Gazette Vet: If Only They Could Talk

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By John Andersen, DVM

In my 13 years of practice, I’ve never once had an animal talk to me. If only they could talk, my job would be so much easier! And your job, as the pet owner, would be so much easier!

So much of the evaluation of a “sick” animal is trying to figure out just how sick the dog or cat is. Did your dog not eat this morning because he just feels a little nauseated because he ate a bunch of mulch yesterday? Or is he not eating because he has a plastic knife in his stomach that’s about to perforate? Is your cat peeing outside of the box because she is stressed out? Or is it because she’s got a terrible, burning urinary tract infection?

Reading the history and clinical signs for these answers is really more judgment and experience vs. science, and we certainly learn from cases that did not go well.

I can remember the cat who wasn’t eating and was lethargic, who in the end died because she ate tons of strings she got from unraveling the undercover of the owner’s box spring.

I’ll never forget the dog who did have a plastic knife in his stomach. It didn’t show up on an x-ray because it’s plastic. And the dog was eating, even though the knife had poked through his stomach (gotta love Labs!). If only he would’ve told us.

Or how about the outdoor cats who come home limping with a wound or broken leg? We’ll never know what happened. Or the dog who had diarrhea all over the house—he’ll usually never tell us what he got into, but we know it was something.

In the end, when we see dogs and cats who are sick or injured, but are still not speaking English, we work them up. Somehow, someway, we usually will get our answers.

Sometimes the owners have all the answers. They know their pet like the back of their hand and can give a list of details as to what possibly could have happened. Other clients need some gentle direction:

“So how long has Maggie been vomiting for?”

“A while.”

“Hmmm, like a day, or a week?”

“A pretty long time.”

“So again, the exact first time you saw her vomit was when?”

“Yesterday”…

I wish I could say this was an exaggerated conversation. But of course most people are pretty sharp and quickly join in the detective work.

“Rusty didn’t eat breakfast this morning, and in the eight years I’ve owned him, he has never once missed a meal. I am really worried about him.” Yeah, I’d be worried about that one too.

That is very different from: “Rusty didn’t eat breakfast this morning, but he’s not a big eater, and sometimes randomly doesn’t eat for a day.” We’ll need some more information on that one.

When we’ve finished getting a detailed history from the owners, we turn to the pets. In the case of some pets, especially ones who come to the vet regularly, we get to know their personalities and can tell that something is wrong:

“Oh my, Maxie always jumps up on me when I come into the exam room and she’s just lying on the floor. She must be feeling really sick.”

Some pets we don’t know well and don’t have a baseline to describe their current energy level against:

“Is your dog always this calm at the vet?”

Most dogs and cats, believe it or not, are very calm and polite at the vet. Even in normal health, they typically hold still and let us examine them head to tail. Sometimes when we are getting close to a sore or painful spot, they don’t always complain. It’s almost like they’re just being really good and submissive.

Then there are the screamers. Even when they’re fine, if you grab their feet or touch their ears, they’re gonna scream like you’re killing them.

Perhaps the most challenging are the really, really bad dogs and cats. These are the ones that we can’t even examine without sedation. Even when they are sick, they are still scared enough that they feel they have to growl, bite, and scratch.

In the end, we can usually pair the history with the physical exam and come up with some general thoughts as to why Fluffy feels lethargic today, or why Fancy Cat is throwing up every morning. In the end we use our gut instincts to tell if the problem is a big one that deserves a proper work up with tests, or whether it’s a minor issue that needs some simple care or maybe no treatment at all, just time.

But boy, if they could just talk, my job sure would be a lot easier. I’d imagine I would get a lot of comments like:

“Yeah, I ate a TON of grass and sticks yesterday, it just seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“When I pee, it burns like fire!”

“I’ve had a toothache for two years now.”

“I just really, really hate that new puppy they brought home. Really hate him!”

“I was out running through the woods, and am embarrassed to say that I simply ran right into a tree. Not one of my finest moments.”

If your pet is sick, or behaving differently, stop and think, and use your gut feelings. Nobody wants to bring their pet to the vet for a minor cold or sprain, but we also don’t want to ignore a potentially serious problem. If you have a question, at least call your vet, because some behaviors are classic of one thing or another and they can often guide you as to whether to come in or not.

In the meantime, please keep trying to teach them to speak!

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