Wednesday, January 6, 2021

A View of Woods and Water

A warm thank you to all my Vetography readers! As you know, Vetography was in hibernation for most of 2020. For better or worse, it will remain in hibernation for the foreseeable future as I continue to concentrate on writing books. I will, however, be posting regularly to a new blog, "A View of Woods and Water". This blog will feature some veterinary stories, but also other writing and excerpts from my books. 

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And for information on my books, have a look at my website:

Thanks again!

Thursday, February 6, 2020


No, not the noses of zoo animals, but the diseases that can spread from animals to humans. It comes from the Greek “zoon” for animals and “nosos” for diseases, whereas the nose on your face gets its name from ancient Anglo-Saxon roots. Coincidence.

            Zoonoses have been on my mind because of two items in the news recently. One is at the top of every news feed right now and the other you’d have to scroll some distance to find, and only on certain sites.

            The first is coronavirus.

            Depending on happens with the current coronavirus epidemic in Wuhan, China, and depending on when you’re reading this, you may have to look back through the news archives to remind yourself of the details, or you may be dead from it, in which case you’re probably not reading this anyway. Some strains of coronavirus can be considered zoonotic. The current one in China, for example, is thought to have originated in wildlife, possibly pangolins. Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is another coronavirus, and it jumped from camels to people. SARS was also a coronavirus, and it seemed to have been passed from civets (a kind of cat-like creature).

            And now I have shocking news for you. Are you ready? Dogs get coronavirus too. Quite commonly, in fact. This is common enough knowledge that vet clinics have seen a surge in requests for coronavirus vaccination in the last few days. Yes, we do have a vaccine, but we rarely use it. We rarely use it because it is a really mild disease, at worst causing diarrhea, mostly in puppies. It has nothing to do with SARS, MERS or Wuhan corona, other than belonging in the same very general family of viruses. Being afraid of canine corona because other coronas are potentially lethal is like being afraid of garter snakes because cobras and rattlesnakes can kill you. For sure, some people are afraid of all snakes, but they (hopefully) understand that this is an irrational phobia, not a rational basis for decision making. Ditto for viruses. I get it if you’re germophobic, but don’t panic as a result. Your dog’s diarrhea will not kill you. It might be the end of your carpet, but not of you.

            The other zoonosis in the news is, I think, more interesting. A woman in Alberta was diagnosed with rare and aggressive liver cancer. In a surgical Hail Mary pass, the doctors planned to remove a large part of her liver and a number of nearby tissues. Then the surprise. It was not cancer, it was a parasite. It was a zoonotic tapeworm called Echinococcus multilocularis. Creepy, eh? This has been around for millennia, but in parts of the world, including western and northern Canada, it may be on the increase. Nobody knows for sure where this woman contracted it, but normally it’s through canid feces. Canid, not necessarily canine. But possibly. Echinococcus cycles between a definitive host, usually a coyote, wolf or fox, and an intermediate host, usually a rodent. The adult worm sets up shop in the intestines of the definitive host, shedding eggs in the feces for the intermediate host to ingest. The eggs then hatch into larvae which migrate and form cysts somewhere in the intermediate host, such as in the liver, waiting to be eaten by the definitive host and thus completing one of nature’s more disturbing circles of life (cue Elton John).

            Now read back over the third last sentence in the paragraph above. Note the use of the word “usually”, twice. The definitive host is usually a coyote, wolf or fox, but it could be a dog if the dog eats rodents. And the intermediate host is usually a rodent, but it could be a human if the human snuggles with their rodent-eating dog and then goes to eat a corned beef on rye sandwich without washing their hands first. To be clear, it doesn’t have to be a corned beef on rye, or any sandwich at all, but I’m sure you sorted that out for yourself. I was just trying to create a more memorable mental image. So, if you suspect your dog of eating rodents you should mention it to your vet (we don’t always ask, although I think we will be doing so more often now) because there are effective deworming medications for this, and you should always wash your hands before eating. I know I sound like your mother. Well, she was right. At least about this. Just imagine how much more insistent she would have been if she knew about worms that formed giant cysts in your liver.

