Tuesday 31 January 2012

Snakes...why did it have to be snakes?

The quote above, uttered by everyone's favourite archaeologist as he gazes into the Well of Souls and realises just why the floor appears to be moving,  is often parodied, drunkenly recited or just plain copied amongst the geekier corners of the planet. However, the line, or something very much like it, will go through your average friendly veterinary surgeon's head when he or she clicks on the next consult on the list to discover that 'Freddy' is actually a boa constrictor, rather than a poodle, as they had previously been hoping.

A boa may have been a bad example there, because it suggests that the problem is that the animal is dangerous. Not so - or at least, not entirely so. The vet is probably going to feel just as disheartened by a grass snake, to be honest, because it is an 'exotic' - a word whispered with dread in prep rooms and dispensaries up and down the country.

You see, doctors have one species to deal with. It's an odd species, I'll grant you, and tends to talk your ear off before getting to the point of exactly what is wrong with it, plus it has a tendency to mislead or just plain lie to you about what it's symptoms are - but it's still just one. Vets have technically got all the others to worry about, from aardvarks to zebras, and the 8 million or so other species in between (that's a very rough guess, of course...have a look here for a slightly less rough one. But still a guess).

Technically. In practice, of course, it doesn't quite work like that. Back in Herriot's day, pretty much all vets saw pretty much everything that was thrown at them, from pets to farm animals, but nowadays it's very hard to be a true 'mixed practice' vet. Kerry and I gave up 'large animal' work (farm animals and horses) many years ago, and a lot of vets that graduated since our time (I was a millennium baby, veterinary-wise) have never set foot on a farm since they packed their wellies away after their final year viva.

This is not such a bad thing - at least for small animals, though it is getting increasingly difficult to find large animal vets at all any more, and even in 'mixed' practices, the work tends to be divvied up between small animal vets and large animal vets, rather than everyone doing everything. Small animal vets, like me, are nicely within their comfort zone seeing dogs and cats. It's when an 'exotic' walks through the door that we're catapulted right out of that zone into ignoranceville.

'Exotics' (a term that always makes me think of cocktails and hula skirts. Maybe if I was brought up in Honolulu it'd make me think of bowler hats and double decker buses?) is bascially the veterinary term for any animal that takes us out of that comfort zone. In Herriot's day, and even when I had just qualified, this included rabbits, but no longer. Rabbits are getting more common, and are edging closer to dogs as Britain's second favourite pet (after cats). In my first few years in practice, what we now call 'small furries' (but what would be more scientifically called rodents and mustelids - mice, rats, ferrets etc) could have been described as exotic (though this seems a very strange adjective to use about a gerbil) but, as with rabbits, this isn't really the case any more.

(In fact, I seem to be encountering a whole new breed of client, recently - the internet savvy rat owner. These people absolutely dote on their rats, and will likely have researched the problem for quite some time before coming to see you. This isn't a complaint - I actually find it quite helpful. There's (sadly) reams of research of rat ailments, because they are the classic lab animal (unlike guinea pigs, which are strangely very rarely used as guinea pigs) which is difficult to keep up with in practice. Plus, I like rats. I know some people aren't keen on them, but I don't know why. Contrary to what you might have heard, they don't carry any more diseases that your average wild beastie, they're highly intelligent and very sweet. I'm far far less likely to get bitten by a rat than just about any other species I examine, and when I have been bitten by them, I almost always deserved it.)

What we basically mean by 'exotic' is this - feathers or scales. A carapace would do it too, as well as whatever an amphibian is covered with (which might give you some idea of the extent of my amphibian knowledge). The appearance of a reptile or a bird in the waiting room will usually lead to some tense prep room negotiations between the consulting vets ('You do it, please!' 'I did that macaw yesterday, it's not my turn' 'But I saw that bloody chinese water dragon last week.' 'Tell you what, you see it, and I'll do the next five anal glands.')

It's not that we're afraid of them as animals (well, I'm not. My wife might have a different opinion on the matter) - I'm fortunate (considering my job) not to have a phobia about any animals at all. Take me to the top of the Eiffel Tower and I'll scream and cower shaking on the floor like Scooby Doo, but I'm not automatically terrified of critters. It's more the fear that you won't know what's wrong, and even if you can work it out you won't have the slightest idea what to do about it.

Though it may seem like rather an obvious statement, reptiles and birds are very different creatures to mammals. That's why they're in a whole different class (I mean this in the taxoniomical sense, though you can take that sentence any way you like and probably still get the right idea). Let's take a bit of a look at birds to make the point.

