Being a vet is a learning experience: Something new every day.
Last Saturday – my solo day at the clinic – I am buzzing through the usual pre-closing-time rush. While I am helping some people with their dog's ear infection, I hear an explosion of barking and snarling in the waiting room. The dog has a loud, deep-throated voice, suggesting it is both large and broad-chested, which often translates to powerfully-built. It is clearly not happy to be here.
Oh, goodie. That sounds like fun. Oh, wait. It doesn't.
While I am finishing my ear appointment, I hear the dog snarling and barking from inside the exam room into which it has been taken. Every so often the dog slams some part of its body into the wall. I feel the vibration translate down the wall into the room in which I am working, two doors down. Oh, yay. It IS strong, and it is doubtless also large. And it is still growling and barking.
Ah, well. It's the last appointment of the day. I know for a fact that it wasn't on the appointment schedule, but at least this particular walk-in isn't going to jam up the schedule too much. See? Always a bright side.
I try to take this attitude into the exam room with me. Inside is a man most likely in his 70's, tall and lanky, bearded and with a profusion of grey hair tumbling out from under his Stetson. He looks at me from behind wire-rimmed glasses as I greet him. The client is muttering about the government and how they're bleeding him dry and he has to go out of state to try to take charge of his situation, and he doesn't need this with his heart condition. The dog needs a health certificate to fly with him to the lower 48, and he also needs two vaccines. As it turns out, he is 18 months and 98 pounds of intact male mastiff mix, lean and rippling with muscle. In general I approve of this, but in the case of a dog who is snarling and barking and in the hands of someone who is in his 70's and has a bad ticker, I am somewhat less enthusiastic. Somehow the fact that the owner has named the dog "Ivan the Terrible" doesn't increase my confidence in the situation. Call me crazy.
I get a history and draw up my vaccines. I ask the client, "Do we need a muzzle for Ivan?"
"Yeah, you'd better," he says. "He ain't ever bitten anyone, but I don't know he wouldn't. I don't want to take a chance."
"Okay, then," I say, and I go to fetch an appropriately-sized muzzle.
"Make sure it's clean and soft and it smells like steak," calls the owner after me jovially.
"We wash them after we use them," I say, smiling, "but I'm afraid we ran out of steak-flavored fabric softener. We'll have to go with 'Spring Fresh' scent instead."
The owner chuckles as I fetch the muzzle. I hand it to him and show him how it has to be applied. As a general rule of thumb, the dog will more willingly accept the application of a muzzle from the owner than from a complete stranger, so the usual practice when working alone is to have the owner apply it.
Now the fun begins.
Our Ivan is not at all interested in restraint of any description. He is agile and quick, despite his enormous size, and he quickly whips his head out of his owner's grasp. He does this repeatedly, and begins biting at the muzzle to prevent it from going over his nose. Ivan is perfectly cheerful during the wrestling match that follows, but he is not in any way willing to accept that he will be muzzled and restrained. The owner is swearing at the dog with increasing impatience and trying to corral him with one leg laid over the dog's back. Ah, success. And nope, he has not tightened the muzzle and Ivan swipes it off of his face with one paw.
"God damn it!" the owner exclaims impatiently. He frowns at me. "Why aren't you doing this?" he demands. "You get paid to risk life and limb."
"No. I get paid to do medicine," I tell him. "The Crocodile hunter gets paid to risk life and limb, and he didn't turn up here today." While I deliver this smiling and in a humorous tone, there is underlying steel in my voice despite my best efforts to be mild. The owner has requested a muzzle, has told me he doesn't know if his dog will bite or not, and has just informed me that he considers the act of placing a muzzle on his dog to be hazardous to my well-being, perhaps to the point of death. I have no intention of sticking my hands where the dog can bite them. He's big enough and powerful enough that he could actually bite my fingers completely off, if he so chose. In addition to which – and here I know you'll think I'm completely insane - I don't consider it my fault that the owner has failed to train the dog. I know! Crazy talk!
