Perhaps the title sounds misleading. A “large-animal vet” develops a veterinary practice caring for the needs of livestock such as cattle (dairy or beef), sheep, goats and pigs. A “small animal” veterinarian like me is usually slotted into the care of companion pets such as dogs and cats. So when I examine a 200 pound dog, it is still a small animal and likewise there is often confusion about whom to call when the patient is a pot-belly/miniature pig. Not me.
The life of a small animal vet and that of a large animal practitioner are markedly different. One works almost exclusively indoors, dressed neatly, white coat in place. The other weathers life outdoors, facing extremes of blazing heat to icy cold, rain and snow. One always has a sink handy to tidy up. The other uses outdoor hoses more than they’d like. A dairy vet may check over 100 head of cattle in a morning and four “farm calls” make a full day. A small animal vet may follow the medical strands of more than 25 patients a day, winding through exams, blood results, x-rays and working in a surgery or two. All juggle the demands of unexpected emergency work.
Being in an office most of the day, I rarely interact with my brother and sister large animal veterinarians. So when the pygmy goat from the petting zoo fell over dead I was unhappy, but proceeded to perform a postmortem examination and sent tissue samples off to our regular lab. I had overseen the care of these goats for many years, but they were on the back burner when it came to my interest in the truly exotic Zoo collection. My concerns centered on whether or not the public might have fed something odd to the goat? (I’ll jump ahead here: No. The public did not harm the goat). I mulled over the problem but prepared to wait until the pathology report was finished sometime in the next week. And then another goat died.
I was unnerved. The goats were being closely watched and none had shown any outward signs of sickness. They had all lived for more than eight years at the zoo and had never, collectively, suffered a single injury amongst themselves. I immediately sought the expertise of a large-animal veterinarian. The goat expert was on a dairy farm. The return call came in as I was finishing one surgery and about to start another. Gloves still on, I was staring at some x-rays in-between these surgeries when they told me they had Dr. B on the line. Multitasking at its best.
I hurried over, snapping gloves into the waste receptacle and grabbing pen and paper. I introduced myself and launched into a recital of my goat woes. I verified that he had goat experience. I gave him dates, genders, date of deaths, lack of lab results, still pending. I drew breath to spew forth another list of details and heard him gently respond, “Yes…. I think…. I might be able…. to help”. His measured tones were from a man used to the gentle rhythms of milking machines, contented cows swishing their tails, chewing their cuds. Da-dum da-dum to my staccato dop-dop-dop-dop-dop! I managed to squeeze in a few more hurried sentences (surgery! Waiting!) before he responded calmly, “I think I drive past your practice on my way up from this dairy….”. I opened my mouth. Closed my mouth. I could hear the clouds, feel the sunshine, almost see the shining black and white hides of the gentle Holsteins he surveyed as we spoke. It was all there in the rhythm of his speech. I told myself to stop yapping before he decided my goat problem would be too stressful for him to bother with.
An hour later Dr. Thomas Bauman drove up in a large truck outfitted for all manner of veterinary ministrations. He spent an hour and a half doing a postmortem on one goat. He had a wicked knife and mulled over the cause of sand in the stomach. He felt it was too much. Did we feed on the ground? No. But little kids feed the zoo goats oat hay pellets and they often dropped to the sand, with all the goats scrambling to get their share. Hmmm. He gave the problem his full attention and we submitted a gazillion samples to the state lab, including an intact eyeball because it would be useful for trace metal analysis. The final answer was a copper deficiency in the feed, to which Pygmy goats are especially susceptible. Hay grown in the San Joaquin Valley is often deficient in copper. The salt lick fed at the zoo did not have added copper because Alpacas are in with the goats and they are susceptible to copper toxicity (too much) if supplemented. So we now feed our goats little capsules of copper wire every six months and all is good.
But sometimes I find myself wishing that I was a large animal veterinarian. Just so I could slow down and smell the …..never mind.
Christine McFadden holds a license to practice veterinary medicine and surgery. She has cared for the family pets of Merced at Valley Animal Hospital for more than 30 years. Send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.