I don't know what it is about birds. I mean, they are fascinating creatures - they can fly, for heavens sake! An animal adapted to doing what mankind could only, until the last century, dream about. But, for some reason, they just don't float my boat. I can't find myself excited by, or even especially interested in, birds. I don't actively dislike them, because I don't really actively dislike any animal (except wasps. Bastards.) but they just don't interest me, and I'm not sure why because they really are quite amazingly different to mammals. On the face of it, they do seem similar - or rather, more similar to mammals that reptiles are - but sadly that isn't really the case. Let's just outline a few of the differences that really cause vets problems.

First (and foremost) - outward signs of disease, or lack thereof. Birds are really not good at looking ill, at least until they are so ill that they don't really have any choice. The practical upshot of this is that if a bird is taken to their local vet, they are normally very, very ill indeed. In the case of budgies, they are often so ill that merely the act of clinically examining them can be enough to get them to squawk off their mortal coil, which is an unfortunate experience for both vet and budgie.

The second problem is diagnosis. Birds have a vastly different anatomical and physiological set-up than mammals; although they do have lungs, they are tiny and don't expand, and the principle means of air flow is via air sacs. They don't have a stomach, instead they have a crop (well, some of them do), a proventriculus and a gizzard. They don't have external genitalia (well, most of them don't); checking the sex of a bird usually involves an anaesthetic and a laparoscope, except for budgies which have nicely colour-coded ceres (the bit just above the beak - blue for boys and pink for girls, satisfyingly. Except it's more brown than pink in girls, but let's not spoil it). They have a 'renal portal system', which means that anything you inject into the back legs ends up passing straight through the kidneys at much higher concentration that you would normally expect. I could go on, but I won't - there are many many more. 

All of this means that it is often hard, if you're not experienced in looking at birds, to even know where to start. Is that poo normal? Are the eyes supposed to be that colour? Does that air sac sound unusual? This problem is compounded by the lack of interest in teaching about the exotic species at university. My lectures on birds were almost entirely about chickens, and the vast majority of them focused on the twenty different types of ventilation systems used for housed birds, as well as what lighting protocol you should follow to pump as many eggs as possible out of the poor things. Consequently, my notes of avian medicine consist largely of unhelpful tips like 'If there's something wrong with the birds, sacrifice one and send it for post mortem to find out what it is.' Rather callous, and unlikely to go down well in a consulting room.

Thirdly, their metabolism. Birds have quite a bit faster metabolism than mammals, and if you try and use your drugs at a normal dose scaled down, you'll likely be underdosing. Add to this that almost all medicines are not licensed for use in birds, and that different sources will tend to recommend different doses, plus the simple difficulty for an owner to get medicines into them, and you're having problems even if you do manage to work out what is wrong with them.

With reptiles, things only get harder. They are creatures that shed their skin, that only eat every third day or less, that don't bother with the trouble of keeping warm, just letting the environment do the job for them (which makes you wonder quite what a tortoises opinion of living in Britain in mid-January is). Another big problem with reptiles is...how can I put this delicately? The average reptile owner is, and I'm only saying generally, not perhaps the most well-to-do member of society. Because I'm a typical vet - i.e. a very poor businessman - I always cringe when I have to point out that people have to pay for our services, because we are a business, but the sad fact of the matter is that reptile owners quite often can't afford any tests or diagnostic aids that might help us work out what is going wrong, and certainly can't afford to be referred to a specialist reptile vet.

There is, however, one saving grace with exotics work, that I can sum up in one simple word; Baytril. Baytril is the trade name for enrofloxacin, an antibiotic that is licensed for just about any species that you can imagine would walk through the door, comes in a liquid formulation that can be mixed with drinking water, and is highly effective for many of the infections we see. It's also relatively cheap, and as a consequence of this, it becomes the back-up option for many a vet who otherwise doesn't really know what is going on. I'm not proud of this, but I guarantee many vets reading this will be nodding their heads, and possibly even getting down on their knees to thank Bayer for Baytril.

My personal approach to exotics work is be unashamedly honest with the owner's when they bring in their bearded dragons. 'I don't claim to be reptile specialist,' I'll say, 'But I'm happy to have a look!'. I also make no bones about the fact that I'm 'going to have a look in my exotics manual to see if it's got anything about this'. It might make me look a bit dumb, but I'd rather the owner knew where they stood than try and pretend I'm some sort of lizard magic-worker (a lizard wizard, if you will). As least they won't be too disappointed when the Baytril doesn't work.

This will be my last post for a couple of weeks - Kerry and I are off to Tanzania (if I can shake off this ruddy chest infection. Maybe I should take some enrofloxacin?) in a few days, to meet some exotics in person. I just hope we don't have to treat any of them...

