Last week was pretty rough coming on the heels of the three losses we’ve had so far. About a week ago today, Roo, our big white New Zealand rabbit, started showing signs of an upper respiratory infection (sneezing, snuffling, etc). We scheduled him to go to the vet on Thursday the 24th. Then, on the morning of Wednesday the 23rd, I found our 10 year old bun Rosemarie with a wet bottom, likely caused by stones or kidney failure. She ended up being squeezed in that morning as an emergency case.
I was really not looking forward to two more deaths. But in both cases, we got lucky. Rosemary didn’t have kidney failure, she didn’t even have stones – just bladder sludge. This is a condition where calcium and other minerals become trapped in the bladder, but can be passed with a little extra hydration. We had to give her a week of subcu fluids and she’s now on a more restricted set of veggies. Unfortunately, she also went into stasis for a day or two after her vet visit – she wasn’t eating, and not producing any poops. She had to be handfed for several days, which she does not tolerate well.
Roo also came out lucky. He was also found to be drooling, and tooth problems came on the table. Combined with the nasal issues, it could have meant a tooth root abscess, which requires invasive surgery on the rare chance it’s not fatal. He ended up with – nothing at all! His teeth were perfect, and the vet saw no signs of URI, although we are culturing his nasal discharge, but it had already started to dry up by the time the visit occurred. It’s possible that he just had a bit of hay or water up his nose and there was nothing wrong even to start. Both rabbits are doing fine at this point, with seemingly no lingering symptoms.
It’s nice to catch a lucky break once and a while.
This past Saturday (July 19), Fozzie and Kismet, the longest fosters we have had at ACR&S since I became the local coordinator, went to their forever home.
Fozzie was from a litter of shelter pigs whose adopters contacted us for help in placement. Kismet was purchased pregnant from a big box pet store (you know, the ones that sell only one sex to prevent missexing?), but ended up being pregnant. Her owner dumped both her and her young son off at a dog rescue in South Carolina. Her son was adopted as a partner for an older male, and his new owner called us, distressed, asking us if we had room for Kismet.
So she caught several rides north and came to ACR&S, where she and a neutered Fozzie quickly became close friends.
But while other pigs were adopted, nobody seemed interested in this pair. Even older pigs who were considered “less” adoptable, like our 4 year old boys from a hoarder bust, found homes as Fozzie and Kismet were left behind.
This weekend, it quickly became clear that they were waiting for a special family of adopters to move cross country in order to find their perfect home! Jamie and her family opened up their hearts (and fridges) to the duo, and in a very short time it was clear that it was love as first sight.
They quickly settled in, and now their new mom says:
Right now Fozzie is on the couch and Kismet is mad that she is not out. I walked past her home and she ran up to me, she has learned fast that lap time = treat time.
Guinea pigs are lovable, but they are not above being mercenary with their affections. With the correct bribing, they do quickly learn that the loud bipeds who wander around generally come with food and are to be tolerated.
This is the story of Ferdinand the guinea pig, and how he came to an end at the hands of humans without compassion.
I was called on Tuesday, July 22rd, around 12pm on the rescue line at work. I listened to the voicemail when it came in. Two guys, working at a small office in a neighboring city, had come into possession of two guinea pigs. They had been found outside that morning, and could we come and pick them up? They admitted they were nice animals, but they had no experience or personal desire to keep said nice animals, and really felt like we knew more of what we were doing.
I asked some questions about their health to ascertain how emergent the situation was. He said their eyes were clear, they were moving around the cage, and that he couldn’t see any mucous caked around their noses, and that both were nibbling at food and that he heard the water bottle being used (and saw water disappearing, consequently). All of these things sounded completely normal for two very freaked out pigs who had just survived a night in the parking lot. I made plans to pick them up after work.
When I arrived, the very nice people at the office had actually made an emergency supply run to the local Walmart to procure some bedding, a water bottle, a cage, just for temporary use. But even with completely new supplies, the pigs smelled absolutely fetid.
I pulled each pig out in turn, checking sex to see if we were soon going to have a lot of stray pigs. Luckily, both were male.
The larger of the two seemed to be in fine shape. An almost completely black abbyssinian, he was big and frisky and chowing down heartily on the food they’d purchased for him. Unfortunately, nearly his entire underside was bald and covered with scabs. He appeared to have “urine scald”, which happens when animals stay in their own urine and feces for extended periods of time. The acidic nature of urine will actually burn the skin.
The second pig was not in good shape. He was much smaller, and for whatever reason, the entire ordeal had been much harder on him. When I picked him up, he flopped like a rag doll, and some clear liquid (perhaps water?) streamed out of his mouth onto my hand. I thanked the office profusely and told them we were going go the vet.
I arrived at our vet’s office 20 minutes later. Both pigs were examined, and the smaller one actually sat and retched repeatedly during his gentle palpations. I was told, basically, that he was not doing well, but that anything we could do may make him worse from stress. Take him home, give him pedialyte at room temperature, wait, and say a prayer to the deity of my choice. He was breathing in gasping, heaving breaths.
I arrived home at 5:30pm. Knowing that the smaller of the two pigs was not likely to survive, I enlisted Anthony to help me ready their living area. We quickly sat up my largest quarantine cage (much smaller than a C&C, but 3 times as large as the cage they had been in), and inserted the pigs. The bigger pig immediately started wolfing down pellets and nibbling at hay, but the smaller one was not interested.