The owner looks at me. One of my brows is slightly raised, and there must be something in my direct and unwavering gaze that makes him subside rather than challenge me again. He manages to get the muzzle on again and attempts to tighten it. Before he can do so, the dog whips it down, getting it caught in his mouth like a bit. He gnaws industriously on it while the owner tries to release the quick-release snap. He manages this, but drops the leash. Ivan charges immediately toward the door, shoving past me and bombing the swinging door. He bolts directly into the doctor's office. Hot on his heels, I make a grab for his collar. He whips his head around and gives me the look that we often call "The Rottweiller Look": A level-eyed stare that informs me that his next move is to nail me, should I be so foolish as to attempt anything that doesn't meet with his approval.
Meanwhile, Meryl's dog Fire is roused by the commotion. Fire is a 9 year old, 80-pound red Dobe. Meryl brings him on Saturdays because after hours, when she is counting the till, Fire comes up behind the reception counter with her. He is what a Doberman should be: Strong,athletic, self-possessed, protective, and willing to stand his ground. He won't start a fight, but if you bring one, he won't back down. Fire is at that moment confined in a cubby of the doctors' office, fenced in by a baby gate he could easily jump. He respects the boundary, as designated by Meryl, and will normally curl up in a corner and doze. If, however, anyone who doesn't belong in the clinic enters the space he guards, he does his job: Intruders are repelled. The till is safe, the employees are safe, the territory is defended.
When Ivan comes into the doctor's office Fire comes to his feet behind his gate. Head up and eyes intent, he bares his teeth and snarls at Ivan. Ivan leaves off staring at me and charges Fire, growling. Fire surges forward, roaring with fury, jaws snapping.
Shit. I love Fire. Ivan has a seven-and-a-half year edge and a 20-pound weight advantage over Fire. I don't want to put my hands between these dogs, but I'm not standing by while Ivan savages Fire, if it comes to that.
"MERYL!" I yell from the office. "Knock it off, Ivan! NO!" I shout at him, coming around his left side and trying to pressure him away from Fire without getting into the bite zone. Ivan feints toward Fire. Fire snaps at him, lips drawn back and eyes fierce and deadly serious: Back off NOW, he's saying. Stand down, or I'm coming over this fence, and I'll be coming for you.
I am looking for a weapon. Meryl is hustling back from the lobby. Fire is making slashing feints at Ivan, and Ivan turns away. Now Meryl is in the office, telling Fire to lie down. Ivan has been faced down; he gave up before Fire was called off, and both dogs know it. Bested, Ivan loses his desire to go after Fire. Meryl and I are able to herd Ivan out of the office and close the door.
Where is the owner during all this? Sitting in the exam room as if he hasn't a care. All that snarling and barking? Not his responsibility.
Meryl and I pressure Ivan back into the exam room. The owner catches his leash. My heart is slowly descending from my throat, where it had leapt when I saw 98 pounds of intact male mastiff mix snapping his massive jaws one inch from Fire's face, hackles a-bristle. That's not a sight you want to see ever in life.
At this point, I'm not going to take a chance on attempting to listen to this dog's chest. I've had a damn good look at his clashing teeth, so I know his color is good, he's hydrated, and he feels vigorous and healthy. He is fit in every way – physically, at least – and I know from experience that you learn little from trying to listen to the chest of a growling dog. One of the docs recently got seriously bitten in the face by a dog who laid him open without warning. I've gotten plenty of warning from Ivan. I'm not putting my face into the bite zone. It's not much, but I like my face the way it is right now, thanks. I can't think it would be improved by means of having Ivan's teeth ripping through it.
"Now, do these shots go IV or IM?" asks the client, as if nothing unusual has transpired.
"Sub-Q," I tell him briefly. He shakes his head emphatically.
"No. There's only IV and IM injections. There's no such thing as Sub-Q," he states unequivcally.
Um…. Excuse me?
Here I'm momentarily confused. Does the client think I'm making things up for fun, or does he think I'm lying? To what purpose?
Oh, wait. I've got it. He doesn't understand my verbal shorthand for "subcutaneous."
"No, there's also sub-Q, which stands for 'subcutaneous'," I tell him. "That means that these injections are designed to go just under the skin."
The client slaps his hand sharply on the counter and shakes his head again in impatient negation.