Monday 23 January 2012

The Express Diaries

This is a writing post, not a veterinary post, so those that are turned off by such things may turn away now with a clear conscience (though now I'm a little worried I'm just left with those people who are turned on by such things. Er...hi.).

I wanted to tease you a little now that my latest project, the Express Diaries, is starting to come together. The Express Diaries is a pulpy-action/horror novel set in 1925 on (as the title suggests) the Orient Express. I'm very pleased with how it's going, and even more pleased now that Eric (Smith, Glimbit on Twitter) has agreed to do some artwork for me.

I'd like to share a few piccies with you now, partially to show you why I'm so happy Eric is working with me, and partially to be a tempting appetizer for what is to come...

Sirkeci Station, Istanbul - 1925
Our adventurers confront their fate at the terminus of the Simplon Orient Express

The redoubtable Mrs Betty Sunderland
'Widowed matriarch of the Yorkshire Sunderlands. An unusually enrepreneurial female of the age, having variously been an archaelogist, lecturer, and mother (of four). Currently owns a shop selling items of archaeological and occult interest in the Soho district of London

'I dreamed of a city in flames...on the high city walls, men and women hung from ropes, left to starve and rot in the baking sun'
Extract from the dream diary of Violet Davenport

As a further appetizer (though, I understand if you're a bit full after the piccies. Think of this as pudding), here's an extract from the London chapter, near the start of our story, where Professor Alfonse Moretti makes an expected and grisly discovery in the reading room of the British Museum, whilst investigating a mysterious artifact known as the Sedefkar Simulacrum...

'Personal Journal of Professor Alfonse Moretti (trans. from Italian) October 24th, 1925.