He felt very cool to the touch. I got some Pedialyte that hadn’t made it into the fridge, got a 1CC syringe, and started slowly working some liquid into his system. While I did that, Anthony grabbed the laptop and we started looking for names. He deserved to have a name and a home if the worst happened. The horrible people who had abandoned him in a parking lot had taken everything from him — identity, home, health, and now even his hope. He deserved to have something of his own.
While browsing, we saw the name Ferdinand, and both of us were reminded of the book, “The Story of Ferdinand” about a bull who didn’t want to fight, but wanted to smell the flowers instead. This little guy certainly needed a bull’s strength, but had such a kind, patient eye, that the name seemed perfect. The actual meaning of Ferdinand was “to be courageous”. It was appropriate.
It took about an hour of careful syringing to get an entire CC into his poor little body. As I finished, he wheeked at me weakly, and gave me a small headbutt as I petted his head. I put him back into his cage so I could grab a quick bite of supper and then come back to continue nursing him.
30 minutes later, I heard him scream and saw him convulse. I knew it wasn’t good. I called Susan on my cell phone, and we decided to run for the emergency vet. He was probably going to have to be euthanized, but at least he wouldn’t be in agony for hours. I threw on my shoes and tucked him into a cat carrier, wrapped in a fleece. I called the vet on the phone to let them know I was coming.
I opened the carrier for the trip, and stuck my hand into the fleece so that he could feel me. His breathing had finally calmed down. About a mile out of my driveway, I felt him draw a deep, ragged breath. He seemed to sigh and laid his head down against my hand. I told him with a choked voice that it was ok to go, because I knew he was hurting. And then he died.
I pulled over into the parking lot of some warehouse and pulled him out of the carrier. I didn’t want to believe it. It wasn’t right that he should die. He didn’t do anything wrong. He was so young, only a baby. He couldn’t have been more than 7-8 months old. But he was gone. And I sat there with him for several minutes and cried.
I returned home with him. It was 7:24pm. I had known him for 3 hours, and now he was dead. He awaits burial in my freezer. It was pouring and lightning last night, so it wasn’t in the cards.
So this is the story of Ferdinand. Of a guinea pig that had everything taken from him, even his hope. And who was left in a way that made death the only option left for him.
Ferdinand left behind his buddy, Sullivan, the black abby pig. Sullivan is getting along very well, and eating with hearty appetite. He will be looking for his forever home very soon.
Well, I recently posted about some of my early kitten-rescue days and I’ve been asked to elaborate on that story. It was my first experience working with an organized rescue, and really helped set the stage for later opening my own rescue, so here you go:
Back in 1998, I accidentally got involved in cat rescue. I was living in a smallish apartment complex in High Point, NC; small enough that my landlord lived in the apartment across from me. She was an animal lover, and knew I was too, although at this point I didn’t have any pets apart from my birds.
One morning my landlord called and said, “Um, can you come over? I need your help!” I trooped over and found that she had rescued a litter of five tiny baby kittens. There was some construction being done in the back of the complex, and they’d been huddled in the shade under a bulldozer. She had to move them or they would have been crushed. After several hours of not seeing any sign of the momma cat, the landlady gave up and brought them home.
She wanted to know if I knew anything about cats, and could I help her raise them. I told her what little I knew (that she needed to buy KMR [kitten milk replacement] and wipe their butts to get them to defecate). She asked me to take them – I balked, having never raised kittens, and not being particularly fond of them in the first place. Well, if I couldn’t take the kittens, could I help her find a home for this older cat that she had rescued a few months earlier?
So I started calling around, looking for rescues who would take or help us place this cat and the kittens. I found a group called Feral Cat Management (now the Feral Cat Assistance Program). The weren’t a shelter, they explained, but if my landlord and I could keep the cats as their foster parents, they could provide vet care, spay/neuter, even litter and food, and of course help with placement.
With my costs covered, I had no problem being talked into fostering my landlord’s older kitten. The landlord definitely had her hands full with five infants needing to be bottle-fed and butt-wiped, so even though it wasn’t my problem, I couldn’t refuse. Enter Belle, AKA Jezebel, dually named for her beauty and for the tawdry way she would stick her bottom in your face to be petted. She was about 4 months old, another kitten from the feral colony who lived behind the apartment complex.
After about a month, Belle was old enough to be spayed and start going to adoption events. At this point, my landlord begged me to take the five younger kittens. They were eating solid food and using a litterbox, so it wasn’t as bad as it would have been a month ago. I think she used the excuse that she had her own human baby, who was learning to walk and starting to require more active supervision. For whatever reason, I agreed, and now I had six crazy furballs in my house.
FCAP was as good as their word, and covered all my costs except toys and a few supplies. They helped me get one kitten after another placed, and I found that I really enjoyed helping them. I enjoyed going to adoption events, I enjoyed meeting adopters, I enjoyed watching the kittens explore their new homes. One by one, the herd dwindled.
Now, to reiterate: I had never before, as an adult, owned a cat. I didn’t even particularly like cats. But I was a sucker. And that was clear to the good folks at FCAP. I didn’t have cats of my own, therefore, I had no personal kitties who would be at risk if I could be persuaded to foster the, um, difficult cats. As the original Gang of Six started to be adopted, FCAP asked, or rather begged, me to take one cat after another who, for various reasons, couldn’t be placed into a foster home where the foster parent had cats of their own:
There was Abbie, who had explosive diarrhea of unknown origin. It got worse due to the very known origin of eating an entire pound cake while I was away for Christmas vacation (a pound cake given to me by the FCAP petsitter, left sitting on the counter by said petsitter, while I was out of town).
