HOW NOT TO LOOK LIKE AN IDIOT AT THE VET’S
First and foremost, you need to get a feeling for the whole medical thing. Cats get sick and, despite their nine lives, they get broken from time to time and need fixing. This is where the veterinary surgeon steps in.
Vets come in four guises:
1. Large animal vet Usually male, undoubtedly in a uniform of check skirt (sleeves rolled up), knitted tie and corduroy trousers, all of which are in the muted shades of the country (khaki, brown, beige, etc.).
2. Horse vet Dashing male or female, mixing with the rich and powerful of equine society and brave enough to diagnose and treat an animal worth more than most people would earn in a lifetime.
3. Small animal vet A good mix of young and old, but weighted towards young women of caring disposition, probably dressed in the corporate colours and uniform of the practice and largely passionate about dogs and cats (often placing themselves secretly in one camp or another).
4. Exotic vet Rarely exotic upon closer inspection. This is the vet who has, for whatever reason, decided to devote his or her life to tortoises, snakes, lizards, parrots, rats and virtually any other animal kept for fun or profit that isn’t a dog or cat and doesn’t live on a farm or in an equestrian centre.
Of the four vets above, you will rarely need to consider 1, 2 and 4, as the ‘small animal vet’ is the obvious choice to mend cats. Although vets are committed and generally well-liked servants of the community, many cat lovers find visits to their surgeries extremely stressful. Owners often complain of parting with a vast sum of money for a diagnosis they can’t pronounce or a treatment protocol they don’t understand. You cannot bluff a veterinary surgeon (why would you try?) but what you can do, if you ever find yourself in this situation, is hold your own and look like the intelligent layperson you are with just enough good knowledge to get by.
The vet is a Very Important Person in the life of the cat owner. Ironically, the most praise that he or she will receive from clients is when a beloved cat’s life is ended through euthanasia. The term euthanasia is invariably not used in front of the owners, often replaced by the gentler euphemism ‘putting to sleep’. Now this may seem strange, but the manner in which a vet performs this P-T-S (putting to sleep), and the empathy and compassion they show during and after it, will dictate how their abilities are judged by their clients. No amount of fancy diagnostic machinery or post-nominal letters will compensate for a ‘bad’ euthanasia. You could go down the route of feeling pretty sorry for the average vet experiencing that sort of performance pressure on a daily basis, but this probably won’t help you in your role as a serious bluffer. It will, however, stand you in good stead if you refer to such musings should you ever meet a ‘small animal’ vet in a social situation. Never try to bluff a vet, but if you stick to the subject of ‘grief management’ and bereavement counselling, you’ll be on safe ground. All good vets know the importance of this, and will generally be gratified to learn that their concern does not go unnoticed.
At some stage, as you mix more and more in the ‘circle of cat’, you are likely to find yourself called on to comfort someone in their hour of cat-related need. If this person has a cat that is sick or injured, then emotions will run high and someone (like you for example) needs to be there to be the cool, rational head who saves the day when all around are losing theirs. Here’s what to do in a difficult situation at the vet’s when someone you know is expecting what might be bad news.
• Be calm, polite and, above all else, rational. Remember that although you might be bluffing about the extent of your expertise on the subject of cats, this is not the time to continue the pretence. Do what you know is right in the circumstances.
• Don’t be afraid to ask questions of the vet:
– What are the differential diagnoses (what do you think might be wrong)?
– What are the tests you need to do to establish the actual diagnosis?
– How distressing may these tests be for the patient?
– Depending on the diagnosis, what is the treatment and prognosis?
• Never say: ‘I read on the internet that…’; this will drive the vet mad and alienate him or her immediately. Vets acquire their knowledge through years of study and practical experience. But however much they make it clear that they know their stuff, don’t be fobbed off by someone saying, ‘Because I said so.’
• Make notes about all the relevant things you need to know as you go along. This has the effect of making you look slightly more competent. Nonetheless, do your homework first so that you understand some of the more common things that might be wrong. The vet might be the sort that uses lay terms but, if not, you need to be up to speed.
• If you and the cat’s owner are still unsure of the prognosis, suggest making another appointment to see the vet – but without the cat (which doubtless will come as a relief to the cat). The dynamics will be very different, and it is often much easier to communicate effectively in this less emotionally charged situation.
• If the vet is finding it difficult to make a diagnosis, in other words, if there is any hint of doubt, don’t be afraid to request a second opinion or referral to a specialist. It’s standard procedure under these circumstances and no vet will be offended. It will also make you appear very assertive and in control.