            This is still very rare, so please don’t panic. However, while no concern whatsoever is warranted for canine coronavirus, some mild attentive concern is appropriate for Echinococcus. This frontier between human medicine and veterinary medicine is fascinating. One list I saw had 64 different zoonoses on it, from African sleeping sickness (from cattle via tsetse flies) to Zika fever (from primates via mosquitoes), and while most are tropical and passed through insect vectors from their animal hosts, some are direct from your pet to you. Of these, really only rabies is fatal and it is very rare here because of vaccination. Everything else, from ringworm (incidentally, not a worm and not always in a ring – rashfungus would be a better name) to scabies to giardia are not especially common or especially serious, unless you have a weakened immune system.

            In closing, I have to wonder if camels at the zoo with MERS sneezed on you, would that be a zoonosis from zoo noses? (Sorry.)

Today there was an item in the news reporting that a dog in Hong Kong had caught the corona virus, now officially known as COVID-19. This will cause silly people to panic. In case you are feeling like you are in peril of becoming silly yourself, let me explain why you shouldn't do that. 
First of all, this is all highly unsurprising. COVID came from another mammal in the first place, so it reasonable to assume that it could pass to yet more different mammals. This is in no way unusual. Ferrets can get human flu for example. The happy news though is that when a virus jumps species it always changes. Usually it gets much weaker. Sometimes, rarely, it gets stronger. Given the thousands of dogs and cats exposed, if COVID was getting stronger after going into them, we would know about it by now. This is one single dog and this dog isn't even sick, he just tested positive. COVID apparently isn't even replicating in this dog, so he definitely can't pass it on. The virus has indeed gotten much weaker. So don't be silly and panic. Not about this, anyway. There are plenty of far worthier things to panic about.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Thank You For Thank Yous

Dear Client,

It may not always seem that way when I’m in my confident professional mode, but I can be socially awkward at times. Sometimes I don’t have a good instinctive grasp of the social norms. My kids are on the Autism spectrum, so perhaps I have a little touch of that as well. The one social norm that continues to confuse me is whether one ever says thank you for being thanked. Taken to an extreme, this could obviously spiral out of control.

“Thank you!”

“Thank you for saying thank you!”

“Well, thank you for saying thank you to my thank you…”

Ridiculous, right? Best nipped in the bud after that first thank you. Yet, this doesn’t entirely sit right with me either. This is why I am writing this open letter. To all of you who have sent me thank you cards, and thank you emails, and bottles of wine, and cookies or chocolates, and framed photographs of your pets, and other tokens of gratitude – to all of you I say a very sincere and heartfelt thank you. I am thanking you for thanking me. If this is socially inappropriate, so be it. It’s how I feel.

If you, the reader of this letter, have sent me one of those cards, you should know that I have kept it, no matter how long ago you sent it. I have kept all of them. I literally have a large drawer full of thank you cards. One day I will count them, but there are hundreds and hundreds. Sometimes when I’m feeling down about work, I’ll just pull that drawer open and look at them all stacked in there and I will feel better. Occasionally I’ll even pull an old one out and reread it, even though sometimes this will be bittersweet as you usually send me a thank you card after I have put your pet to sleep, although I know that you are not thanking me for that service specifically, but rather for the care throughout your pet’s life. But the sweet outweighs the bitter by far because time does heal many (although perhaps not all) wounds and as time goes on I will mostly smile at the memory of your pet and I will think about the relationship you and I have as people. As I have often said, veterinary medicine is not an animal business that happens to involve people, but rather it is a people business that happens to involve animals. And it is people like you who keep me in it.

Veterinarians are often sensitive people. It is a highly complex job, which means that things sometimes do not go as planned, so criticism, disappointment, annoyance and even anger from clients is inevitable. As sensitive people we take this to heart. We really take this deeply to heart, so a sharp word from an upset client can fester in our minds for a very long time afterwards. We should be able to just shrug it off, but it’s not easy. The only true antidotes are our own confidence that we’re doing the best we can, and the thank yous from clients like you that remind us that what we do is actually appreciated by so many people. If only the patients could express their gratitude as well it would be perfect, but until that magic Dr. Doolittle day, the fact that you did is good enough.

So, thank you for saying thank you. You have no idea how much it means to me.