There was Yoda, who taught me that tapeworm eggs look just like sesame seeds.
There was Ghost, who at eight weeks old was the most hateful, feral little monster ever. He bit and scratched whenever he was handled; I still bear the scars. After three months he was among the friendliest cat I’d ever seen.
There was Maggie, who had ringworm. For sixteen weeks I had to bathe the cat, the laundry room, all her supplies, and myself, in bleach and sulfur dip, twice a day. I STILL caught a spot of it on my arm.
There was Tang, who had a urinary tract infection that had to be treated with antibiotic tablets. I learned that cats can have a pill shoved 8″ down their esophagus and still hork it back up without swallowing it. I also learned that a 170 lb adult male human is not stronger than a 3 lb kitten when the kitten is holding onto the underside of the couch and does not want to be pulled out to take his pill.
In just 10 months, I had fostered a total of 11 cats for FCAP. I had not had less than three foster cats in that entire time. If only I had known what I was getting into when I agreed to take that ONE, first kitten.
We started to think about moving to Chapel Hill, so I had to tell them that I needed to wind down my foster role. My last foster was in the early fall of 1999, a young adult cat with FIV. When she got adopted, it was so weird to come home and think I didn’t have a single litter box to clean, a single food bowl to fill.
Less than six months later, I met my first guinea pig…
Here’s another tale from the very early days of rescue, sometime in early 2003. WARNING: this one might be considered a bit graphic for delicate sensibilities. Please proceed at your own risk.
One of my guinea pigs died unexpectedly on Sunday the 9th. I called over to the local vet school, to a friend who is a vet pathologist, to get a necropsy done. She agreed, but since this would be done on her own time and for free, I couldn’t take him into the clinic as I usually would for a necropsy. She instructed me to take him to a walk-in cooler located the maze of alleys behind the vet school. This cooler is left unlocked 24-7 for the various clinics to drop off their unclaimed, deceased animals after business hours; the vet students can then practice their budding surgical skills on them. I was instructed to put him in a box and label it, and she would pick it up the next time she was on call.
In her directions, she warned me that “there might be a carcass or two in there”. Now, I’ve worked at a vet clinic, and seen the inside of the clinic necropsy freezer, so this didn’t bother me – usually it means the animal was too big for a box, so you see a black plastic bag with the stiffened limbs of a dead cat or dog tenting up the plastic. This can be disconcerting if you come across it unexpectedly, but it’s not particularly disturbing.
I wasn’t able to take him over that same day, so I kept him in the fridge overnight, planning to take him to the cooler the following day. The next day, Monday, my boss had a meeting with an important sponsor, so I had to dress up at work – something I never have to do. I didn’t take time to change after work, as the vet school was about 45 minutes out of my way anyhow, so I’m traipsing out there, with my dead piggy in a box, wearing skirt and hose and heels.
Now, the cooler is not exactly where she said it would be – it’s supposed to be a big metal door on the left, but instead, it’s on the right. It’s also not marked. I finally see a tiny, hand-lettered sign that says “Refuse Cooler”. Refuse? Whatever. That must be it.
I got out of the car, with the sad little box containing my dead pig in hand. I was immediately aware of a strong smell. Not quite the stink of road kill, but definitely the scent of blood and death. Hoo boy. This must be the right place.
The cooler had this big metal door latch which you lift like an old-fashioned refrigerator handle. One-handed, it took me a few seconds of struggling with it to get it open. I pulled the door ajar and headed into the dimly-lit interior of the cooler.
The next events happened in the span of just a second or two, far less time than it takes to describe:
The cooler was about 10 feet wide, and about 20 deep. I could see the shelves, way back against the opposite wall, labeled necropsy boxes and bags here and there under the single, low-watt bulb. As I stepped over the threshold I saw a gleam at floor level. Another step, and it resolved itself into a horseshoe. What struck me, in that instant before recognition dawned, was that the shoe was shiny, bright metal. The horse wearing that shoe must have been newly shod and kept in a very clean stall for that shoe to be so pristine.
My eyes started to adjust; I take another half-step, and I see that the shoe was attached in the normal way to a hoof and leg. The leg was attached in the normal way to a body. The body was attached in the normal way to a head and three other legs, but also, in a most un-normal way, to a huge pile of intestines and other organs which were stacked neatly between the four outflung limbs. In the middle of the cooler, spanning it completely, was a dead, eviscerated horse.
I took a deep, reflexive breath – a mistake as that filled my lungs with the scent of old, raw meat. I backed over the threshold and slammed the door. I didn’t depress the latch properly and it rebounded open again. It took me three tries to get it to click shut. I think I must have looked a little panicky.
I had to stand on the edge of the loading dock and concentrate on not throwing up for a few seconds. It wasn’t that I was bothered by there being a horse in the middle of the damn floor. It wasn’t the fact that it was dead. It wasn’t even the fact that it was eviscerated. It was the overwhelming triple play: THERE IS A DEAD, EVISCERATED HORSE ALL OVER THE FREAKIN’ FREEZER. It was just utterly incongruous with all those shelves of neatly labeled bags and boxes.