I will not deny that my movements and activities through the years always seem to have attracted more than their fair share of interest by the police or related Government parties[1]. On occasion this has been, shall we say, justified interest. However, I was not expecting a simple research trip to the British Museum Library to cause the furore that it did. Thankfully, I was not responsible, nor even directly involved, in this gruesome incident. I think it is safe to say that I certainly hope not to get any more involved as time goes by.
            I am fortunate enough to hold an invitation for the British Museum Library Reading Room, open for several months, to aid in some research which I have been conducting for a client of mine. This business with the Simulacrum intrigues me – an ancient artefact of which I knew nothing until yesterday evening. An artefact that seems important enough to kill for (assuming, of course, that the colonel is wrong, and were are not merely chasing the ramblings of a doddering old fool).
            After our group’s meeting at Brown’s, the afternoon turned grey, and cold. Rain filled up the streets, but my spirits were lifted at the prospect of a trip across Europe, hopefully even a return home to Milan (provided that certain parties can be avoided, of course).
            It is only a mile or so from the hotel to the museum so I decided to walk, despite the weather. Few others had been of similar mind, as it turned out, because as I entered the reading room (which never fails to impress!) I was alone save for one other person; a thin man, still rudely wearing his heavy overcoat and a trilby, hunched over a document. I took up a seat a few desks away, and began my researches.
            I like to think my skills in the use of libraries as excellent, but after several hours all I had managed to do was confirm the existence of the Simulacrum itself (a passing reference to it in von Juntz’s Unaussprechlichen Kulten), and uncover some hints that there may be more pertinent documents in the Bibliothéque Nationale in Paris. A breakthrough of sorts came in a detailed perusal of Barbaro’s Giornale dell'Assedio di Costantinopoli, which suggests that a set of documents known as the Sedefkar Scrolls were present in Constantinople in the mid-fifteenth Century. This may be the ‘information’ that Smith refers to. Further sources suggest that the scrolls may now be located at the Topkapi Museum in that great city.
            Looking back now, my defence would be to say that I was greatly absorbed in these researches, which is why it took me so long to realise that the man in the hat, present since my arrival, had not moved one inch in all the hours I had been there. I cleared my throat rather loudly, but this produced no reaction from the figure. After several minutes of close observation, during which the man remained still as a statue, I called over an attendant and apprised him of the situation. Even then, fixated on my work, the gravity of the situation was not clear to me. The attendant nodded and approached the man, and I returned to my studies. I was given little more time to research, however, because a great shriek then filled the massive dome of the reading room.
            I looked up to see the attendant standing horrified over the man in the coat, who had toppled forward. His arms had spread out over the desk, exposing his hands - or at least, what remained of his hands.
            Even from my seat, it was obvious that the skin had been removed from both of them. Two dark streaks covered the desk where the bloody appendages had smeared across the desk as the body slumped – for there could no doubt now that the man was dead.
            The attendant stood in shock as I approached. ‘Fetch the police,’ I said to him. He looked at me, then back at the body, and rushed towards the door. I approached the body.
            The man’s hat had slipped to one side as he had fallen, and underneath the trilby I caught a glimpse of red flesh. Carefully touching only the large overcoat, I took hold of the corpse’s shoulder and pulled it backwards into the chair. The hat fell off and I did so, and I was greeted with the sight of two wide, staring eyes in the midst of a red mass of muscle, teeth and gore. The overcoat slipped open, and the further horrors within confirmed that the unfortunate had been stripped of all his skin.
            My shock (tempered, fortunately, by similar sights I have seen) was mixed with puzzlement. To remove a man’s skin is no trivial thing. To do it in the reading room of the British Library...?
            I looked from the body to the document the man had been studying – or at least, positioned in such a way as to appear to be. It was a single line of Arabic text, written on a leathery shrivelled sheet, roughly cut around the edges, and one did not need to be a doctor to deduce what it was made from. I shivered.
            Fortunately, my Arabic is as good as my English. Scratched across the grisly parchment was the following message –
            It is somewhat shamefully that I admit my next action was to search the coat of the unfortunate man. In my experience of such situations, time is of the essence, and events usually slow to a crawl when members of the police force become involved. It is often better to find such clues as may be helpful to solving a case without their interference.
            In the pocket of the large coat, I found a small card. Taking it out and examing it, I was surprised to see that it was the business card of our troubled friend, Professor Smith. I inverted the card, and sure enough there was the message which the colonel had discovered. My first thoughts were of fear for the colonel, but then I remembered that Goodenough had returned the card to Smith’s manservant when we visited him in Cheapside.
            The corpse before me was of far too slight a build to be Professor Smith himself, but the build and shape of the body, even the colour of the eyes, now that I had the idea in my mind, perfectly matched those of Beddows.
            Still considering this disturbing find, and the strange message regarding the ‘Skinless One’, I heard hurried footsteps indicating to me that the library assistant was returning. I quickly pocketed the card, although I decided against purloining the document on the table. The original attendant, with two of his colleagues, rushed back into the room.
            I agreed, against my better instincts, to wait with them whilst the police arrived. After twenty minutes, two uniformed men accompanied a small, shabby man, who introduced himself to me as Inspector Pike of Scotland Yard.  One of the men began to calm the now near-hysterical library attendants, whilst the inspector strode over to the gory scene. He examined the body still seated at the desk, making various asides to one of the uniformed men with a notebook beside him.
            ‘Just like the others,’ the inspector commented at one point. The uniformed man wrote it down. After a long time, the inspector turned to me. He at least managed to pronounce my name right, after which he questioned me on what I had seen – which in truth, save for the body itself, had been almost nothing. Quickly realising this, the inspector allowed me to leave, but I would not until my curiosity was sated.
            ‘I am sorry, inspector, but I could not help overhearing something there. Have there been other cases such as this one?’
            The policeman frowned and his eyes narrowed, as if he were trying to work out whether to be annoyed with me or not. ‘Don’t you read the papers? Triple murder, some Turkish fella. Well, three Turkish fellas, all with the same name. Makrit or something.’
            The uniformed man next to the inspector cleared his throat rather loudly. I had read something of this in the morning’s paper, but nothing about the bodies being skinned. I said as much to Pike, whose frown grew deeper.
‘Well, not totally. Not like this poor chap, but they all had patches...’
The policeman cleared his throat again.
‘Oh blast it,’ the inspector said, and a look of comprehension and embarrassment slowly settled upon his face. It was like watching a bulldog gradually realising that it was being scolded by its master. ‘Erm,’ he said. ‘That’ll be all now, thank you, professor. If we have further need of you, we shall be in contact.’
I think this ‘skinless one’ may be safe from the clutches of the law for a while at least.
Upon my return home I re-read the newspaper article. Mehmet Makryat. The name had no meaning for me, and sadly there remains no more time for investigations, for we leave for Dover tomorrow. The incident today weights heavily upon me. I fear we have been drawn into something bigger than any of us expected. I have decided to tell the others nothing of my discovery today save the results of my researches. We will be out of the country before it is mentioned in the papers, and it wouldn’t do at the moment to create unnecessary alarm. Better to let the others think of this as something like a holiday, at least at first. I think that leaving England may be the most sensible thing we can do at the moment, and it would be wise for us to keep our investigations as circumspect as possible.
I hope I have made the correct decision here. Time will tell.'

The Express Diaries will be out later this year, in several different formats including eBook and luxury hardcover edition. Watch this space! (Well, watch the blog, anyway)

In further writing news - my novel from last year, Past Tense, is now available as an an ebook for $5 from Smashwords.com - feel free to have a peek, as you can download the first 10% for free!