Dr Philipp Schott BSc DVM

p.s. Please do not feel badly if you’re reading this and are realizing that you have meant to send a thank you card, but never got around to it! Don’t worry! In no way do I expect to be thanked, nor do I notice when I haven’t been. And I totally get it! Even though I feel grateful for all sorts of professionals and other people who keep my life on track, I am terrible at remembering to thank them. Thanking really is such a tricky business.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Volume Two!

I am delighted to announce that ECW Press in Toronto will be publishing my second collection of veterinary anecdotes, stories, and essays in 2021!

It is tentatively titled, "Mr. Barky Barkerson: More Tales From a Pet Practice."

About a quarter of the stories will be drawn from the blog and the rest will be new!

Thursday, November 14, 2019

It's The Dog, I Swear

Ranger, an elderly black lab, lay obediently on his right side on the ultrasound table while I performed the abdominal scan. The room was quiet and dark but for a soft glow from the ultrasound screen. Ranger’s owner was at his head end, stroking him, and a tech was beside the owner, gently holding Ranger’s legs, although he was so calm that it probably wasn’t necessary. Then it hit. A wave of intense odour suddenly filled the room. It was incredibly pungent and impossible to ignore. It was as if someone had, inexplicably it must be said, carefully inserted something dead and rancid into each of my nostrils.  
            “It’s the dog, I swear!” the owner said, laughing. Ranger had, as the polite phrase puts it, “broken wind”. Had he ever. We all did loud stage coughs and in the semi-dark I could see the tech waving a hand in front of her face, trying to dispel the cloud. She was closest to the source.
            Who among us dog people does not recognize this scenario? Who has not hastened to point at the dog when heads turn and noses wrinkle? To be fair, it often is the dog, as they are a farty bunch. In Ranger’s case we had additional evidence as on ultrasound I could see a lot of gas in his large intestine.
            “Good news! There’s more to come!” I cheerfully announced and pointed at the screen. Veterinarians and clinic staff are more or less immune to bad smells and so, apparently, was Ranger’s owner, so it was safe for me to be jovial about it. You do have to judge your audience carefully though.
            But why? Why are dogs such a farty bunch? There are two main reasons: gulping and fermenting. Let’s tackle fermenting first.
            Fermentation is the process by which microorganisms in an anaerobic environment (i.e. one with no oxygen) break down larger molecules into smaller molecules, often releasing gas molecules in the process. When bread rises or beer bubbles it’s because of the gas produced by the yeast fermenting the grains. In the case of Ranger’s large intestine, it’s bacteria fermenting food molecules that didn’t fully digest higher up in the small intestine. It’s impossible to know specifically which food molecules, but, much like in humans, peas, beans, dairy, complex carbohydrates and high fibre ingredients are at the top of the list. The list is really long though, so if the gas is a problem, the best first step is to switch to a new food that’s as different in its ingredients as possible. And when I say “problem”, I don’t just mean from a human olfactory comfort standpoint. I also mean from a canine abdominal comfort standpoint. I routinely have patients referred to me for abdominal ultrasound because of vague pain symptoms. Usually the referring doctor is trying to rule out a tumour, but often I end up finding excessive gas. Pardon me for asking a personal question, but have you ever had bad gas cramps? Gas is either embarrassing or funny or both until you have gas cramps, then you no longer care about the embarrassment and it sure is not funny anymore.
            The second major source of gas is gulping and this, in turn, happens for two different reasons. The first is that some dogs simply eat too fast and swallow a lot of air in the process. Correction – most dogs simply eat too fast. Humans are more likely to burp up swallowed air because of our vertical anatomy, but in dogs it tends to cruise on into the digestive system and pick up poopy odour molecules on its way to the rear exit. If you’re concerned about this you can try a so-called “slow feed” bowl, which typically will have a hump in the middle, forcing the dog to chase his food around the resulting doughnut. I have also heard of people scattering kibble across a cookie sheet to achieve a similar slow-down. The other reason for gulping is anatomy. Dogs with squishy faces such as boxers, pugs, Boston terriers, bulldogs etc. often have very narrow nasal passages, so they are forced to mouth breathe and consequently can swallow a lot of air.
            While fermenting and gulping account for most doggie flatulence, gas can occasionally also be related to disease in the digestive system, so please do mention it to your veterinarian, especially if there has been a sudden increase in the amount of gas.
            And what about cats? With the exception of cats who are given too much milk, farting is pretty unusual in this species. Their diets usually contain far fewer fermentable ingredients and although they can eat quite quickly, they do not generally gulp with the same wild “eating like nobody’s watching” abandon as the average food crazed dog.
            Before we leave this fascinating subject, I’ll give you a few nuggets of trivia for the next time conversation lags at a dinner party:
-          The scientific study of flatulence is called flatology. This is pronounced with a long a, as in slate or fate. So now you can add flatologist to the list of career ambitions for eight-year-old boys.
-          Dog farts objectively smell worse because of their higher protein diets. Protein digestion can produce sulfur containing amino acids that mix with the fermented gas to produce an especially fetid smell.
-          In 2001 the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition in England performed a study which involved fitting the subject dogs with special fart suits allowing them to collect the gas and analyze the sulfur content. I am 100% serious. Google “dog fart suit” if you don’t believe me. There are pictures too.
-          The average human produces 476 to 1491 ml of fumes per day, divided over 8 to 20… er… events. As the dog fart suit does not measure volumes, we sadly do not have this data for dogs, but, as I have outlined, they are a farty bunch, so even accounting for smaller size, we are talking about a lot of gas.
-          Although the exceptions are hilarious, most dog flatulence is silent. The reason for the difference with humans is anatomical. In deference to my more sensitive readers I will not expand on this. Yes, believe it or not, even I have my limits.