Eventually I steeled myself and went back in. I just forced myself not look down, and focused on holding my skirt clear of the pile of innards. I had to step around the pile, over the front legs, and over the neck to get back to the shelves. A horse is a ENORMOUS animal when it’s laying, disemboweled, across the entire width of a 10-foot-wide cooler.
Despite keeping my eyes firmly fixed on the back wall, I did take in details peripherally. The horse had an IV line draped over its neck, needle still taped in place. It was brown (dark bay for you horsey people) and the mane and tail were neatly trimmed. The eyes were closed. There was no blood – apart from the gaping abdomen, the collapsed ribcage, and the tidy heap of entrails, it might have been asleep.
I put my pig in his box onto the shelf, and did the carefully avoidant little dance back to the door, thankfully without brushing up against any guts at all. On the way home I came to several mental conclusions:
1. It’s not everyday you get to use the word “eviscerated” to tell someone how your day went.
2. I had no desire to smell steak cooking ever again.
3. My vet-pathologist friend is a master of understatement.
Of course, after the shock wore off, I wondered about the horse and its fate. Had it been ill? Why was it disemboweled – was it a difficult birth gone horribly wrong? If there was a foal, did they save it? This was just a macabre minor chapter in my story, but it was the climax of someone else’s tragedy.
To this day, I am struck by the clean, shiny shoes; the trimmed, brushed mane and tail; the closed eyes; the incredible, bizarre neatness of the piled organs. That horse was not “refuse”; someone loved it and cared for it and treated it with dignity, right up to the moment they closed the cooler door on its body.
But sometimes, you just don’t get to find out how the story ends.
Sharp on the heels of Tilly’s loss came another: On July 3, we had to euthanize our oldest Sanctuary resident, BunBun. He would have been 12 years old in September.
Here’s the story of how he came to us, from an earlier post:
BunBun was found by a police officer who was doing a check at a school after a hurricane. He was in an outdoor, wire-floor hutch with a broken-in roof, mounds of droppings and dead chickens underneath, no water or hay, and moldy pellets. We accepted him after he was seized, and contacted the school – they were out on break, the teacher who owned him thought a neighbor kid was taking care of him, “but maybe he got busy with vacation”.
She told me he was eight years old and had always been “perfectly happy” in those conditions.
I cried at hearing this, when I hadn’t cried before at seeing the filth he lived in. He had lived for eight years in a tiny, outdoor hutch, in increasingly abominable conditions.
There was NO way in hell I was going to be able to place an eight year old rabbit. He had tumors that had to be removed. He wasn’t litter trained at all. His teeth were horrible. Rabbits only live 8-12 years, he could die a week after being adopted.
But he was a sweet, affectionate, playful animal. He literally danced the first day he was in his big new pen. He made friends with a grieving rabbit who had just lost a mate. After his teeth were trimmed, he showed that he loved chewing up boxes.
I could have euthanized him. But I decided that I didn’t want him going straight from squalor to death, not with the beautiful personality he showed. He deserved at least one shot at a good life.
I’ve done everything possible to be sure BunBun had that good life. He has had friends, a huge pen, extra treats and scritches. But it’s been clear for the last six months or so that he’s been slowing down. His eyes have been clouding with developing cataracts. He’s not able to clean or groom his rear end, requiring lots of assisted grooming regular trims.
Most concerning has been that in the past 2-3 months, there have been times when BunBun has had a hard time standing up. I’d occasionally find him laying in his litterbox with all the litter kicked to the sides as if he had been struggling. Or he’d be laying with his front feet on the coroplast and his back feet on his rug, and seemed unable to get enough traction to stand up without help. I’d pick him up and set him upright, and he’d shake himself and hop off, but it’s been evident that he was starting to lose control of his hindquarters.
On July 2, the evening we got home after losing Tilly, BunBun didn’t get up when I shook the bottle of papaya treats. I picked him up, and he flopped right back down into a laying position. I checked his underside, and it was crusted with cecals – he hadn’t moved for several hours. I knew it was time, but I wasn’t quite ready to lose him on the heels of Tilly. I gave him fluids and critical care, cuddled with him for the rest of the evening, and then set him in his litterbox with water and pellets at hand so his friends Roo and Gracie could say goodbye too.
The next morning, I drove him to the vet with both of his friends accompanying him. The vet didn’t even need to examine him to agree that his body was dying, and all we could do was ease his passing. She euthanized him and we returned the body to the carrier with his friends – rabbits who see the dead body of a friend are better able to understand their loss, and seem to suffer their grief less. After we got home, I left the body in the cage with them until they seemed to start avoiding it. I was certainly grateful for our new arrival Gracie at that moment; she snuggled with Roo and seemed to share his concern, even though she hadn’t known BunBun more than a few weeks.
Bad things happen in clusters, it seems. This morning, July 10, we lost Cookie. He was one of the Jacksonville 48, a group of young males dumped in summer 2005 by an irresponsible backyard breeder.
When Cookie came in, he was the smallest and thinnest pig, at barely over 400 grams. That’s emaciated for an intact, year-old male. All four of his incisors were broken off at the gumline, and he couldn’t eat on his own; plus he had a URI. It took nearly four months of handfeeding and subcu fluids and antibiotics to get him eating on his own and gaining weight.
