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The Accidental Veterinarian

The Accidental Veterinarian

Tales from a Pet Practice
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Fish of Death


Or at least "Fish Of Extreme Pain".

Soon after I graduated, I decided to try to develop a sideline in fish medicine as way to make myself more useful to the practice. Or at least less useless. The sensible among you will immediately see the logical flaws in trying to get people to bring their pet fish into the clinic. There are several such flaws. But my employers, bless them, were indulgent and patient with me. To give myself some credit, I was nothing if not enthusiastic. I made sure I had the best text books and I set to work writing brochures on a variety of fish health subjects. And then I waited for patients... and waited...

Until one day the owner of a nearby pet shop came in carrying a large ice cream pail.

"What have you got in the bucket Edna?"

"A fish! Actually two of them."

Imagine my excitement. Just imagine it.

I strode over to Edna and her bucket. Not walked, but strode. I peered into the bucket. Two fish indeed: a large, roughly eggplant-sized, colourful fish with bold orange and white stripes and long feather-like things sticking out all over it, and a small, roughly walnut sized, dull brown-coloured fish. There were two really interesting things about this scene. The first was that the big fish was a lionfish. (More on why that's really interesting in a moment.) The second was that the little fish was head-first halfway into the lionfish's mouth.

"Edna, that's a lionfish!"

"Yes, it's really expensive and it's choking on that stupid catfish!"

Which fish was more stupid struck me as a debatable point.

"I see..."

"Can you get the catfish out?"


So this is where I should explain what's really interesting about lionfish. Those cool looking feathery things are actually sharp spines (easily sharp enough to slice exam gloves) and are covered in venom. The venom has an entertaining array of potential effects including, and I quote, "extreme pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, breathing difficulties, convulsions, dizziness, redness on the affected area, headache, numbness, paresthesia (pins and needles), heartburn, diarrhea, and sweating. Rarely, such stings can cause temporary paralysis of the limbs, heart failure, and even death." Well, only "rarely" death, so that's OK.

"Well, can you?"


The lionfish actually looked distressed. The catfish was presumably even more distressed, but it was hard to tell.

There was no way to grasp the lionfish without touching the venomous spines and the standard aquarium wrangler's net wouldn't help, so, after a bit of pondering I came up with an idea. I found two long pieces of wood - this was a while ago, so I don't remember exactly, but they might have been leftover molding from a reno - and a large pair of surgical forceps. I wielded the wood pieces with my left hand like giant chopsticks to restrain the lionfish while carefully submerging my right hand with the forceps to firmly grasp the tail of the catfish.

Deep breath.

Then I yanked.

The catfish was free! However, I am sad to report that it did not live to enjoy its freedom. The catfish immediately succumbed to its injuries, or to the shock of the whole unpleasant event.  But the lionfish survived. And I survived. A mortality rate of only 33%. Not bad for a novice fish vet.

But that was pretty much the end of my short-lived fish vet career.

Years later we were in the Cayman Islands and met a local with a boat full of lionfish. It turns out that they are an invasive and aggressive species that is decimating native fish populations. The government there was paying a bounty on them. And they are steadily spreading northwards...


Finnegan vs. The Pot Roast


Humans divide everything they encounter in the world into categories. Dogs do so too. The difference is that humans use multiple sophisticated categories, slicing and dicing the world in the finest detail and then applying a bewildering array of hierarchical labels. Dogs, on the other hand, just use two broad categories, labelled “food” and “not food.” And I am here to tell you that the “food” category is breathtakingly wide. Now, to be honest, the “not food” category does have a few sub-categories such as “things to bark at” and “people who provide food,” but really it is the distinction between edible and non-edible that they are most interested in. Food is everything. It is their passion. It is their god. This is especially true of puppies and it is especially true of certain breeds.

Labrador retrievers and beagles are perhaps the most notorious of these breeds. The first time this principle was vividly demonstrated to me was with Billy Singh, a young male black Lab, who came into the clinic one day a year or two after I graduated. He had been off his food for a couple of days, which was absolutely shocking to the owners. Billy normally would materialize out of thin air if they so much as lightly rustled a plastic bag, or if they even touched the drawer they kept the can opener in. But now he was just lying around looking sad. He would sniff at the treats they tried to entice him with, but then he would look away with an even sadder facial expression.

The diagnosis was gratifyingly simple for a relatively new graduate. There it was on the X-ray: a very dense, irregularly shaped object, about the size of a ping-pong ball, sitting in the small intestine. I showed the xray to Mr. Singh who sighed and said, “That's a rock. Billy likes to eat rocks.”