[1] Attempting to follow Professor Moretti’s web of past associations and dealings is an exercise mired in misdirection, obfuscation, and more often than not, failure. It is probably better, ultimately, just not to know.

Thursday 12 January 2012

It's worse than that, he's dead Jim! - lazy TV medical matters

I'm a big fan of zombies. Not entirely sure why, but I am. I'm well aware that they're very overused nowadays, and everyone else is starting to get sick of them, but I was a fan of them before everyone and his mother got into them, therefore I'm allowed to continue liking them (unfortunate typo on my first pass at that sentence - licking them. I'm not that keen on them, honest) long after everyone else is bored with them.

(I think I like them because the stories that they appear in are often the stories about ordinary people, forced into extraordinary circumstances. That's possibly because zombies are the z-listers of the undead ranks. I reckon I could take on a zombie. Frankenstein's monster would tear me limb from limb, and I wouldn't last five seconds against a vampire (except one of those Twilight vampires. I could probably take one of them, too. I don't want to join the general Twilight-knocking that geeks often indulge in, because a lot of people seem to enjoy it, and I'm well aware I'm not Twilight's target audience, because I'm not a teenage girl. What I will say is that when I was growing up, vampires didn't go sparkly when exposed to sunlight. They exploded.))

A consequence of this zombophilia (I nearly wrote necrophilia, but I think wisely stopped myself) is that I do enjoy AMC's zombie-apocalyptic themed show, 'The Walking Dead' (unlike Kerry, who refuses to watch it no matter how many times I try and tell her it's a comedy. Instead she's got hooked on Game of Thrones instead - so imagine my glee when a zombie turned up in it :) )  (and I'll spare you my boring lecture about how I was already a fan of the comic book that it's based on, as if that somehow makes me a more worthy fan. Just bear in mind that it does, okay?) - that is, I usually enjoy it. Until Rick(heroic and slightly dull sheriff, for those who don't watch it)'s son accidentally got shot early on in season two.

Rick pops his recently punctured son along to a conveniently local doctor, who takes a look at the wound. And this is where I start to get irritated. (Not, incidentally, because the 'doctor' turns out to be a vet. I'm all for vets cropping up in popular culture in unexpected places to big up the profession! Most surprising place so far - Terminator 3).

The doc (okay, vet, but Rick doesn't know that at the time) looks Rick deep in the eyes with his wise, sad and serious eyes, and tells him that those damn bullets have got to come out right now.


More than likely, the problem is with me, than the show. I'm quite happy to accept the possibilty of corpses wandering round desperate to eat flesh, but something like this brings the whole reality of the show crashing down around me, and diffuses all the tension that I should be feeling watching the show. Probably if I was a policeman I would already have been annoyed by the flagrant disregard of firearms law, but I'm a vet, and it's the medical errors that get to me. How many times have you seen a film or show where someone grits their teeth, pulls out a penknife and a metal bowl, and heroically fishes out a great slug of lead from their arm/leg/ear, which then clangs satisfyingly into the bowl?

Why has the bullet got to come out right away? What is it going to do, explode?

By the time a bullet has made it a significant way into your body, it's already done quite a lot of damage. Poking it back out again with a blunt knife is unlikely to do wonders for the already traumatised tissue. What you want to be doing is dealing the the damage the bullet has already done, not doing your best to cause more with your self-induced knife injury. Your biggest problem at this point is probably going to be bleeding - a condition not generally helped by a spot of DIY surgery.

Don't get me wrong, there are times - quite a few of them - when you do need to get the bullet out - there's a list of a few of them here, if you're interested. But initial gunshot wound first aid does not generally involve removing bullets unless they are very easy to get to.

So why do they do it every time on TV shows? Because it's cinematic, and it looks exciting having someone bite down on a wooden spoon whilst a flustered guy in a white coat pokes about in his back with a scary-looking pair of forceps.

It irritates me because it's lazy - only a modicum of medical knowledge is required to understand this, but still we're served it all the time. When I see something like this, it puts me in mind of the Mitchell and Webb sketch with the two scriptwriters who can't be arsed to do any research, and by disbelief, until that point happily suspended, comes crashing to the ground.

Defibrillators are the other overused medical item that usually have me frothing at the mouth. Defibrillator. Say it. Defibrillator. There's a clue in the name. It defibrillates - that is, it is ONLY useful when your heart is in fibrillation. Fibrillation is a technical term which basically means that your heart has gone mental. I've seen a heart in fibrillation, and rather than the smooth lub-dup beating that we're all familiar with, it looked bizarrely like a clump of worms, all twisting and writhing and squidging together. When your heart is doing that, it's about as efficient at pumping blood as the Daily Mail is at spreading calm and tranquility. Your cardiac output drops to zero, and without very prompt treatment you're going to die.