He was neutered and bonded with a little girl, Ms Piggy, and the two were adopted in January 2006. In April 2007 the adopter returned them – she had adopted two human children and no longer had time for them. They were ungroomed and fairly thin, so we decided to send them up as Sanctuary animals to get them healthy.
Unfortunately Cookie never seemed to be able to put on weight like a normal piggy. He was always bony despite a diet of unlimited pellets and alfalfa for extra calories. We did an extensive work up, and teeth, stones, and other typical culprits were ruled out, and we were left with a diagnosis of “failure to thrive”.
Despite this, Cookie was an affectionate, entertaining piggy. He was the loudest wheeker when veggies and food came around, and so patient about having his fur trimmed and his beard washed (he was a messy eater). He was very fond of his partner Ms Piggy.
Cookie has been sleeping more and more over the last few weeks and although his weight has been steady, I guessed his time was drawing near. This morning I found him dead in his cage, curled up in his favorite sleeping place. Necropsy revealed that his cecum (part of the bowel) was necrotic, as if it had been twisted. However, no twisting was evident. There is a condition in humans called volvulus in which the bowel is not correctly fixed to the abdominal wall and can twist and untwist during the person’s life until it is discovered and surgically corrected. This is a birth defect, and the likelihood of this is increased by the fact that another of the Jacksonville 48 died shortly after intake, of the same cecal torsion. It’s also possible that Cookie had an intestinal wall disease causing the bowel to degrade this way. Biopsies have been taken, which may help us discover the underlying cause.
It is both heartening and disappointing to know that this was not something we could have discovered through all the usual tests we did. It’s not something I just missed, which is always a worry with these little guys. But I wish these serious illnesses weren’t so invisible; I could have saved him so much discomfort if we had the same kind of diagnostics for piggies as we have for humans.
It’s been a very sad week. It mostly just seems so unfair to me that these patient, loving animals had to live through years of neglect and misery before someone came around who would give him the life they deserved. I really hope their last years eclipsed the previous ones. But at least I know without a shadow of a doubt that it was their own time to go, and I made it as easy for them as I could. I’m not sad for them, I’m sad for me:
“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”
– Kahlil Gibran
Congratulations to Mia Hamm and her new mom and dad, Carrie and Michael!
Mia Hamm got to go home for the holidays on July 4th. Carrie and Michael had just lost their special hamster buddy Freddie, and saw Mia on our Petfinder and were smitten! They quickly filled out an application, went through our approval process, and then excitedly waited to meet their new buddy.
According to Carrie, Mia has settled in very well! She already climbs out of her cage and into her new dad’s hands, and has consented to use their hamster ball! (Carrie and Michael must have magic powers, Mia looked at me like I was loony when I tried to let her use a hamster ball…) She has continued her wheel-based exercise regiment, and seems perfectly at home.
Mia originally came from a local shelter, abandoned with several other hamsters in their overnight box. Everybody else was adopted, but they left Mia behind! ACR&S took her in to allow them more room for small animals, and to socialize her more extensively (although she was already ridiculously friendly). We’re happy that she has found her new place where she can be spoiled and cuddled as she deserves!
Also, in case you haven’t noticed, we at ACR&S have a penchant for a good pun. Mia is named after real life soccer player, Mia Hamm. We have also had a rabbit named Paula Bunyan. It’s ok, groan away.
We have a new guest blogger joining us: Dr. Jhondra Funk-Keenan holds a PhD in genetics and is a rising 3rd year vet student at UW-Madison. She is also the recipient of Oxbow’s 2008 Veterinary Student Scholarship, and has owned rabbits and been involved in animal rescue for well over 10 years. Jhondra is able to mesh the perspectives of an owner and an educated medical specialist, and will be contributing a regular column called Why we recommend, which will provide owners with understandable clinical information on the reasons behind vets’ recommendations.
If you have a specific question you’d like investigated or explained by Dr. Jhondra (for exotics or traditional small animals like dogs or cats), please email us!
Why we recommend….performing bloodwork on pets
I have a lot of people ask me “Why should I do bloodwork on my pets?” Admittedly, only one of these people owned an exotic animal. However, I think this will change in the next decade. More higher-end exotics specialists and emergency clinics regularly recommend bloodwork to exotics owners. And, within 5-10 years, I believe more vets (including ones seeing exotics) will routinely recommend bloodwork to exotics owners, both for “wellness” checks and for medical problems requiring vet care.
So, here are some of the basics of bloodwork you should know as a client. Few vets perform bloodwork in-house. Typically, orders for bloodwork are sent out to the nearest medical laboratory. There will be a few days lag time before results are back. The exceptions are veterinary schools and higher-end emergency veterinary clinics, which typically have in-house labs. These clinics have faster lab results, but may charge more for both a physical exam lab work. Most vets will recommend two types of different but complementary bloodwork to the average client: a biochemistry panel and a Complete Blood Count with Differential (CBC/Diff).
A CBC/Diff is very similar regardless of where the bloodwork is analyzed. Information about your pet learned from the CBC/Diff include:
- The number of red blood cells (RBC). RBC carry oxygen in all mammalian species and almost all vertebrates (except in the icefish, who has clear, whitish blood—totally awesome). Low RBC may mean anemia and be cause for concern, but this depends on why the animal is anemic. Was the animal hit by a car. If so, anemia may reflect blood loss from the trauma. A good CBC/Diff will tell us if the anemia is regenerative, which it should be. If not, that leads us down a different diagnostic path and may warrant more tests.