"Look!" he says, glaring at me. "I've raised horses for 40 years and I did all their training and most of my own vet work. There's no such thing as sub-Q!"
Hmm. Let's see now. In this room there are two people. One of us has no formal medical training. The other one has four years of medical school, a year of internship, 16 years of practice, and - what is that other thing? Oh, yes, a doctorate in veterinary medicine. One of us has injected his own horses for 40 years. The other one has injected her own – and a whole lot of other people's – horses, cattle, sheep, goats, dogs, cats, birds, ferrets, guinea pigs, rabbits, rodents, camelids, and assorted zoo exotics – including a primate or two. One of us thinks there's no such thing as Sub-Q, and the other thinks there is. Now, who do you think is right…? Oh, wait. That would be me.
On the other hand, it's quite obvious there will be no convincing this particular client that I'm right. I wonder if he thinks I'm so perverse as to be inventing things, so dishonest as to be lying, or so incompetent as to not know any better. I briefly consider asking him what possible motive I might have for inventing a mythical injection route, or suggesting he read the part of the vaccine label that says "for subcutaneous injection", but I'd just as soon get this over with as quickly as possible. I ignore the client's outburst.
"Hold him," I say briefly. I'll give this one go. If the dog is unmanageable, we're done here. The client will be asked to leave with his unvaccinated dog.
Ivan is perfectly cheerful again until the owner corrals his scruff. He begins wrestling himself backwards, growling, and I stoop and inject his first vaccine. Ivan surges backward away from the owner's straining grasp, jamming himself into the needle and bending it at a 45 degree angle. He does, however, have the injection on board (although – what do you know – half of it DID go IM.) I snag my other syringe off the counter.
"Round two," I tell the owner, and he gamely grabs the dog again. I dart in, get my injections done - entirely subcutaneously, this time - and stand down.
"We're done," I tell the owner. "You can take him outside if you like, while I finish your paperwork."
The client takes his dog out and I sign off on the paperwork. I take it up front and then go back to check on Fire. He is trembling and looking hang-dog: he is afraid he's done wrong. Meryl corrected him harshly (in this case, to limit his risk of having his face torn open), but he is demoralized. I call him to me and give him cookies, pet him and croon to him that he is a good dog, a good, good dog. I tell him I love him with my hands and my voice, I thank him with food and praise. He gives me a tentative wag and goes to lie down again, ears flattened. I get more cookies and call him back to me. He comes more willingly this time. I scrub my fingers under his jaw and his eyes soften and he relaxes into my fingers. Meryl comes back and praises him, apologizing with her body language. She corrected him for his safety, to keep him from harm, but she understands his worry and sets it right.
"It's your fault that that dog acted that way, you should know," she tells me, her expression amused. "The owner told me so. He said that it's because female vets don't know how to handle dogs and they're afraid of mastiffs." Meryl is laughing at this absurdity and I roll my eyes.
"Oh, yes, that's it," I agree. "He's the one who said a muzzle was a good idea. But clearly that's my fault, too. Obviously I should have started going to his house and making him train his dog eighteen months ago. What was I thinking? He's right, it IS my fault the dog acted like that. I'm obviously an idiot. I even thought there was such a thing as a subcutaneous injection! I'm a complete quack!"
Meryl snorts with laughter. For the rest of the week, we get a lot of mileage out of that:
Me: "Hey, Em, will you give this dog two cc's of penicillin via the mythical subcutaneous route?"
Em: "I would, if you hadn't just made that up. It's a good thing that client set you straight."
Me: "That's veterinary medicine for you. Learn something new every day."
Meryl regales Dr. P with our adventures later in the week. "You'd have told the guy to leave," she says. Fair point: We are within our rights to refuse service rather than to risk our health and livelihoods in such cases.
"He said I should muzzle the dog because I got paid to risk life and limb. I told him I got paid to do medicine, and that it was the Crocodile Hunter got paid to risk life and limb," I explain to Dr. P.
Dr. P laughs. "I like that," he says with a twinkle.
On the other hand, I did get the dog vaccinated - without benefit of a muzzle – and I didn't get bitten.
Maybe I am the Crocodile Hunter.