A defibrillator stops your heart, and you hope that when it starts up again the problem will have sorted itself out. It turns out even our bodies work on the 'turn it off and on again' principle beloved of IT technicians. The point being - this only works during fibrillation. Zapping a heart that had already stopped will do absolutely nothing other than a bit of burn damage.

So why am I repeatedly subjected to the sight, on TV, of people flatlining (zero electrical activity in the heart. Not fibrillation), to the glee of the attending doctor, who breaks out the paddles, rubs then together dramatically, and slaps them on the dead person's chest, shouting 'clear!'. The first time never works, either, but after (usually) three attempts, the casualty gives an immense gasp, and sits up.


I could go on - in fact, I did go on in an earlier blog about a similar issue with intravenous injections. But I suppose that is missing the point. The problem, as I said, is more with me than with the shows. I know it's supposed to be drama, not real life, but...it's lazy drama, and if a show does that to me, it makes me think they've got everything else wrong as well. And that reminds me that I'm watching a work of fiction, it never happened, and...and all my interest in the show fizzles away.

There's two solutions to my plight.

1 - Only ever watch shows that are meticulously, painstaking researched and so deeply invested with verisimilitude that I'll never be brought out of it again. But as they're not going to make any more episodes of The Wire I'm stuck with the second option, which is...

2 - Remain deeply ignorant in as many areas of knowledge as possible, so that I can't tell if the script writers got something wrong.

So, just remember, if you're talking to me, and I don't know something - that's deliberate, so I can sit back and watch The Walking Dead in blissful, uninformed insensibility.

Wednesday 4 January 2012

Breeds Apart

Imagine, if you will, I go to the doctors. There's nothing particularly wrong with me, I'd just like a check-up to make sure everything's tickety-boo. The doctor (I'm imagining an elderly distinguished chap, something like John Le Mesurier, but hey! It's your imagination, they can look however you like. So can I, now I think about it. Can I be handsome, please? More hair than that. Great, you've got it.) asks me about my family history, and at this point I break into a broad grin.

'Oh, no problems there, doc,' I say, reaching into my man bag (what? They're fashionable now, aren't they? Or was that the nineties?) and retrieving a document. 'Take a look at this!'

I then proceed, proudly, to show the doctor my family tree. 'All great specimens, doc! Champions, the lot of 'em.'

Doctor Le Mesurier, at this point, can't help but notice that three of my great-grandparents appear to be the same person. Not on that, it looks (to his increasingly concerned eyes) as if my grandfather also produced several other children from my own mum, and my dad has likewise done the nasty with with maternal grandmother. At this point, he could be forgiven for thinking that this particular family tree would not be out of place adorning the wall of a backwater redneck banjo-playing (and if you're reading this, Jon, I do apologise. I don't mean to drag the good name of banjos into the mud, but it's an easy stereotype, and I'm sticking with it) web-toed buck-toothed cannabalistic clan, and he's starting to wonder if it might be a good idea to page the nurse.

'What do you reckon, doc?' I say, proudly. 'Impressive stuff, eh?'

Now lets talk about dogs, and the concept of a 'pedigree'.

Canis lupus familiaris is a remarkable species - genetically speaking. Think of the smallest adult human in the world. What are they? Let's say two feet tall for the sake of argument and unnecessary googling. That'd be about twenty kilos in my money. Now think of the tallest. Shall we go crazy and say ten feet tall? Tiny bit of googling suggests this would give you a weight of about two hundred and fifty kilos. (I won't get into obesity, because I'm really thinking of body frame rather than fat, plus that's a far too depressing subject to get into this close to Christmas). So, quite a difference - the tallest human weighs about 12 x more than the tiniest.

Back to the dog. The smallest breed that springs immediately to mind (and there's probably smaller out there) can weigh in, as an adult, at as little as 1 kilo. (Sorry about metric weights, but I'm sorry to tell you it makes a hell of a lot more sense than pounds, and a lot easier to do in your head). Now, the largest dog that springs to mind that I see regularly is a great dane - and squashes the scales in our practice to the tune of 80 kilos. It doesn't take Stephen Hawking to work out there's an 80 fold difference between the teeny tiny yorkie and the great dane - and there's definitely bigger dogs than her out there.

The point of that slightly tedious maths exercise was to illustrate the amazing genetic variation that exists within the doggy gene pool. Remember, this is the same species. Tiny tim the yorkie could (with some mechanical aids probably best left only to the imagination) in theory mate and produced fertile offspring with Gerta the great dane (their names have been changed to protect them so don't go ringing the Daily Mail in disgust). I picked on body mass as it's the easiest to visualise, but just about any characteristic in dogs shows the same variation - tail length, hair thickness, nose size, ear shape - they're all incredibly variable. Astonishing, and fascinating, and unlike most other species on the planet.

