declined so rapidly, and it was clear that he was suffering, so euthanasia was not only the right thing to do for the humans involved, but also for him.  His rabies test came back positive.  Almost twenty staff members had to undergo a series of rabies vaccinations. 

This story will always stick with me not because it was a hospital manager’s worst nightmare – making sure that everyone who came into contact with Diesel was identified and appraised of the risk and the need to get the series of injections, reassuring scared and worried employees, arranging for the health department to schedule the injections for our staff, dealing with the insurance companies involved – but also, because of Diesel.  Even though he had contracted this horrible disease in addition to being hit by a car, at least, thanks to the good Samaritan who brought him to our clinic, he was loved and cared for during the last few weeks of his life, even if it was at a veterinary hospital.   And in the end, he did not have to die alone.

Adventures in Veterinary Medicine – Beast

I worked in various veterinary clinics for over twelve years, and during those years, I met some pretty amazing cats and dogs.  The memories of some of these animals, as well as the lessons they taught, have stuck with me over the years, and I thought it was time to share some of their stories.  I’m calling the series “Adventures in Veterinary Medicine,” because for me, that’s what my journey in this wonderful profession was – a never-ending adventure.  No two days were ever alike, just like no two animals were ever the same.   In this first installment in our Adventures in Veterinary Medicine series, meet Beast.

Beast was a big bruiser of a cat.  He was a brown and white tabby with a huge head, giant paws – and caution stickers all over his veterinary record.  Most veterinary clinics won’t actually write “beware of cat” or “killer cat” in their records.  Instead, they use a sticker system to indicate whether an animal may be challenging to work with, aggressive, fearful, a biter – you get the idea.  Beast’s chart had the highest number of stickers I’d seen in any of our charts.

Beasts owners traveled quite a bit, and since Beast had some urinary tract issues, they were not comfortable leaving him at home with a pet sitter, so they boarded him at the clinic with us.  Beast hated being confined in a cage.  But even more than being in a cage, he hated it when anyone so much as approached his cage, and he made his displeasure known by hissing, growling and throwing himself at the cage’s door.  It made taking care of him challenging, to say the least, but we did the best we could, and usually, we’d let our most experienced technicians, our “cat wranglers,” deal with him.  But on weekends, whoever  had kennel duty had to find a way to clean out Beast’s cage, give him fresh food and water, and change his litterbox.  At the time, I worked a lot of weekends as a kennel attendant, so the odds were good that I would have to deal with Beast at some point. 

I had been trained in safe and proper feline restraint techniques – techniques that made handling safe for both the cat being handled, and for the person handling the cat.  But I’d never had to work with a fractious cat without another person to help me.  Rather than using the restraint techniques I had been taught, I decided to try a different approach.  I completely ignored Beast’s posturing, hissing and growling while I took care of the other animals in the kennel.  Whenever I passed his cage, I quietly talked to him, but never acknowledged his aggressive behavior.   When I had taken care of everyone else, I walked back to Beast’s cage and just stood and quietly talked to him or a while.  And much to my delight, he calmed down, and just sat at the front of the cage watching me with a puzzled expression on his face.  Why wasn’t I afraid of him?  Why didn’t I cower in fear like all the other people he’d so successfully scared off?  Eventually I slowly unlatched the door to his cage and opened it slightly.  Beast didn’t react.  No hissing, growling, or lunging.  What I felt coming from him, more than anything, was curiosity.  I slowly opened the cage door wider, talking to him all the while.  He stood up.  I remained calm, trying very hard not to flinch.  What happened next is not something I could have predicted in my wildest dreams.  This big cat who had terrorized our entire staff, put his paws on my shoulders and buried his face in the crook of my neck and started a rumbling purr.  He rubbed his face against mine, never once letting go of his “hug” around my shoulders.  

I was eventually able to pick him up and move him to an empty cage while I cleaned his cage and gave him fresh food, water and a clean litterbox.  I was able to put him back in his cage without any fuss.  He kept rubbing up against the front of the cage even after I had closed the door, purring all the while.  The Beast had been tamed. 

He was never this calm with any of the other staff members after this experience, but he also wasn’t as aggressive anymore. I often wondered what changed for him that day.  Was it that someone didn’t expect him to be aggressive, so he didn’t act aggressive?  Had he just finally reached a point where he was so starved for human affection after a few days at the clinic that he realized how counterproductive his behavior was?  

Things aren’t always what they seem.  A fractious, aggressive cat may simply be starved for attention.  A big, intimidating tom with a name that is meant to inspire fear may be a great big teddy bear.  The lesson for me in this story was to trust my instincts.  It may not have been the smartest choice on a rational level, but it felt like the right thing to do.  Intuition never lies.