- The number of white blood cells (WBC). High number of white blood cells (called leukocytosis) may indicate an infection, especially if certain types of white blood cells are high (neutrophils, maybe monocytes). However, this isn’t straightforward, as stress can increase WBC, including the stress of traveling to the vet.
- Total protein. A increased total protein can mean an animal is dehydrated; decreased can mean blood loss.
Chemistry panels are a little less straightforward. Most labs (and vet clinics) offer numerous panels, which differ by which tests are on the panel. More complete panels will include more of the boldfaced tests:
- Liver function: via AST, ALT values; these are enzymes produced in the liver cells. Liver cells also produce albumin and cholesterol; these markers can tell us how well the liver is producing proteins. Bilirubin can be a indicator of liver clearance and also if red blood cells are being destroyed within the body.
- Kidney function: via BUN and Creatinine values. Cholesterol and albumin can also be informative about kidney function.
- Gull bladder function: via ALP and GGT
- Muscle health: via AST and CK.
- Electrolytes (Sodium, Chloride, Potassium, and Bicarbonate): All four tell us about Acid/Base balance within the animal, about the GI tract’s state and a little about the kidney function.
- Strong ions (Calcium, Potassium, Magnesium): Tell us about the kidney and about GI tract health). Calcium imbalance can be a sign of other issues, like pancreatitis, GI tract, milk fever in lactating females, among other illnesses.
- Glucose: tells us about food consumption and also about the pancreas’ secretion (the pancreas regulates blood glucose). Is blood sugar low? If so, is the animal flat on the ground? For example, we can see really low blood glucose in ferrets due to insulinomas.
- Several exotics panels will also offer uric acid, which can tell us about kidney function (and possible vitamin imbalance) in birds.
So, now that you know the basics of bloodwork, which tests should you consider doing on your pets?
For my pets, I get a complete chemistry panel (the most complete available) performed while the animal is fairly young and healthy. Suppose you have a sick pet, you come to see me and I perform bloodwork for the first time during that illness. We can only compare this animal’s tests to the “officially reference interval” but these intervals include only 95% of animals (2 standard deviations from the statistical mean). Statistically speaking, as the number of tests on a panel increases, we have an increased risk of getting a high or low values of one or more tests due to either artifact or a value that appears abnormal but is normal FOR YOUR ANIMAL. How would we know what is normal FOR YOUR ANIMAL? Only via previous routine bloodwork, performed when your pet is healthy.
If you have already performed the routine bloodwork and your vet asks about routine bloodwork on subsequent visits, I would ask the vet “What problems do we want to look for?” Some vets want to monitor liver and kidney values in animals (especially pre-anesthesia); if that’s the rationale, can we avoid the complete panel and perform a pre-anesthesia panel? I also perform regular geriatric panels on my older animals; these panels allow me to watch for changes in the liver, kidney, and electrolytes. As my pets age, I perform bloodwork more regularly (every 6 months).
Your vet may recommend a urinalysis, based on physical exam findings or symptoms. Is your pet drinking more water or urinating more? Is he urinating red-tinged urine? This may be normal or abnormal in some small mammals, depending on diet. A urinalysis also complements any kidney values from your chemistry.
If your animal is ill, I would definitely consent to a CBC/Diff and a chemistry panel. A CBC/Diff will tell your vet if your animal is sick due to an infectious disease. Depending on symptoms, your vet may suggest a complete chemistry panel; is the animal suddenly ill, with no signs 12 hours ago, meaning we have few clues as to where to start? For the reappearance of a re-occurring problem, a less-complete panel may give your vet all the needed info.
Be ye warned: bloodwork is not all diagnostic and will never replace a good physical exam by a vet (exotics-specialist for exotics pets). I had a (beloved) rabbit with a very normal geriatric panel 4 months before she was euthanized due to advanced pulmonary neoplasia. She had little to no normal lung tissue at the time of her death and yet her chemistry panel was normal.
Also, don’t try to interpret bloodwork on your own. Vet schools typically have one entire semester-long class on interpreting bloodwork; students learn how to understand ALL the tests performed and ALWAYS in the light of physical exam findings. Don’t be afraid to ask your vet to spend time explaining what the bloodwork means and how it should guide your management of your pet’s health.
We lost Morgana AKA Tilly on July 2.
Morgana came to us in spring 2006, as an owner surrender. Part of a pet-store-pregnancy herd, she had been housed with her female relatives, but didn’t get along with them and was starting to injure them in fights.
Around the same time, one of our adopters lost her female Penny, and needed a new friend for her boy, Pudge (yes, the same Pudge who’s now a medical resident of the Sanctuary). Her owner saw Morgana’s picture and fell in love with her. Unfortunately, the same was not true for Morgana and Pudge. Easy-going-Pudgie was completely content with his new buddy, but Morgana would have none of it. Even after two weeks of intensive bonding and intros, Morgana was still aggressive towards Pudge. She wanted to be a single pig, and even climbed a 14″ grid to attack him! Her owner was able and content to keep them adjoining but separated, and for the next year and a half they lived the high life.
In October 2007, Pudge and Morgana were returned, as their owner was moving overseas. Since they were older and a non-bonded pair, the decision was made to bring them up to the Sanctuary in Wisconsin.
