The other day I was poking around on VIN (Veterinary Information Network), researching something for one of my clients, when I came across an account of a spayed cat with persistent signs of estrus.
Well, once the cat is spayed, it's not supposed to go IN to estrus any more. And as anyone who has lived with one can attest, an in-heat cat is a real nuisance to live with. We used to get this call all the time on emergency when I was in intern:
Caller: My cat is in terrible pain! I want to bring her in!
Tech: What is she doing, ma'am?
Caller: She's rolling around on the floor screaming! Can't you hear her? [Owner holds phone out so that the tech can indeed hear long, moaning feline wails in the background.]
Tech: How old is your cat, ma'am?
Caller: Six or seven months...
Tech: Is she spayed?
Caller: No... should I bring her in? What do you think is wrong with her?
Tech [after ascertaining that the cat has no other symptoms apart from rolling around and wailing like she's auditioning for a New York blues band and hopes they can hear her from home]: You certainly can bring her in, ma'am, but it sounds to me like your cat is in heat, in which case the usual solution is to spay her. We normally do those procedures in the morning.
Caller: Are you sure? Can I talk to a doctor?
Tech [sighing, because now he has to wake up an intern or break one away from another case]: Sure.
This conversation is repeated almost verbatim until we get to the part where the doctor tells the caller that, although we can't tell for sure without a physical exam, it IS in fact likely that her cat is in heat.
Caller: But she sounds like she's in horrible pain!
Intern: Well, yes, they do sound like that. We'd be happy to see her tonight but the emergency fees do apply.
Caller: But why is she making that noise?
Intern: Ma'am, I know she sounds like she's in desperate agony, but it's more likely she's just desperate. For a date. [Weighty pause while this sinks in.]
Caller [in a tone of dawning understanding]: Ohhhh. [pause] So you're sure you can't spay her tonight?
Intern: Ma'am, I can see why this would seem like an emergency surgery to you, since you're not likely to get much sleep tonight, but I assure you that if she's just in heat she will survive until morning, no matter what she thinks about it. However, we'd be happy to have a look at her. Would you like to bring her in?
Caller: Well, I don't really have the money for the emergency fee or surgery [naturally, or else your cat would most likely already have been spayed, so we would not be taking this call].... Is there anything else I can do instead?
Intern [resisting the temptation to suggest earplugs or soundproofing her bedroom]: Well, ma'am, cats are seasonally polyestrous. That means that she will continue to cycle every few weeks all summer unless you do something.
Caller [in a pitch of rising hysteria]: All summer?!?
Intern: Yes, ma'am. Of course, you could do a false breeding, which will usually keep them out of heat for about 2 months.
Caller: Oh, that sounds good. What is that?
Intern: That's where you take a smooth slender object like a glass rod - a thermometer will work - and... er... pretend you're a tom cat. That will fool her body into believing she's pregnant, so her estrus cycles will stop for the length of a normal pregnancy, which is about 63 days.
Caller: [dead silence]
Intern: Ma'am....? Are you there?
Caller [in a small voice]: Maybe I'll just bring her in tomorrow to get spayed.
This was a call repeated over and over starting about February and continuing on until around November. It got so that when I heard my tech say "How old is your cat?" I'd just get up and go to the phone (presuming I had the rare good fortune to be trying to nap during my 16-hour overnight shift).
The false breeding thing does work, however. It takes a particular mind-set to be able to do this, but sometimes desperation plays a part. We had a classmate when I was in vet school whose wife bred cats. She had a particular queen who hated her husband, and it is perhaps a mark of his good nature that he didn't insist she place the cat in another home. The queen would hiss and slap at him and had, if I recall right, on more than one occasion attempted to bite him through his shoes or his pant leg. But she was a valuable breeding queen, and the wife (not surprisingly) did not want to breed her for back-to-back litters, which meant that there would be periods of time during which the general hissing and growling would be supplemented liberally with screaming and moaning. I gather it was creating a certain amount of marital disharmony; vet school is, after all, a gruelling haul with its high work load and its attendant stress levels, and having a cat screaming and moaning (not to mention clawing and biting) all the time isn't especially conducive to concentrating on your studies.
However, help was on the way. One day we got the false breeding lecture, and my classmate went home with a determined light in his eye. A few days later he reported that he'd given the false-breeding technique a try.
"Did it work?" I asked him.
"Oh, it worked, all right," he said, with a dark look.
"What?" I asked him, eyeing the set of his mouth. It took a bit of prodding, but he finally admitted that it might in fact have worked a little too well. The queen in question developed an immediate and inappropriate passion for him. She would run to the door when she heard him coming and throw herself on his feet, rolling around on them and purring wildly, rubbing her face against his ankles with every evidence of feline devotion and generally making a spectacle of herself.
"Well, at least that's better than her taking a swipe at you every time you come home," I said, encouragingly, biting my lips firmly to keep myself from laughing. He nodded.
"It's not so bad most of the time," he admitted. "But the other day we had friends over. They looked at her carrying on and asked me 'Doesn't this cat hate you?' So I'm telling them, 'Yes, she does, absolutely detests me' and trying to nudge her away from me with my foot." He gives me a morose look. "Didn't work," he concluded. "She spent the whole evening rolling around on my shoes. I think they suspected there was something going on between us." He gives me a dark look. "Go ahead and laugh," he adds, eyeing my face, clearly aware that I have at best no more than two more seconds of self-control left in me.
"Well, at least you know you have good technique," I said, declining to specify exactly what technique I meant by that (and not entirely certain myself).
"Oh, yes, that's me," he said sourly. "Have thermometer, will travel." But he joined me in a chuckle.
It's an odd life, being a vet; maybe the only thing odder is being a vet student. But at least our lives are rarely boring. And where else would you learn skills that will magically restore marital harmony with no more than a thermometer and a little determination?