An occupational hazard of being a vet.

Occupational hazard

Bites are an occupational hazard for all veterinarians in private practice. One usually gets bitten when one least expects it. As a young vet, I was fearless and trusted animals completely. Then, I was bitten on the throat by a German shepherd while changing his chest bandage, and I became more circumspect.

Most often, we vets are bitten on the hands and fingers while examining or treating dogs and cats. The treatment for bites that I have found most successful I actually learned from my mother while growing up. It was her standard treatment for all our cuts and scrapes, and that was to soak the affected part of the anatomy in boiling hot water with some added betadine or iodine. My siblings and I called it the hot bucket treatment. This poultice serves to draw out all the infection and limits the swelling that usually follows an animal bite.

His teeth sank deeply into the flesh at the base of my thumb.

On one occasion, I sustained a nasty bite from an unpredictably aggressive Rottweiler-cross. His teeth sank deeply into the flesh at the base of my thumb, narrowly missing the tendons. All I could think of was the game of golf I was due to play the following day. That night, I dipped my thumb in boiling hot water repeatedly. I awoke to find my hand a lot better than expected – so much so that I went off to golf with my wife Kim’s words ringing in my ears: “You are totally mad to go and play, and don’t expect any sympathy from me if you make it worse,” – a normal caring wife of many years.

Well, I played with my hand heavily bandaged and actually won first prize- my mates did not believe there was a wound under the bandage so I had to take the dressing off to prove my story. My hand healed very quickly thanks to my mother’s poultice remedy.

Bit me through my pants right on the most prized part of my anatomy.

On another occasion I had just finished examining the hips of an elderly German shepherd. He was obviously in some discomfort and took exception to my manipulation of his hips. After I had finished my examination and was talking to his owner, the dog whipped round, lunged at me and bit me through my pants right on the most prized part of my anatomy. Stifling a cry of pain, I rushed to the bathroom to examine the damage. My biggest fear was that I had been shortened. Luckily all was intact. I must confess that in this particular case, I had no inclination to poultice my bite wound. In fact, I was quite proud of the swelling. I did, however, have to wait rather anxiously for more than a week and for the right moment to make sure that there was no functional damage.

One of my worst bite wounds happened on a Saturday night. My very good friend Ray bred giant schnauzers and I knew all his dogs well. His one bitch Inja went into labour on the Saturday afternoon. She produced two puppies uneventfully but the third got stuck. After many hours of pushing, it was obvious she was going to need help. Ray met me at the veterinary hospital at about midnight. I leant into the back of the car where Inja was and unthinkingly removed the two puppies in their basket next to her. I knew her well but she still took exception to me taking her puppies away and her maternal instinct kicked in. She flew at me and tore a large laceration in my lower lip.

I successfully delivered four live puppies and sewed up my patient.

I did not look in the mirror but knew the damage must have been quite severe as the face of Hezekial, my Zulu assistant, went from black to grey when he saw me. Ray was also quite shaken. However, there was a job to be done so we pressed on with the caesarean. I successfully delivered four live puppies and sewed up my patient. Only once she was awake and mother and puppies were doing well did I decide to look in the mirror. My lower teeth were all exposed and my lower lip was dangling and flapping in the breeze. I realized this bite could not be fixed with hot bucket treatment so off we went to casualty. Ray phoned Kim who met me at the hospital. Being a radiographer, she was pretty hardened by blood and trauma so stayed very calm. This was a great help to me. The lady doctor that was called out to help me was excellent. She started to inject me with local anaesthetic but it stung so much I eventually just asked her to stitch without the local. The pain of the fine suture needle passing through the wound edges was more bearable than the local. The doctor did a sterling job, however my lip swelled terribly for 10 days making talking and eating very difficult. Those who know me will realize that the former was a far worse hardship than the latter.

All my clients wanted to know what had happened. I would painfully manage to get out the words a dog bit me when they would all then want to know what I was doing to the poor creature.  The wound eventually healed extremely well and I was left with two smallish scars that are not readily visible. I tried to cover the scars with a scraggly beard but Kim was adamant she preferred me with the scars.

Check out Kim’s work here.

Dr Steve Wimberley is a veterinary surgeon in Westville, KwaZulu-Natal. He has written two books of short stories already on his experiences as a veterinary surgeon and his adventures in Africa. Steve is a gifted story teller

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