Shortly after they arrived, a friend of ours in the vet school let us know of a classmate who was looking to adopt a pig. She preferred to just start with one pig, but of course pigs are social and we almost NEVER place a single. Yet at this point, I was convinced that Morgana, alone among all the pigs I had ever met, would be content as a single. They met, she loved Morgana, and the adoption was finalized in December 2007. Morgana was renamed Tilly.
I had the pleasure of seeing Tilly several times throughout the last six months, as her owner traveled fairly frequently on school breaks and I was available to petsit. The last time was in early June – Tilly came to stay with me for two weeks.
Two weeks after she went home, her owner called and let me know that Tilly was breathing heavily, and was more lethargic than usual. Could she have gotten sick at my place? I doubted it, because none of the recent illnesses at my house are contagious (just things like arthritis and cancer and tooth problems). There were no changes in diet or stool production, so I told her that it might just be the heat (it’s been in the high 80′s up here) and to make sure to offer cool bottles for her to lie against, but to go to the vet if if the abnormal behavior continued.
On July 1, her owner called and told me they’d been to the emergency vet the previous night. Tilly had gone from “heavy breathing” to “labored breathing”, and from lethargic to listless. However, she didn’t have the funds to perform extensive diagnostics, so the vet suggested they could treat the mostly likely cause (an upper respiratory infection) and see whether she improved.
Unfortunately, this kind of treatment plan is almost never successful. Tilly showed no other signs of a URI (eye/nose discharge, “hooting”, sneezing, coughing, etc) so while a URI is a likely cause of labored breathing, it was highly unlikely in this instance. Treating in a situation like this is shooting blindly, not even knowing if there’s a target to hit. I emphasized to the owner the importance of getting diagnostics, and she decided that it would be in Tilly’s best interests to be returned to the Sanctuary, so I could pay for her care.
On July 2 we took Tilly to the Animal Emergency Center in Glendale, WI. Our vet student friend, Jhondra, is interning there, and that gave us access to an exceptional doctor, Dr Gibbons. His initial examination found edema in addition to the labored breathing, and he gave me three possible causes: kidney failure, liver failure, or lung failure. All three were untreatable, and all we could do was try and make her comfortable. But if her lungs were failing, every breath was a painful, drowning gasp, and there’s no way we could truly make her feel better. Dr Gibbons recommended euthanasia, and we put her to sleep around 11am.
I told Dr Gibbons that I still needed to know what was wrong with Tilly. Diagnostics prior to treatment are crucial for improving your chances at a cure, but even after death they can confirm and validate your hypotheses. The necropsy revealed that Dr Gibbons’ guess had been right on the mark: her lungs, liver, and kidneys were all showing signs of acute failure. We’re still waiting on the final pathologies to confirm the cause of multi-system organ failure, but the top guess is metastatic cancer. If we’d stuck to the URI hypothesis, Tilly would still have died, but much more slowly and painfully. Euthanasia had been the right answer.
Tilly touched many lives in her journeys with us, and is missed by all of us: by her owner, who did everything in her power, and made an uncommonly selfless sacrifice when she knew she could do no more; by her former owner and foster mom down in NC, who miss her bossy, bright personality; and by us at the Sanctuary, who nursed her through the final hours.
Goodbye, Tilly. I’m sorry we couldn’t fix this, but at least now you’re free from the pain.
It was October of 2004 when I decided that I would really like a much larger fish tank. We currently had a 10 gallon tank, with a few little bottom feeding catfish and some guppies. I enjoyed watching the fish (as did our cat), and they were fairly rewarding pets. But my 10 gallon tank was as stocked as it was going to get without killing everything.
Our family traditionally exchanges “want” lists at Thanksgiving so we’ve got some time to shop, and so I requested gift cards to a pet shop so that I could expand my watery kingdom. I dutifully received a several gift cards from my family, and I started planning. But then I realized a major flaw in my plan. A bigger tank meant hauling a lot more water around our house. It also meant a lot more cleaning. We started to rethink the whole “bigger tank” idea. But we had a huge stack of pet store gift cards.
And so, a few fateful days after Christmas, we went in to “see what we could see”. And we met a little walking mop that
we couldn’t leave behind. I was fascinated with these weird little rodents. I knew what guinea pigs were, of course, but I’d never dreamed of owning one. I wheedled my patient boyfriend, and he conceded. We fetched the salesperson, and were told that they were really social, and two would be better. I quickly picked out a second pig, a light butterscotch colored short-haired pig. The salesperson advised me again buying that one, as he had “some sort of weird gunk all over his eyes and face”.
If only I knew then what I knew now.
But at the time I didn’t realize there were guinea pigs in rescue. I knew about dog and cat rescues (in fact, we’d adopted a dog the year earlier from the local SPCA), and even thought that people could not really abandon a 2 lb rodent. I mean, really, they weighed 2 lbs.
So I picked the “runner up” to the butterscotch pig, a dark chocolate colored pig, and walked around with the salesperson buying all the equipment I would need — a “huge” cage that was roughly 5 square feet, some delicious guinea pig mix completely with seeds, a small bag of hay (“because it was a good treat”), a bottle of vitamins for the water, some aspen shavings for bedding, bowls, water bottles, hidey houses, and tunnels. I did not buy a ball because she said they would pee it in and get messy.
The little white mop became Gizmo, and the chocolate pig became Mogwai.
