This is an installment in the ongoing Vet Tech Tales series. These Tales are usually Friday features -- except when I forget to actually schedule one to appear on Friday. Oops.
It takes a special kind of person to work with animals. Having an affinity with them and loving them are prerequisites for a career with them, of course, but it doesn’t end there. My first paid day on the job had underscored the basic things that would be required of me if I were truly serious about continuing to be an animal care worker.
Only as the days turned into weeks and then into months did I fully come to understand that working with animals meant working for them too. Veterinary medicine at its core is a service industry, and one in which the balance between doing what’s best for an animal must always be weighed against what the owner wants, what they can afford and what they perceive to be the relationship between their family and their pet.
After just a few days on the job I considered myself an expert on pet owners. Clearly there were only three types: those who loved their pets and treated them like household members, those who neglected the animals in their care and those who outright abused them. At 17 – having grown up in a nice, middle-class neighborhood in the folds of a nice, middle-class family – it was easy to define neglect rather loosely. Any animal that wasn’t pampered and indulged was obviously being neglected. Why the majority of owners were even allowed to keep a pet was beyond my rose-colored judgment. At 17 and brimming with idealism, distinguishing levels of gray was a skill I’d yet to fully develop.
So when Ms. Crane walked in with carrier in hand and a hint of panic in her eyes, I knew only neglect could turn the once-pristine face of her tiny Persian kitten into the hairless, scabby-looking mess it was now. I prepared myself to be outraged, as indignation rather than empathy seemed the easier emotion to conjure.
On closer inspection, once I’d pulled the purring ball of fluff out of the carrier, I saw it wasn’t so much the entire face affected but maybe just the muzzle. And maybe only around the top of the kitten’s nose and across her upper lips.
The ginger-colored kitten purred in my hands while Dr. Norris eyed the lesions. “How long has she been losing hair?” he asked.
Ms. Crane hesitated. When she did answer, she wouldn’t meet the vet’s eyes. “Maybe a week?”
Aha! Guilt and hedging. My suspicions were confirmed.
Dr. Norris flipped off the exam room lights and shined an ultraviolet Wood’s lamp onto the kitten’s face. A few of the hairs surrounding the lesions fluoresced with a tell-tale green glow. “Yep, what I suspected. Ringworm. I’d like to do a culture to be sure, though.”
Ms. Crane shook her head. “I don’t think that’ll be necessary.”
I shuddered. Not only had Ms. Crane waited a week – a week! – to bring her kitten in, she wasn’t going to let Norris confirm the diagnosis.
Gripping the kitten under her forelegs, I swung her out at arms’ length as Norris flipped the lights back on. The kitten’s back feet dangled in mid-air as its purr-motor throttled into high gear. To its delight, I jounced it a bit, and even Ms. Crane cracked a smile as the kitten danced in the air above the exam table.
Such a sweet and funny kitten deserved far better than the life of neglect it seemed destined for.
“Do you have children or other pets at home?” Norris asked. “You probably know ringworm is transmissible to humans and other animals.”
Ms. Crane nodded. “I have a 6-year-old daughter. She and Bonnie are inseparable.”
“Well, they’re going to need to be separated for a while.”
“A little late for that.” Ms. Crane’s voice sounded tired and flat. “I told her not to handle Bonnie so much. It’s my fault really; she’s too young to know any better.”
“Just because she’s been exposed doesn’t mean your daughter will get ringworm,” Dr. Norris pointed out. “But you’ll want to consult with your pediatrician to be sure.”
“That’s just it.” Ms. Crane’s expression twisted to match her rueful sigh. “There was an outbreak of it at my daughter’s school. I’m pretty sure she’s the one who gave it to the kitten. I wanted to bring Bonnie in earlier, but my mother-in-law broke her ankle last week and we’ve been helping out at her house, and I knew the ringworm wasn’t life-threatening, and we’ve all been exposed already anyway, and, well, poor Bonnie just got pushed down the list.” She threw the still air-dancing kitten another half-smile.
I lowered Bonnie to the exam table and she immediately pounced on a stray pen cap that spun out of her claws and across the cold laminate. Grudgingly I had to concede the kitten didn’t appear to be overly suffering as I flicked the pen cap back toward her and she batted it back to me. Bonnie was a happy, well-adjusted kitten with a little girl at home who apparently adored her. The only thing standing between Bonnie and her visit to the vet was a list of other priorities.
Sometimes kittens come third.
And sometimes, as in Bonnie’s case, it’s okay for kittens to come third. Just as it’s sometimes okay for children to come third. Or for the rest of the family to come third. When life is full of priorities, dispassionate triage is often necessary. Hard decisions and delays aren’t the hallmarks of neglect. Prolonged indifference is.
It wasn’t long after Bonnie that I saw my first case of true neglect. That’s when the ground beneath my 17-year-old idealism shifted, creating new continental formations that readjusted my thinking forever.
Next Tale: "Collared" -- why there really are some people who should never be allowed to have animals.