            Ranger’s ultrasound was ultimately normal. He had no tumours, or anything else of concern, and the amount of gas was not unexpected for an old lab. He was just slowing down, which was also not unexpected for an old lab.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Other Duck

I have seen two ducks in my career and both ducks merit stories. That’s a story to patient ratio of 1:1, which puts ducks ahead of any other species I have seen more than once. That’s how cool ducks are. I suspect that goats would also generate a high story to patient ratio, but sadly, my career path has taken me well away from goats. More’s the pity.

The first duck was named Puddles, a white farm duck who waddled into the clinic (with his owner) for regular check-ups. His story was in my last collection and it remains one of the most popular. As I said, ducks are cool. This second duck was named Jake, and he was in many ways the opposite of Puddles. While Puddles was supremely relaxed in the clinic, Jake was terrified. While Puddles was surprisingly large, Jake was surprisingly small. And while Puddles was pure plain white, Jake’s feathers were all the shimmering dark green of a mallard’s head while his bill was jet black. Jake was an East Indies duck and he was stunning to behold. I had never seen such a beautiful duck. In fact, I had never imagined such a beautiful duck could exist.

Jake’s owner, Mr. Bolton, was a quiet, polite man about my age. He seemed every bit the average suburban dad, right from the way he dressed (t-shirt, jeans) to what he drove (minivan), until you found out that he had a duck fetish. And I mean fetish in a good way, not in some disturbing way. While other suburban dads tended to their lush backyard lawns or their patio barbecue set-ups, Mr. Bolton had apparently turned his entire backyard into an elaborate duck habitat. He showed me pictures. These ducks had it good. As Jake’s appearance suggested, these were not just any ducks, these were “fancy ducks”. And I mean “fancy” in the technical sense as opposed to just meaning deluxe or elegant. There is, apparently, a whole sub-culture of duck fanciers out there, as there are guinea pig fanciers, pigeon fanciers and goldfish fanciers, and they breed striking looking ducks to qualify as “fancy” in the duck show world. The East Indies duck turns out to have nothing to do with the actual geographic East Indies, but rather was just an exotic name dreamed up by a past duck fancier for his exotic looking creation. Mr. Bolton had several East Indies ducks and also a few Mandarin ducks – eye-catching purple, teal, orange and cream-coloured feathered confections. These seemed tastelessly garish though beside the posh East Indies ducks.

Mr. Bolton had brought Jake to me because the country vet he normally dealt with for his ducks was starting to come across as dismissive and unsympathetic. He apparently viewed Jake and his friends through the livestock lens rather than the pet lens and was not interested in spending the time required for the latter approach. I don’t recall who this vet was, and it’s entirely possible that Mr. Bolton’s assessment was unfair and that he was perhaps being overly sensitive to something the vet said, but regardless, Mr. Bolton wanted to try a pet vet. The fact that I had only seen one duck before didn’t faze him.

