Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Scent of a Woman

Anyone who deals with the public is going to accumulate stories about the memorable people with whom they’ve crossed paths. You’ve noticed this. Some of the people you meet will leave you smiling, and others are responsible for that spit drying on the inside of your car’s windshield after you have vented some of your frustration during your drive home at the end of the day. If you’ve explored this blog at all you no doubt recognize some of the people the veterinarians here are frustrated with. These individuals have likely ruined your day, too. I’m talking truly remarkable people here, the ones that years later still send a surge of acid up your throat when their memory somehow slides back into your consciousness.

I read once that our sense of smell is the best trigger for memory. And I’m sitting here at the computer reliving some of the worst days of my career, when the ignorance or irresponsibility of a client presented the very worst odors to a nose accustomed by this job to some pretty rank stench. If you are eating, or the kids are reading along with you, or you confess to being a tad faint of heart, I’d skip the rest of my story. For the brave who continue here, sorry about this…

Decades ago, when the options for fracture repair available to veterinarians were nowhere near as extensive as what we now enjoy, clients shied away from the better care every bit as often as they do now. Some couldn’t afford the best, and others couldn’t care. Ya grow accustomed to this in our line of work. This puppy should have had surgery on its busted rear leg, but his people were headed for Vegas for the weekend and they wouldn’t spare the money.

Our fall back option was a splint constructed from an aluminum rod bent to shape and the clever application of large volumes of tape to hold the leg steady within this support. These things worked well, but with a growing puppy we needed to check the splint weekly to assure that it wasn’t knocked askew by romping enthusiasm, or simply needed adjustment to account for growth. Eight weeks or so of this usually gave us an adequate fracture repair, and a pup who could then live a normal life. These folks missed the first recheck, and then the second. No one answered their phone. Time passed. No rechecks.

Four months later they showed up, without an appointment, to have the splint removed. I smelled them coming, long before they entered the exam room. The stench was remarkable, and maggots fell out of the splint when they lifted the crying pup onto the table. It was February, and even here that means winter. Those flies that lay their eggs on dead animals and thus yield ugly maggots had left by the end of October, but apparently not in that house.

The pup was in agony, but still sweet. Drugs lent him some peace while I cut off the splint. Much of the leg came with, rotting pieces falling off and stuck by the hair to the filthy old tape. Writhing gobs of maggots fed on this stew. Amazingly, the leg healed after this, and since I kept the gun locked up, the owners survived, too.

Few things smell worse than parvo. Picture an innocent young puppy, spewing sticky yellow slime from the front end and unworldly horrid bloody diarrhea out the other, and lying in the puddle, too weak to crawl out, for 6-8 days. Most will die without treatment, but many can survive with proper care. Hopefully, this is as close to parvo as you will ever go. But let me assure you that one puppy with parvo will stink up the entire hospital, and seven at one time will peel the paint.

Vaccines have been available since the early 80’s and the disease is utterly preventable. Only ignorance and irresponsibility on the part of too many owners allows it to hang around at all, and so it still kills puppies.

The young lady was nicely fitted out, all make up and perfume, provocative clothing, and that come hither smile as she began to negotiate with me over the cost of treating her sick puppy. I guess she was hoping for stupid. No doubt her ready availability had worked wonders in the past on men my age. I glanced at the medical chart and noticed that this was the third puppy with parvo she had presented to me in the last ten years. And she still had not vaccinated this puppy. Fortunately, the gun was locked up. I laid a short dissertation on her irresponsible head. She was not smiling as she left.

The animal control truck backed into a parking space next to my clinic. What manner of disaster was the officer bringing in this time? He headed for the box on the truck bed carrying the snare pole. Not a good start.

The mostly grown pitbull puppy was screaming in agony as he pulled it along with the pole. “Doc, ya gotta put this one down right away. Some kids set it on fire, and he’s all burnt all over. I can’t even touch em.”