Which is why it's upsetting to me, and to many vets, that this variation has been turned into a torture implement.

Now, I'm aware torture is an emotive word (certainly our governments seem to think so. Good job they don't do it, then, and thank heavens for these new-fangled advanced interrogation techniques that I'm hearing so much about. They sound terribly effective) but I use it quite seriously. The wondrous genetic variation within dogs has, in the hands of humanity, caused more profound suffering to this beautiful, loyal and trusting species than anything I can think of (and trust me, I can think of some pretty horrible diseases).

Y'see, the concept of breeding like animals together to get offspring that were similar to their parents has been around for a long time - long before Darwin (and Wallace) developed the elegant theory of evolution, people knew it happened. They just didn't know why. (The difference in evolution, of course, being -natural- rather than -artificial- selection, but let's not get into that now). Farm animals have long been interbred to produce more meat, more milk, more honey, more pencils (okay, not the last one). Even this form of breeding has it's problems - you select for one trait, and often get weaknesses in others - but at least you're trying to get something useful out of it (well, useful to you, anyway. Quite what the cows get out of it is another matter, for another blog). That is...you're breeding for a function. It's when you stop needing your animal to do anything, and you just want it to look a particular way (breeding for a form) that the problems really start.

Enter the dog.

Poor Canis lupus familiaris may be man's best friend, but I must say if any of my friends treated me like we have them, they'd be off my Christmas card list before you could say 'inbreeding'. Dogs, who are unlucky enough to have a very wide gene pool, have been moulded over the years into the craziest shapes since the invention of silly putty. The difference is, silly putty can't suffer. Dogs can. And 'pedigree' dogs most of all.

Roughly 50% of my canine consultations for ill animals (i.e. not vaccinations, neutering or check-ups) are to try and deal with pain and disease caused by inbreeding. In the practice right at this moment we have a bulldog on a drip because it can't stop projectile vomiting (due to a hiatal hernia - guess what? An inbred trait), a spaniel recovering from surgery to repair a condylar fracture (inbred weakness), and a labrador that can barely walk because of it's chronic severe hip arthritis (caused by hip dysplasia - you get the idea). This is not an unusual day for us.

The minute some idiot (sorry, did I say idiot? I meant the kennel club) that they'd like this particular breed's nose to be shorter than a certain length, or it's spine to be yea long, or even something relatively innocuous, like thinner, shorter hair, you're asking for trouble. Two dogs that look very similar on the outside are likely to share genes that affect more than their looks. Genes for a slight propensity to have malformed hips, for instance. You'll be fine the first time you do it. Probably the third. Possibly the tenth. But sooner or later, along with those genes for lovely silky coats, you'll have a whole load of crappy genes that you really didn't want.

All this is pretty basic genetics, and apologies if I'm patronizing my readership, but this fairly simple point seems lost on a large proportion of dog breeders, not to mention the Idiots (oh, oops, I did it again, sorry, I mean the Kennel Club). Of course, this happens when you're breeding for a function, too, but there comes a point where you have to breed out with a different stock, so your animal can still do what it was supposed to do in the first place. The problem with breeding for a form instead is that your animal doesn't need to be very healthy to do what you want it to do, which is just to sit there looking (according to Idiots) pretty.

This is a problem when the form you're breeding for is relatively sensible - you still get poor genes when you're inbreeding, hence my little doctor scenario above. It's a major problem when the form you are breeding for is actively, and obviously, deleterious to an animal's welfare - and it still blows my mind that there are so many breeds like this out there. Daschunds bred with legs so short and spines to elongated that you can almost hear their discs slip as they walk in the door (and it takes a deal of self control on my part to try and make that sound funny, considering the number of cases I have seen with dogs in absolute agony because of it. Thanks, Idiots), bulldogs bred with such short tails that they grow in upon themselves (and that's only one of many many anatomy problems I could suggest about a bulldog. More than 50% (in our practice, probably 75% of bulldogs are brought into this world via caesarian, because they can't give birth unaided. Doesn't that set any alarm bells ringing with the Idiots?), pugs bred with noses so short they can barely breathe (and if Hal or Lindsay are reading this - please don't take offence, Ruby is clearly one of the sweetest loveliest there ever was. But given the choice, she'd like to be able to breathe a bit easier, trust me).

The Idiots, when discussing Basset Hounds, like to talk about 'furniture' - which basically means the amount of skin folds they have on their stumpy legs. This is, apparently, a good thing. The fact that the majority of bassets suffer from chronic pain due to their malformed elbows seems not to matter very much to them (which makes me want to drop large pieces of furniture on them. Maybe that's where the term comes from?).