After the initial introductions and greetings, I asked Mr. Bolton what his concern with Jake was. Jake was an anxious duck, so he was in a crate on the floor beside his owner, only his dark green head and shining little black eyes visible.

“It’s his penis.”

It was becoming clearer why Mr. Bolton didn’t want to see the country vet about this.

“Oh? What’s wrong with it?”

“Jake’s a great breeder. Very enthusiastic. I think he injured it because it’s really swollen and won’t go back in.”

Sometimes my job is boring and routine, but often it isn’t, and when it isn’t it can take some truly odd turns.

“Ok, well, let’s have a look.”

Mr. Bolton crouched down, opened the crate and very gingerly lifted Jake out, all the while making soft cooing noises. Jake was even more spectacular up close and in person (in duck?) than I had anticipated from the photos. The way the light caught those gleaming emerald feathers was breath-taking, especially contrasted with his jet-black bill, eyes and feet. Those were not the only black parts. His penis was black too and it was hanging down, like a sad little sausage. Normally their penises are corkscrew shaped (no, I’m not making this up), but the swelling had eliminated the twists.

“Oh my,” was the best I could muster. I got a light and a magnifier and had a closer look. Jake was very quiet and didn’t struggle, but he was also very tense. Not surprising I suppose. A swollen black duck penis is probably gross enough for most readers, so I won’t describe it in more detail, but suffice it to say that based on careful inspection of said swollen black duck penis I concluded that poor Jake was suffering from balanitis, which is infection of the penis. “I think it’s infected,” I told Mr. Bolton, “but honestly I don’t know much about this, so let me double check the literature before we decide on a plan.”

I excused myself from the exam room and went into the office where I logged on to the Veterinary Information Network, a subscription service that has a massive database of opinion, data and case reports on every conceivable veterinary scenario. I typed “duck balanitis” into the search bar. Zero hits. Apparently, this was not a conceivable veterinary scenario. I then went to Google. This was a bad idea. I’m so na├»ve. In any case, I do not recommend you use it for any even vaguely penis related searches. So, I resorted to a more fundamental veterinary tool – extrapolation. If this were a dog, I would use antibiotics and anti-inflammatories and advise the owner on regular gentle cleaning at home. I thought there might be a wacky duck specific angle to consider, but if there was, I had no way of knowing.

A week later Mr. Bolton phoned to let me know that the penis was still enlarged and protruding, but perhaps less so, and Jake seemed happier. I asked him to call again in another week as at that point the meds would be finished. He did, and the report was the same – some improvement, but not cured. I decided to try a different antibiotic and I re-crossed my fingers. To move rapidly to the end of a prolonged and somewhat dull medical story, we went through several rounds of this and the answer was always the same. Eventually Mr. Bolton and I agreed that management of Jake’s balanitis was the best we could hope for. A cure seemed out of reach. Evidently there was some unknowable wacky duck specific angle at play after all. The ultimate solution would have been a phallectomy. I’ll let you work out for yourself what that means. Nobody, including Jake one presumes, thought that that was a good idea. He could no longer be Jake the Drake, stud duck extraordinaire, but he was reasonably happy for the rest of his days. Sometimes reasonably happy is the best we can hope for. Actually, it is often the best we can hope for.