Story was three or four “kids” had doused the pup with lighter fluid and then set him ablaze. The “kids” sped off leaving the pup running around in flames. The officer figured the pup wouldn’t fight in the ring, so they tried to kill him nasty-like as a lesson for their other dogs. And yeah, the “kids” who fight dogs are that stupid. Ask Michael Vick.

Third degree burns means burnt hair, charred tissue, blackened parts of dog falling off on the floor. Could not touch the dog anywhere without him screaming and fighting. We had to pin his frothing screaming head to the floor with the snare pole to get close enough to inject a hind leg with drugs potent enough to finally get near him to give the final injection that let him out of this life.

Could not get the dog’s screams out of my wretched brain for months. The smell I will leave to your imagination. I had impure thoughts about those “kids”. For them, I would have unlocked the gun.

Sorry about all this. But if any reader questions the motivation behind some of the less than perky descriptions of bad client behaviors in this blog, maybe this will help with understanding.


  1. I couldn't do what you do. Thanks for taking care of our furry family members.

  2. Yep, some things are never erased from the mind. When people do stupid things to themselves, or make choices that hurt only them, it is bad enough. But when they hurt kids and animals...things that cannot fight for themselves, it is so much worse.

    In my head, I dream of instant karma for people this. And for those that go a set above neglect and set fire to some poor animal, I dream of a shadowy Dexter character who will take care of business.

    1. Dexter: excellent. That's my next career, if I ever grow bored with research (currently 1/2 general practice, 1/2 research, hoping to be full-time research and never have to deal with another SOB again).

  3. I'm not a vet (not even a vet tech), but I've worked as a kennel assistant in a few different clinics, and also one humane society.

    The worst... the absolute worst, horrible, *unique* and memorable smell is parvo. It's ... I can't describe it. If someone brought a puppy/dog in, and that puppy/dog had parvo, you knew it before it left the front lobby, *even if it wasn't acting sick yet.*

    One of my worst life experiences was coming in to work (I was always the first in... cleaning cages and all), and going back to the quarantine parvo puppy and finding that he'd died during the night. I will never get cleaning that COMPLETELY UNNECESSARY disaster out of my head for as long as I live.

    I can't even imagine some of the other stuff you mentioned. I think people need to read/hear stuff like this at least once, if they're thinking about being a pet owner for the first time.

  4. Poor pitbull puppy (well poor all of them). People can be so horrible.

    It's hard to see but of course if we're not there to help the animal then it will be even worse off. There's always those memorable heartbreaking ones that are unforgettable. I'm not one bit religious, but it makes me hope that they're comfortable and happy now in a better place and that the people who hurt them, intentionally or not, will get their due.

  5. We had the sweetest rottie brought in by the cops, years ago, after some asshole had taken an ax to her head. She was wagging her tail when we realized we could see grey matter. The cops were in tears. If they ever found the pond scum that did it, I doubt he or she was long for the world.

  6. Question-- I thought puppies could catch parvo during the weeks before they're fully vaccinated? I thought that was the reason we were supposed to keep young pups out of PetSmart and dog runs, because they're still vulnerable to Parvo until they've had all their shots?

    1. Theoretically, the puppies have immunity conferred on them by the anti-bodies from their mothers. These antibodies, while protective, interfere with the shots that are given as a part of their puppy series. Because each animal is different, these antibodies leave the body at varying times. Due to this, we never know which vaccine will be protective, so we give a series of vaccines...the hope is that the vaccine will occur after the maternal antibodies are no longer hanging about, but before the puppy can catch disease.

      By 12 weeks, about 92% of animals will no longer have maternal antibodies, but if you wait until 12 weeks to vaccinate, a large subset of the population will be exposed to diseases and they won't be protected. By 16 weeks, virtually all animals have lost their maternal antibodies. That is why I like to wait until 16 weeks for the final boosters.

      Vaccines typically start at 6-7 weeks of age. I would not take an unvaccinated puppy to the dog park or to Petsmart. While many puppies will have protective immunity by the second set of shots, some will not because one of these vaccine sets occurred while the puppy could not respond to it. Also, puppies and kittens typically have a plethora of parasites, which can make it harder for them to respond appropriately to vaccines.