In bassets, as in other breeds where the genetic problems have reached crisis point (like West Highland White Terriers with skin disease, or Labrador Retrievers with hip dysplasia) the Idiots have instituted 'screening programs' to 'breed out' the unwanted traits. I have a very simple breeding program - stop breeding mother with grandparent, and your problems will go away.

All of which means, to me, that a 'pedigree' is simply a history of how inbred your dog is. The longer your pedigree, the less healthy you are likely to be, no matter how many bloody times your ancestors won at Crufts. These dogs cost hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds, are going to cost you a great deal of money in veterinary fees, and also, (and this is my key point, which is why I keep returning to it) they will suffer.

Things are changing a little. A few years ago all this information was news to my clients, but no more often than not they are well aware of the problems. I can't tell you how many westie puppies I've seen with the first hints of atopy which will likely mean they will be on steroids for the rest of their life, only for the owner to tell me 'Oh, I know they suffer from that, our last one did.' It depresses me and upsets me that they can't see that perhaps going out and purchasing another one will, ultimately, lead to more animals spending their whole lives in pain.

I'm aware my tone has shifted from flippant to angry, and that's the very reason I've avoided writing this blog for some time. The unfairness of life aside, it was probably the main reason I wanted to start a veterinary blog at all. Because I'm tired. I'm tired of seeing wonderful dogs in pain and chronic misery because some shithead decided his legs needed to be -this- short, or his eyes should bulge out just so. I'm sick and tired because our profession, the 'champions of animal welfare' have let this misery go on for far too long. It took a BBC documentary on the subject to bring it to peoples attention, and finally have the horror show that is Crufts taken off air.

Okay, I'm going to stop ranting. For those gluttons for punishment who want more of the same, here is a letter Kerry and I had published in the veterinary times several years ago. For everyone else - please reconsider buying that puppy with the long pedigree. I know it's nice to know exactly how big it will get, and you can buy a nice bumper sticker that looks like them - but remember Dr Le Mesurier, and try to consider what that means for the dog, and not you.

Monday 2 January 2012

January blues - no problem!

For you, my friends, the war is over. Well, okay, not the war, but the offer where you could get my new eBook, the Ancients, for free, is over, but that's got less of a poetic ring to it.

Do not collapse into a pit of woe, however, for I bring good tidings! The Ancients is still available at the low price of £1.50/$2/12 triganic pus, available from  amazon.co.uk or amazon.com.

What, that's still not enough to keep the black dog from your door? Okay, how about this?

You can download the entire first half of Soul Purpose COMPLETELY FREE from smashwords.com - a modern SF/veterinary story, and the first part of the conduit sequence, written in a style much closer to my Blogging voice (which may or may not be a good thing for you to hear).

This is a permanent offer, so if you missed the January 3rd Ancients spectacular then I'd advise you console yourself with a lovely 50% of a novel. Enjoy!

The original offer text is below, for...well, for no good reason, really, other than to show you how generous I was once upon a time.


January is a depressing month, isn't it? The dogs have eaten the last mouldy bits of turkey, you've already played with the most exciting presents, and are down to that woolly hat and scarf from your auntie, and the house looks very bare without all those decorations. No wonder the papers are always repeating that spurious PR story that 'this day is officially the most grey, dismal and depressing day of the year'.

How could anyone possibly remain sane in such dark days? How?

By a free book giveaway, that's how!

That's right, for tomorrow only, my new eBook is available COMPLETELY FREE from amazon! You can spend that £1.53 you've saved on a nice warming cup of coffee instead, or even a mulled wine (oh, except that we're not allowed to drink that any more, are we? Never mind. Mulled wine is one of those drinks where the idea of it is nicer than the drink itself. Like those fruit teas that smell orgasmic but taste like sour lemsip).

So, on the 3rd of January, hightail down to your local amazon.co.uk or amazon.com, and pick up your copy of The Ancients absolutely free! You'd be craaaaaazy to miss it, and other such cliches!
(the offer lasts from 12 midnight January 3rd 2012 to 11.59pm Pacific Standard Time - this is GMT -8 hours (so from 8am Jan 3rd to 7.59am Jan 4th GMT). (The more astute amongst you may have realised that this date is now IN THE PAST. I'm sorry to say that unless you're Doctor Who you've missed the offer now. This offer remains here only for the interests of historians and time travellers)

Grab it quick while stocks last! (Except that stocks are effectively infinite so, y'know, you'll probably be okay). I'll be setting up a discussion group on Goodreads.com for anyone who wants to chat about it.