Lives devoted to animals

2011-06-24 00:00

HE offers a 24-hour service and that means never refusing sick animals in distress. Martin de Scally’s upmarket Hilton Veterinary Hospital is fitted out with electronic medical equipment worth more than R2 million.

As a specialist vet with two postgraduate degrees, he has the facilities to diagnose difficult cases and to treat animals with unusual symptoms, but like any practice, it’s always a battle to offer excellent care at a minimal cost.

He says: “I am lucky to offer these facilities to clients and we are able to treat many cases with a minimum of intervention. The equipment allows us to determine whether we are facing a big problem or a small problem. But, the problem is always money. People have to decide what they can afford when treating their animals. I advise all pet owners to invest in pet insurance.

“Especially animal owners who buy pedigree dogs, and who treat their dogs as part of the family. I don’t know a vet who hasn’t had to make the heartbreaking decision to euthanase a pet because the owner cannot afford to fix a treatable condition. It is a very painful dilemma for us because our training is all about saving lives.”

De Scally says the one thing vets never learn is how to juggle the demands of being a vet with the demands of operating a business. “Our focus is on animal care, but when we open a practice, suddenly we have to start worrying about the cost of staff, equipment and running a business.”

De Scally runs his practice as a training facility. They are one of three practices that have the specialised equipment to handle referrals from other vets in KwaZulu-Natal.

The practice can run lab samples, do X-rays, do internal scopes, perform sonar images, and De Scally is able to detect, through many sophisticated tests, why animals are sick.

On a computer screen, he shows a picture of a patient’s swollen esophagus. The poor animal’s throat was badly chemically burnt, and it had stopped eating. They had to surgically open the throat with a tube, and make sure the dog was able to swallow.

Down the hall in the “ward”, a huge boerbul-cross is waiting for De Scally. On hearing his voice, the huge dog wags its tail limply.

This enormous dog suffered from a contorted stomach, and the blood flow to his paw was constricted. He had to be operated on immediately. The gentle giant tolerates a prod and a pat and licks De Scally’s hand.

Bubbles, a daschund, is the next patient.The little dog has had blood tests, but they prove negative for rat poison. Using the sonagram, De Scally detects a possible tumour and a blood leak in the chest cavity. This is not great news for the little dog. Her hospital stay is not yet over.

In reception, Gypsy, another canine client, has a spring in her step, as she has received a script for cortisone — her itchy days are over. No pressing emergencies — so De Scally takes this opportunity to make a cup of choccochino — a secret vice.

Across Pietermaritzburg, in a far more humble setting, Mike Thompson looks at the number of animals on the surgery list at the SPCA. Today it is relaxed. A few animals have been booked in for neutering and spaying.

Thompson used to work in a private practice, but says the work at the SPCA is more rewarding, and the hours are less stressful. He works in a small but functional surgery, and is assisted by his veterinary nurse Robyn Milne. She gently anaesthetises the animals, and he preps them for the routine operation, which appears to be quite simple.

“Neutering male animals is relatively painless, and they recover well. I think there are very few complications and there are no major personality changes. In some dogs, they are less aggressive and they just don’t have the desire to chase after bitches in season, so they wander less.”

His deft hands cut and suture the skin together like a tailor. The dog sleeps, totally unaware that his testes now lie detatched in a silver dish. Surprisingly, the blood and gore is minimal. Thompson says that serving the poor communities is about educating them.

“Often people cause problems for animals because they do not know better. Our job is to educate them, and then also fix the problem. We don’t see many cases of obvious cruelty — more cases of neglect. It feels good to help an animal that has been suffering, by educating the owner.

“We do get clients who abuse the system and pretend they can’t pay. We are a welfare organisation and our services are for those who need us.” Thompson’s favourite customer at the moment is a pit bull called Lady.

The poor dog was attacked by the owner’s neighbours — they got drunk and chopped her head with a panga. The fierce-looking dog has the temperament of an angel. She loves to be petted and fussed over.

Thompson says they like to keep injured animals in the “hospital ward” because the poor don’t have facilities to do wound care. He says the common problems are viral infections and infected wounds. Some sick patients huddle on donated blankets in the “sick ward”, waiting to be released.

Thompson says that the SPCA has to euthanase animals that are not adopted simply because of costs. He does not do this job, but it has to be done. He says that is why they encourage all animals to be neutered and spayed.

“So many stray dogs and cats come in after having a litter of unwanted puppies or kittens. It is extremely cruel to allow a pet to come to this end,” he says.

Underberg vet Todd Collins has applied his veterinary skills to caring for stockowners’ massive breeding herds, and also to saving some of the mangy greyhounds owned by the village mafia, but he always manages to convey the fact that it’s the animals that come first.

He is one of a shrinking number of rural vets who are prepared to work in difficult conditions to aid and rescue farm animals in distress. The work is often out in the country. The vet often has to think on his feet to make crucial decisions, which will affect the outcome of a case.

Collins lives in the beautiful shadows of the Drakensberg mountains, and he is a common sight on the rural roads, bouncing up dirt roads in his bakkie with his Jack Russell terriers at his side. For him, the best part of the job is driving to the remote parts of the countryside, and admiring the scenery along the way.

But when he gets to the scene it’s all business. He often has to try to guess what he will need to take along with him in terms of equipment, and in many cases he needs to think out of the box. Dealing with large animals means you often get a sharp kick if you don’t restrain the animals effectively. Collins relies on the help of experienced farmhands who know their animals. He banters with them in Zulu and they watch his ministrations with interest.

For him, there is no cosy surgery or veterinary nurse. More often than not, it’s a cement floor or a chilly barn. A love of the outdoors and a sociable comraderie with the local farmers is what keeps Collins in the trade. A warm meal at the farm table and a glass of wine can ease the hardship of a long day of vaccinating sheep. But he admits that at times it can be very tough going.

Collins has been favourably compared to United Kingdom author James Herriott, for his book of short stories regaling his experiences as a country vet. ‘Til The Cows Come Home is an amusing tribute to the profession. But being a vet is often not very amusing.

He says that vets have an extremely high suicide rate because of the pressures of the job. “I have had some very low times, and people forget that you have to deal with the death of animals, and also the emotions of the animal owners.

“We are blamed for the death of animals and then we face angry clients when we send them a bill for the work we did trying to save the animals. We work long hours and can be called out at any time. Our wives go through hell.”

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