Considering the horse's signs could have been an example in a textbook for baby veterinarians, it took longer than I'm proud of to make the diagnosis.
Tetanus bacteria BigStock
Tetanus bacteria. Photo by BigStock
The filly stood stock stiff, drooling, wild-eyed, trembling, and sweating. She couldn’t eat, her heart rate was sky-high, and her distress was evident. It wasn’t until I went to take her temperature, and her tail was stiff behind her, that my brain added the bits and bytes of data in front of me: sawhorse stance, prominent third-eyelid, inability to move jaw or swallow, “cocked” tail – she had tetanus.
In my defense, I’d never seen tetanus in a horse because the vaccine is so cheap and readily available that most horses are vaccinated routinely against it, from foal-hood on. And the vaccine works so well, we just don’t see cases in properly immunized horses.
Tetanus in horses falls into a particular category of disease: highly fatal and easily preventable. In other words, it’s a disease we shouldn't see (DWSS).
In this case, language and cultural barriers had kept the horse from receiving the proper vaccinations. And I was faced with trying to explain why the suffering, beautiful three-year-old filly in front of me was going to die.
As a veterinarian, it’s hard not to be personally offended by some of these diseases. They’re like the magazine salesperson who ignores the “No Soliciting” sign on the door. They just shouldn't be around.
Horses aren't the only ones afflicted by these unwanted disease intruders.
My family got our second dog in 1980. I was 10 years old and already wanted to be a veterinarian. I remember our family vet talking about a new disease in puppies, a virus that caused horrible vomiting and diarrhea. There wasn’t a vaccine yet, but there would be soon.
Fast-forward another decade, and I was a college student volunteering for that same veterinarian. We’d been vaccinating dogs against parvovirus throughout my teenage years. Yet I spent enough time cleaning up after sick, dehydrated, dying puppies that I can still describe that sickly sweet, blood-tinged odor of decay nearly 30 years later.
Is the vaccine hard to come by? Nope. Is it super-expensive? No. Do veterinarians hide it from their clients? Nyet. Does it work? Yes, indeedy.
And yet, veterinarians and their hapless assistants are still running fluids into dehydrated pups as their intestines are chewed up by the parvovirus.
Even older than parvo is a disease that, despite its name, has nothing to do with your dog’s personality. Distemper has been around so long, James Herriot wrote about it in his books. Okay, so he saw dogs with this disease in the 1930s. It's unreasonable for us to see outbreaks today, and yet they happen.
The same thing goes for Eastern and Western Equine Encephalitis (sleeping sickness). I'd rather not relive the episode of the neurologic donkey that died on a Sunday morning. While we enjoyed a breakfast out with our kids, my husband actually said to the waitress, "Can we get the check? My wife has to go decapitate a donkey."
The decapitation was necessary because the aforementioned dead donkey (which turned out to have Western Equine Encephalitis) had also not been vaccinated against rabies, and I needed to rule that one out. Let's just say that donkey decapitation is a lot more labor intensive and even less fun than you think it is.
So while we’re at it, we can add rabies to this list of DWSS. There are licensed rabies vaccines for cats, dogs, horses, cattle, and sheep. In most cities and counties in the United States, there are laws mandating rabies vaccination for pets. And yet, we STILL have to deal with episodes like this case of 32 people being exposed to a rabid dog and this case of a rabid horse. Come ON, folks! Rabies is virtually 100% fatal. Vaccination is cheap and extremely effective. What, precisely, is the hangup here?
The DWSS list isn’t limited to illnesses caused by viruses. We can also add parasites such as heartworm - how hard is it to give your pet a monthly treat? Flea anemia in kittens and puppies is another good (by which I mean horrific) one – imagine being a 2-pound animal and having your blood drained by a horde of teeny vampires. And then there are nutritionally related diseases, such as lack of Vitamin C in guinea pigs and rickets in reptiles; rickets may be fun to say, but a limp lizard isn't fun for anyone. A little research can save lives.
Here is the bottom line: proper preventive care can save you, your pets, your family, and your veterinarian a tremendous amount of heartache. It ultimately is also easier on the wallet than intensive care and cremation.