  7. OK, I was confused because I was told I should barely take my pup out of the house until he was fully immunized at 16 weeks. I had been told that he could catch parvo if a stray dog had used the bathroom in our front yard, or if we were on a trip and I let him out to potty at a rest stop. That's what confused me about the statement that parvo is "utterly preventable."

    1. This is something you should discuss with your veterinarian-while it is very important for you to keep your dog from interacting with other dogs of unknown vaccination or disease status, it is also VERY important to socialize your dog to all sorts of things, environments, people etc. The key is to only expose them to other animals/locations which you are sure are healthy, vaccinated, and clean. It is a good idea to avoid dog parks, petsmarts, etc. but it is also a good idea to attend a puppy socialization class with good sanitation methods and which requires all of their puppies to have their first vaccine. More animals are euthanized because of behavior problems (often caused by lack of or poor socialization) than diseases like parvo.

    2. Here is a link to elaborate a little further:

    3. It IS utterly preventable. One part of that prevention is vaccination, but the other part is avoiding contact with animals/places that potentially harbor the disease until we can be confident that they are protected (generally at 16 weeks, after receiving at least 3 vaccine doses 2-3 weeks apart). It's okay for them to be around other adult, fully vaccinated animals or other puppies who also have not been exposed, in a known clean area. I would avoid any unknown animals or areas.

  8. The one that still haunts me, I couldn't even really hate the owner. It was my last hour of ER rotation, actually. A guy comes in with a single several day old pit bull puppy cradled in his arms. Long story short, his brother is a "breeder" who gave him a female puppy a year ago (8 weeks and and he had given her all her shots already because he's such a good breeder! That's why I haven't needed to come to the vet before). When she was a year old the brother approached him saying that breeding made him a lot of money and given his financial issues, he would be nice enough to get him in on it too. Why not breed that 1 year old dog he gave him to "one of the males he keeps in the yard. I'm not sure which" and they could split the profits? So he did. She gave birth to 9 puppies and they seemed fine at first, then the female started having lots of vomiting and diarrhea, then the puppies did. Last night he was up all night feeding and warming them based on what he read on the internet but they had all died but this one. "My daughter is heartbroken and it was the most terrible night I've ever spent. Please save this one. I'll do whatever is needed. I kept $100 from my paycheck this week. I've got it right here and I'll pay it all in cash. Do whatever she needs..."

  9. The last bit with the pit bull puppy brought tears to my eyes. I will never understand how people can do something like that.

    The smells that stick in my mind are tied. One was a middle aged Cocker Spaniel that came in with severely infected ears and hot spots on 2 paws. We tidied her up and sent her home with medication. Several weeks later she came back. Her ears were crusted solid with pus, as were her forelimbs from trying to rub her ears. Hot spots on all four paws. She smelled like rotting. Thankfully we were able to euthanize and prevent it from ever happening to her again. The sad thing is that she was very sweet through the whole ordeal.

    The other dog was a Pekingese brought in for euthanasia. It had a melon sized cyst on its shoulder that had ruptured, and it smelled like rotting too.

  10. First and foremost, the gun would have been too good for those "kids". They should suffer.

    There's a two way tie for the most disgusting aroma I've experienced...
    1.) While doing an internship in college at a large animal clinic I went out to set up some equipment for a client that was coming. Found my olfactory senses stimulated by an incredibly pungent aroma. Walked around the livestock chute I found a calf. Most of it at least. Writhing in maggots. Apparently one of the vets had caught a late night emergency call on Saturday and ended up pulling a stillborn pieces...which then sat out in the summer heat until my Monday discovery.

    2.) Owners brought in a St. Bernard late Friday evening for a necropsy. Stuck it in the freezer until the doctor could do it on Monday. Except the freezer went out and went the whole weekend without refrigeration. Come Monday we proceeded with the necropsy...scalpel pierced the obviously distended abdomen and pffffsst, instant biological attack. Whole clinic smelled for several days. Not sure what was worse though, the original smell or the smell mixed with orange air freshener that was used to try and mask it.