So I got home, set up my pigs, and then started doing my research (in the complete opposite way of how it should be done). I realized that I hadn’t done a very good job with my poor pigs. I went out, got some coroplast and cubes to make a C&C cage, improved their food, started feeding them LOTS of hay, and started giving them vegetables.
And then I noticed that Gizmo was scratching and wheezing. I called our vet at the time, who’s specialty was dog and cat medicine, but who “saw” guinea pigs, and took home some antibiotics and treated everybody with ivermectin. It was at this point, I felt like I was really in over my head. I hit the internet, and it was there that I found ACR&S.
Susan immediately jumped in and started offering support — by recommending a more specialized exotics vet in our area, teaching me how to handfeed, and helping me cope with what turned out to be a very sick pig.
Our initial visit to the better vet was not comforting. Gizmo has serious pneumonia, and his lungs sounded terrible. The prognosis wasn’t good, but this vet was much more in the know about guinea pigs. He received subcutaneous fluids, stronger antibiotics, a probiotic to help his system handle the antibiotics, and a bag of Critical Care to help me handfeed. And at that point, is was me vs. pneumonia.
Although Gizmo was obviously very sick, his breathing sounding at times like a roaring blizzard, very limp, and rapidly losing weight, he attacked the Critical Care with gusto. He absolutely loved it! And his will to fight gave me hope. So I made a small “holding” bag, and would carry him around the house with me, feeding him almost constantly.
After a week and a half, his wheezing was better, but not gone. We went back to the vet, where she cultured some of his mucous and determined that he had bordetella. It was surprising he was alive, as bordetella often kills guinea pigs very quickly. But she warned me that it would take a lot of effort to take care of it.
And so the next 6 months was an ongoing trial of antibiotic courses, followed by the wheezing returning, followed by antibiotic courses. Finally, he stopped wheezing, and, miraculously, it didn’t return. During this time, we spent between $500-$800 on diagnostics, Critical Care, medication, and vet visits. It was like a bucket of cold water to what I thought was a low maintenance, “cheap” pet.
When Gizmo was finally healthy, he was about a year old. In honor of Gizmo, I joined ACR&S and began fostering, so that other people, and other pigs, would not have to go through what we went through!
Gizmo was truly a special pig. He wheeked the loudest, and was the most demanding. He was always hungry (though he was always a petite pig), and would climb the sides of the cage, dangling and screaming for food as though he hadn’t been fed in years.
A consummate slob, he required frequent haircuts to keep him in a somewhat livable state (although as you can see from the picture, I was not a very adept hair stylist). He would frequently wade into a pile of vegetables and lie down, so it wasn’t unusual to find a purple, blue, red, or orange stained pig wandering around seemingly very pleased with himself.
Then, in July of 2007, I found in his his pigloo, wheezing. I rushed him to the vet first thing in the morning, and we immediately started him on antibiotics and started handfeeding him. I took him into the vet on Thursday. Friday morning he was noticeably worse. Saturday we started giving him IV fluids. Sunday he was prone, his breathing rattling and strained and terrible as he struggled, panicked, every time we came near. He refused to chew food, and I truly believe he didn’t recognize me. Monday morning I was at the vet, and we helped him to leave, and be out of his pain. The vet said his lungs sounded terrible, and that she didn’t feel there was anything we could do to pull him back.
It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, and I cried the whole time, and the whole way home. What Susan had told me prior to the appointment was right — driving over a speed bump and realizing that you didn’t have to go over it as gently any more because the animal in your carrier won’t care if he’s jostled is the worst, and most terrible feeling in the world. And it still is. It never gets easier.
It was the vet’s opinion that his first, terrible bout with bordetella had permanently scarred his lungs, and perhaps had damaged his sinus tissues, maybe weakened his heart. It was like a punch in the stomach. My little sticky blueberry stained friend died at 3 years old because of the conditions that he came from.
When he was originally sick, I contacted the big box pet store I bought him from about 3 months into our ordeal. I complained, and asked why they would let the animals suffer like that. I asked why I’d been sent home with an animal who had obviously been exposed to other sick animals? (Remember the butterscotch pig?) And the manager said a phrase which I will never forget. “You signed a contract.” I hadn’t managed to complain in a 10 day window. So they didn’t care. I was told that “none of the of the other pigs had been returned as sick”. I suspect many of them probably died. I know now, working as a rescuer that we are sought out by many individuals after their pet store animals have died.
To that corporation, my little friend’s life was a matter of contract. They were legally safe, ergo it was not their problem that they had internally crippled a tiny little animal and doomed him to being euthanized in the prime of his life, wheezing and helpless and confused.
Gizmo’s legacy has been my rescue work, first as an advocate, going to events, and talking to the public, then as a foster home, and finally taking over as the local coordinator. When you volunteer with animals, you always know the number of dead. I have lost 2 gerbils, 1 hamster, 2 guinea pigs, and 1 rat since starting to rescue. I remember them all, and I relive the sadness of their passing each time I remember it.
What I don’t know is how many animals we have, directly or indirectly, saved. How many guinea pigs never had to suffer quietly through a respiratory infection, because people learned about them through us? How many guinea pigs never starved while sick, because we taught them to handfeed? How many rabbits recovered because we helped someone find a vet? How many of our adopters have reached out with the knowledge that we equipped them with, and improved the life of the classroom pet, the niece’s guinea pig, or the rabbit purchased on Easter? In the end, you can never number the living, and that was the most important thing that I learned from Gizmo.
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