I didn't try to disguise my astonishment. “He likes to eat rocks!?” Since then I have come to learn that rock eating is not all that unusual, but at that point it was the first time I had heard of it. “Like, actually eat them? Not just play with them and then accidentally swallow them?”

“No, he eats them. Usually they just pass. I thought we had gotten rid of all the rocks in the yard and we watch him like a hawk when we're on a walk, but I guess he found one somewhere.”

“Wow, that's bad luck. It's a very specific size of rock that they can get down but then not easily pass all the way through. It looks like it's stuck there now. ”

Mr. Singh didn't reply. He just sighed again and nodded.

The diagnosis was straightforward and the treatment was straightforward too - Billy would need surgery. The surgery went well and Billy recovered nicely. But none of this so far is the interesting part of the story. The interesting part of the story is that he did it again and had a second surgery a year later. And then about a half year after that I got a phone-call from Mr. Singh. (I'm sure you know where this is going.)

“Dr. Schott, you're not going to believe this, but Billy hasn't eaten in about three days.”

“Oh no.”

“I think he did it again. We're so careful, but I swear he's addicted. He must be able to smell those rocks a hundred yards away.”

“It's unbelievable...”

“Look, we can't afford to keep doing surgery like this. And it can't be good for him either. Is there any thing else we can do? Can you put a zipper in him?” Mr. Singh was chuckling, but it was a rueful chuckle.

“Ha! Good idea, but, um, no. I'm really sorry, but it does sound like surgery again.”

These days it might be possible to consider using an endoscope, but none were available in Winnipeg then, and trying to drag large rough objects back up the esophagus is probably not an ideal solution anyway. So Billy had a third surgery. Afterwards we decided that he would only be allowed outside, regardless of how well supervised, if he was wearing a basket-style muzzle that allowed him to pant, but not get his mouth around anything. And this did the trick. He went on to live a healthy happy life with no further surgeries, although I'm sure he dreamed of tasty rocks to his dying day.

As unusual as Billy's eating habits were, I have to give the crown for creative gluttony to dear old Finnegan Connolly.

Finnegan had demonstrated his mania for food early on. After he ate an entire loaf of bread, including its plastic bag, and then vomited it all up on their living room carpet, the Connollys became extremely careful about leaving food anywhere that might conceivably be accessible to him. But Finnegan was not discouraged. Finnegan worked diligently to broaden the definition of “accessible”. Finnegan learned to open the refrigerator.

One Sunday morning he pawed it open, pulled the pot roast out and ate an astonishing proportion of it before anybody noticed. He vomited it up again, like with the loaf of bread, but this time he didn't stop vomiting. He kept on vomiting through the day, even when all that was left to come out was a bit of froth and bile. The Connollys became concerned and took him to the emergency clinic. There he was diagnosed with pancreatitis, which is inflammation of a major digestive gland. This has a variety of causes, but a common one is when the digestive system is confronted with a sudden load of fat. Three quarters of a pot roast is a lot of fat. It's probably the amount he would otherwise see in a month of kibble. Finnegan was hospitalized for several days on intravenous fluids and multiple medications.

The Connollys installed a latch on the fridge door.

Billy and Finnegan must have been soul-mates. Both were persistent in their desire to eat what they shouldn't and both were cunning in their persistence. Not long at all after what was widely referred to as “The Fridge Incident” Finnegan was back in the hospital again. This time he had managed to open the oven door, somehow knock the roast out without burning himself and then scarf the whole thing down. Open. The. Oven. Door. There are clients where I would have thought to myself, 'Sure sure, the dog opened the oven door! You just don't want to admit that you left the roast out where he could reach it, but whatever.' But the Connollys were serious people and I had to believe them, as bizarre as the mental image was. It's not just the opening of the oven door, but also the maneuvering around the open door and then the getting of the pan and roast out. Maybe he used his mouth and paws? The mind truly boggles. A genius dog. A mad genius though. Finnegan was hospitalized on intravenous fluids again, this time for even longer.

The Connollys installed a latch on the oven door.

There was no third pot roast incident, but Finnegan was a “frequent flier” for the rest of his life, continuing to regularly find trouble, usually driven by his breathtaking appetite. The basket muzzle idea didn't work for him because he would howl and carry on any time they tried it, and as most of his indiscretions were indoors he would have had to wear it constantly. Somehow though, despite his self-destructive instincts, he managed to live a long time, gradually getting fatter, never losing his passion for food. In fact, while I don't remember why or how he died, I do remember being told that he kept on eating to the very end.

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