Monday, September 16, 2019


Another big orange cat. But this time not quite as big and this time a tabby, not a lion. George was one of my favourite patients and Mrs. Mackintosh was one of my favourite clients. This was many years ago, not long after I started in practice, and Mrs. Mackintosh was one of the first clients who began asking to see me specifically. My one boss had been there for over thirty years and his clientele was extremely loyal. My other boss was the first fulltime female veterinarian in the practice and she had rapidly built a following based on her more modern approach, and based on the fact that some animals are less fearful around a gentle woman than a boisterous man. Not that all women are gentle or that all men are boisterous, but that was the situation then at Birchwood. In any case, even though I was kept busy, it was not easy to attract regular clients and I was immensely pleased by the vote of confidence that Mrs. Mackintosh gave me.
            Mrs. Mackintosh was an elderly lady with a soft Scottish accent and a seemingly limitless supply of cat themed sweaters. I suspected that she had been a war bride, but in those days, I felt compelled to employ a rather narrowly defined version of professionalism and it didn’t occur to me to ask any personal questions. George was a young male orange tabby. Mrs. Mackintosh explained that he had been named George after her father. Give her age, I reasoned that George Mackintosh Senior must have been born in the 19th century back in Scotland. I smiled at the thought of how he would have reacted to know that a cat in Canada a hundred years later would be named after him.
            Orange tabbies tend to be big and they tend to be friendly. George was both, in spades. He was an enormous teddy-bear of love. Examining him was a challenge because he constantly wanted to head-butt my hand or rub against my arm, and he purred so loudly I swear the table shook from it. I loved this cat. He was perhaps the first patient I really bonded with. Consequently, it was with special concern that I listened to Mrs. Mackintosh describe his symptoms to me on the phone one grey November day.
            “The wee fellow hasn’t eaten a thing in two days! Not even his favourite – tuna from the can.”
            George was hardly a ‘wee fellow’, but I let that slide as the tone of her voice was very serious and concerned.
            “How is his drinking and urination?”
            “Terrible doctor. He’s not doing any of either.”
            “And this started suddenly two days ago? Or had you noticed any changes before?’
            “No, very sudden. What shall I do doctor?”
            “Please bring George this afternoon if you are able. We’ll probably need to run some tests. I’ll transfer you to the front desk to set up a specific time.”
            “Yes, I’ll come as soon as they let me.”

            George still purred, but he did not have the energy to head-butt or rub up against my arm. He was dehydrated and his breath was very foul. It smelled like a nasty men's urinal. I had a sinking feeling.
            “Ok, we’re going to run some blood. I’m worried about his kidneys. We’ll hook him up on intravenous fluids while we wait for the results.”
            “Please do whatever you need to do doctor.”
            The test results confirmed my suspicion. His kidneys were in appalling condition. He had something called anuric acute renal failure. This means that his kidneys had suddenly shut down and had done so so severely that they no longer were able to make urine at all. This might not surprise some readers as people often assume that a lack of urine production is a common sign of kidney failure, but in fact, it is almost always the opposite. Usually, as kidneys fail, they actually produce more urine because their ability to concentrate the urine and conserve water for the body is impaired. It is only in the very last stage that they stop making urine. Why this would happen to George, who was only five years old, baffled me. I explained this to Mrs. Mackintosh.
            “Is there anything we can do for him? Is there anything at all?” She was a tough lady, but her eyes were red, and her voice was quavering.
            “Yes, let’s keep him on the IV for 48 hours and see if we can kick start the kidneys. And let’s do a few more tests and try to find the cause.”
            I don’t know how good she was at picking up on body language, but I know that I did not really believe what I just said. I could not face telling her the truth that there was no hope and that finding the cause would not actually be helpful. George needed a kidney transplant, and that was just not possible. Certainly not in Winnipeg in the early 1990s. After saying this I talked myself into thinking that maybe there was just the slenderest hope of recovery. Maybe the tests had been wrong.
            The tests were not wrong. George stayed in hospital on aggressive IV for the two days. He purred whenever Mrs. Mackintosh visited him and whenever I handled him for examination or treatment, but he looked so sad otherwise. This was not the George we knew and he was becoming less so by the hour. By the second day, I had my answer. He had been poisoned by anti-freeze. Often, we can see the characteristic crystals anti-freeze produces on the urine test, but for some reason these were absent in the particular sample or had been missed. Instead we saw on x-ray that his kidneys had essentially turned to solid stone. There was truly no hope and he was suffering. He died peacefully in Mrs. Mackintosh’s arms as I infused an overdose of barbiturate into the IV line. We both cried.
            We never did find out whether the poisoning was deliberate or accidental. George did like to roam to the neighbours, but everybody loved him. Mrs. Mackintosh preferred to assume that it was accidental. Anti-freeze is sweet and is irresistible to cats and dogs.
            Two weeks later Mrs. Mackintosh was back in the clinic. She had a kitten with her. It was an orange one again, but this time a female. She called it Anne, after her mother.