Lessons for a vet from his own sick animals

By Pete Wedderburn

Published 20/02/2016 | 00:00

Pete Wedderburn
Pete Wedderburn
Gladstone suffered from bone cancer in his old age

The best way to learn about any subject is to experience it yourself.

As a vet in practice, obviously I can't suffer from animal illnesses myself, but I have learned many lessons about diseases through treating my own patients who have been affected. It can be difficult to fully appreciate the subtleties of rare conditions by reading about them in a text book. When a patient with an illness is standing on the consulting table in front of you, the impact is far greater.

Examples that stand out include a dog with rabies (when I was working in Africa), a Labrador with a rare malignant skin cancer, a cat that had inhaled a tiny gravel pebble and a snake that suffered from mouth rot. In each case, when I first saw my patient, I had only learned about the illness from the written word during my veterinary training. While memory based on printed text is useful (knowing the essential facts is an absolute necessity when making a diagnosis for a sick animal), the experience of real life cases changes things completely. I have an enriched memory of each of the above conditions: the basic facts are supplemented by the touch, sight, sound and smell of those individual patients. If I come across further examples of these rare conditions, I will be quicker to make the diagnosis.

I've also found that there's an even better way to learn about an animal illness: when one of your own pets suffers from it. My childhood dog, a Golden Retriever called Sheba, developed "pyometra" , a common womb infection. As a vet student, when I was asked about this subject in an examination, it was easy for me, as I had learned about the condition first hand.

More recently, as he grew older, my own dog Spot suffered from arthritis and Alzheimer's (Canine Cognitive Dysfunction). Through months and years of treating him, and observing the effects of treatment, I learned many lessons about these common illnesses. I often find my memories of Spot's treatment useful now when treating patients at my clinic.

There are many other examples: I have had dozens of pets, and have experienced many conditions first hand.

There is one pet and one illness that stands out particularly clearly in my mind: Gladstone, a Burmese cat who was unlucky enough to develop bone cancer at eleven years of age.

Gladstone's problem started with just a mild lameness in his right foreleg. This is a common problem in cats, often caused by landing badly when jumping, or due to a bite after being involved in a cat fight. I gave Gladstone some simple pain relieving medication at first, but when he was still lame a week later, it was time to investigate further. I took him to my clinic where we carried out a series of x-rays. I can still remember my first viewing of his x-ray pictures: the upper end of his humerus (the biggest bone of the arm) had a combination of bone destruction and new bone formation. There was only one likely cause of these changes: bone cancer.

I was devastated as I looked at Gladstone's x-rays that day: I knew immediately that difficult times lay ahead for him. Bone cancer is one of the most serious types of malignancy, in both dogs and cats. Treatment has to be radical, involving amputation of affected limbs. Other treatment modalities, such as chemotherapy and radiation treatment, have little impact on the disease in cats. Even with immediate amputation of his affected leg, Gladstone was unlikely to be cured. Bone cancer in cats has a high level of local recurrence. Although most cases live for 2 - 3 years after diagnosis, the disease eventually tends to come back. Gladstone was eleven, and I reckoned that if he lived till he was fourteen, that wasn't a bad innings. But still, as I looked at him coming around from the sedation for his x-rays, I felt deep sympathy for him. Amputation of his leg would extend his life, but he didn't know why this was being done, and the bottom line was that his life would never be quite the same again.

One of my colleagues carried out the surgery to amputate his right foreleg: this was something that I could not bring myself to do. It was the right course of action, but still, it was upsetting to witness. And when I brought him home, poor Gladstone looked awkward as he hobbled around on three legs. At least when he had just been lame, he had been able to support himself on four legs for most of the time. Now that he had three legs, it was going to take him time to adapt.

I kept him indoors for the first two weeks, until his wound had healed fully and the sutures had been removed. By this stage, he had already learned how to move around comfortably. He had started to jump up onto chairs, and when he darted across the room, it was sometimes difficult to notice that a leg was missing.

Gladstone enjoyed a fairly normal life for the next eighteen months, but then, predictably, the cancer came back. He developed a large swelling on his shoulder, and this time, it could not be removed. A quiet, peaceful death was the only kind option for him.

I'll never forget Gladstone: he was a lovely cat. And I'll never forget the lessons that he - and his illness - taught me.

Wexford People

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