Some days physicians' jobs seem like cake walk. Notwithstanding the fact that M.D.s only work on one single species (human), while vets are licensed to medicate and surgicate on everything else- starting with a tarantula and extending east of a rhino; and the fact that M.D.s often specialize in just one organ--gallbladders, for instance--while the majority of us are generalists doing everything from manicures to chemotherapy; the fact that our patients can't speak to us and describe their symptoms actually makes the most profound difference. For a vet the skill of history gathering is a science and an art, sometimes taking circuitous routes into strange lands.
I can tell the precise time and day when my history taking skills hit their zenith. At 6:57pm on a Friday night, as Natalie was tucking in the patients in the back of the hospital and as I picked up the car keys, my nose and palate already tasting the bouquet and rich flavor of a 7 year old Pinot Noir I had at home, the hospital phone rang.
"Bellflower Veterinary Hospital"
Distressed, sobbing female caller on the other side of the line. " Hi. My name is Shelly Smith. I think my dog Herb has a brain tumor. He has been having seizures for half an hour. We are on the 91 Freeway--can you please see us?"
"A brain tumor? How old is your dog, Shelly?"
" He is two." A little too young for a tumor, I thought to myself.
" I am so sorry. If your dog is having seizures, you are probably better off taking him to the ER because he will need overnight care and we close in three minutes"
The woman sounding more agitated: "I don't know this area at all....we are from Washington state ....drove down to show Peaches and Herb at the Eukanuba International dog show in Long Beach tomorrow. I don't know where the ER is II am really very worried about Herb. Please! Is it Ok if we bring Herb in- we are on the off ramp to your clinic?"
" Well, OK. We'll see you in a minute"
Natalie came up to the lobby looking puzzled at the sight of the intravenous catheter and fluids set up.
"Natalie. I am very sorry, we need to see a seizing patient. Can you please get the valium out of the drug safe?".
"Sure, not a problem. Didn't have grand plans for tonight anyways"
Four minutes later Natalie and I greeted a worried woman, tears welling up in her eyes, clutching the cutest Cairn terrier we've ever seen. Herb would put Toto to shame.
I quickly examined Herb in Natalie's arms, while Shelly filled out our admission forms.
His mucous membranes were pink and he was well hydrated. The chest sounded normal on auscultation, though his heart was racing. His pupils were dilated and responsive to light and he was visual. Except for his eyes rapidly exploring the lobby around him as if surrounded by swarms of invisible fairies, there were no signs of abnormalities on a brief exam. Herb was not seizing but there was something a little different and odd about him. Cairn terriers are normally very busy little dogs, but this one looked busier than normal.
"Most dogs with brain tumors are geriatric Ms. Smith Lets not panic, OK?
"Is it possible that Herb got into something", asked Natalie,"a toxin of some sort.... could he have gotten into the garbage, eaten some moldy food, insecticides, pesticides, human drugs?"
"No, it isn't possible. We have Peaches and Herb crated when they aren't being directly observed."
"Nat... could you please put Herb down on the floor so we can evaluate his gait?"
She set the adorable little terrier on the ceramic tile. The scruffy little thing proceeded to ricochet from the counter to the chairs to the walls chasing invisible hockey pucks in our lobby."
Has Herb been eating well, Ms. Smith?
"Vomiting, diarrhea, coughing, sneezing, drinking excessively?"
"Is he normally this active and busy, Ms. Smith?"
" Well..... yes and no. He seems to have more energy than normal"
" Have you noticed him circling to one side, head tilt, any signs of gait abnormalities....acting blind before this incident?"
"No. He was completely normal until about an hour ago".
"So what happened an hour ago, Shelly... where was Herb?"
"We unpacked our stuff and let him out of his carrier in our hotel room. He went under the bed for a few minutes"
"Where was Peaches while Herb was sniffing around under the bed?
"She was in her crate in the hotel room"
"How is she?"
"Peaches is fine. She happens to be the number one Cairn terrier in the country... won Westminster last year. The Eukanuba show was going to be Herb's first show... we had high hopes for him until he got the brain tumor"
"So Herb was OK until he went exploring under the bed. Peaches was crated and she is perfectly fine.
How much did you pay for your hotel room, Shelly?"
"Was it over a hundred dollars.... under a hundred dollars, less than fifty dollars?'
" I don't understand why that would make any difference to you, Doctor. What does the cost of my hotel room have to do with Herb's brain tumor?"
Natalie and I inflated the Doppler cuff and checked his blood pressure... 140mmHg.
"Ms Smith -Herb's blood pressure is OK. We will perform an EKG to be sure he isn't having any heart issues and run some blood-work on him. Is that OK?"
"Sure, do whatever you need to do"
After getting a blood sample and recording a lead II EKG strip we put Herb in a cage to do happy little figure eights racing with the lollipop guild. Fifteen minutes later, our blood tests were completed.
"Shelly.... Fortunately Herb's lab-work, chemistry, electrolytes and heart are fine. His red blood cell count was a bit high, and the EKG showed a sinus tachycardia which is understandable. He has a bit of a respiratory alkalosis probably due to hyperventilation. Things look better than we have a right to expect. I totally understand that this makes no sense to you, but did you pay less than $60 for your hotel room?"
"Well, yes... we don't know this area, but we found a little motel a few miles from here for $49 a night"
"I don't know much about Washington, Shelly, but do you know who tends to use $49 motel rooms in Southern California?"
"Hookers and drug users"
Shelly stared at me as if a unicorn horn just sprouted from my skull. " Have you heard of meth- the most common of all street drugs? It would take a few particles licked off the carpet under the bed for a little creature to do just what you are seeing. I am afraid Herb is tweaking"
"He is doing what?" It felt like the horn on my head just grew a few inches.
"Tweaking. Tweaking is slang for being high on methamphetamines. Your doggie, Herb, has gone way over the rainbow".
"Is he going to be OK?"
"I think he needs to be monitored for hypertension and for arrhythmias until the drug wears off. We are going to give him some IV fluids for supportive care.
I sure hope he will be OK--he is a cutie and I really want him to do well tomorrow".
We heard from Shelly a few days after the show- Peaches earned first place.
Herb was better than OK--he earned second place in a national dog competition on his first time out--we will never know if illicit drugs had anything to do with it.
If you believe your pet got into toxins or drugs, please do let your veterinarian know. Our job is to help your pet. You could help us greatly in this effort by being observant. Although often there are no specific antidotes available to ingestion of illicit drugs and toxins, please be honest with us even if it makes you a bit uncomfortable. We are not the police and we will not report you-- being informed enables us to optimize patient care increasing chances of a good outcome for you and your pet.
"If your dog ate your pot, it is really important that you tell the doctor that your dog ate your pot. THC is toxic to dogs. If your dog ate any prescription medication (legally obtained or otherwise), tell your vet. If your dog ate a condom that SOMEHOW has peanut butter inside it, tell your vet. Vets are also bound by doctor-patient confidentiality, so they’re not going to narc on you. They will report abuse however, such as people drugging their pets to “see what would happen.” Don’t do that."