• It will do the bluffer no harm to commit to memory the following list of the most common diseases, injuries and symptoms to guide you through the minefield of veterinary terminology. You will need to get used to speaking in acronyms – no veterinary conversation is complete without a mention of F-E-L-V, F-I-V, F-I-P, F-I-C, F-O-R-L or I-B-D. Practise those in front of the mirror but don’t ever consider trying to make words of ‘Felv’, ‘Fiv’ or ‘Fip’, etc. Nobody does this.
A LAYPERSON’S GUIDE TO VETSPEAK
These are arguably the most common diseases, symptoms and injuries that a cat might encounter. Commit them to memory and you won’t look back.
Acute renal failure (ARF) Can occur as a result of an infection, toxin or blockage within the urinary tract.
Allergic flea dermatitis Itchy, scaly skin or fur loss caused by an allergy to flea saliva when bitten.
Arthritis (osteoarthritis) Inflammation of the joints causing pain and often resulting in restricted mobility. Joints affected are usually the hip, elbow and spine.
Blocked anal glands The anal glands are situated at ‘20 minutes to 4’ (believe it or not there is a clock face on the cat’s bottom). They contain fluid that occasionally builds up and causes discomfort, ‘scooting’ on the floor, and excessive and obsessive grooming around the anus. Ah, the joys of cat ownership.
Cat bite abscess Caused by another cat’s bacteria-ridden canine teeth puncturing the skin during fights.
Cat flu/herpes/calicivirus This can be vaccinated against but will cause a snotty nose, runny eyes and ulcers on the tongue. Welcome to the wonderful world of cats.
Chronic renal failure (CRF) A condition usually seen in older cats, resulting in decreased appetite, weight loss and dehydration.
Conjunctivitis Inflammation of the pink bit around the eye causing pain, squinting, rubbing, discharge and reddening.
Detached retina Can be caused by high blood pressure, or a heavy bang on the head, often rendering the cat blind.
Diabetes Same as humans: drink a lot, pee a lot, eat a lot and lose a lot of weight (often due to amputation of a limb).
Diaphragmatic hernia More often than not caused by impact with a car which results in vital organs being radically relocated.
Ear mites Parasites that live in the ear canal and cause irritation, head shaking, dark brown wax and furious scratching.
Feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC) Stress-related inflammation of the bladder wall, causing pain, blood in the urine and even a complete inability to urinate.
Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) A fatal disease caused by a type of virus called coronavirus. Best avoided.
Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) Caused by a similar retrovirus to HIV although it is not transmissible to man.
Feline leukaemia virus (FeLV) A viral condition that affects the immune system. You need to know that there is a vaccination that can protect against it.
Feline odontoclastic resorptive lesion (FORL) A hole in the bottom of the tooth at the gum margin that exposes the nerve. Usually accompanied by much yowling.
Food hypersensitivity This can manifest itself as an itchy skin condition, over-grooming, vomiting or diarrhoea. Welcome again to the world of cats.
Fractured mandibular symphisis A broken lower jaw; common in road traffic accidents.
Hyperthyroidism A tumour on the thyroid glands that causes an increase in the cat’s metabolism. Usually accompanied by severe weight loss.
Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) Heart disease that causes thickening of the wall of the heart. Believe it or not, some cats have hearts.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) Causes diarrhoea, weight loss, vomiting and general loss of condition.
Lymphoma Cancer of the lymph nodes. Cats get cancer too.
Obesity You can’t have a list without including fat cats. A major cause of heart disease, diabetes and joint problems through overeating/feeding. Killing with kindness is a serious problem in the cat world.
Pancreatitis Inflammation of the pancreas; as unpleasant as it is in the human pancreas.
Pelvic fractures These are commonly seen resulting from traffic accidents and falls.
Periodontal disease The build-up of plaque and tartar on the teeth, resulting in erosion and inflammation of the gums and loosening of the teeth. A cat with no teeth is not a happy cat.
Ringworm This is a skin infection caused by a fungus that is contagious to both cats and humans. Take advice from a real expert.
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) A type of cancer causing crusting of the ear tips, eyelids and nose; seen most commonly in cats with white ears and noses.
Tail pull injury This is commonly seen in cats that have been involved in traffic accidents or a cat that has attempted to withdraw a tail trapped in a door.
Urolithiasis Production of crystals in the cat’s urine that merge to form stones in the bladder.
ALTERNATIVE AND COMPLEMENTARY THERAPIES
Cat lovers may also embrace alternative or complementary therapies. Just so you know, it wouldn’t be unheard of for a cat to have physiotherapy, chiropractic treatment, acupuncture, osteopathy, herbal remedies, homeopathic remedies, acupressure, aromatherapy, reiki, Tellington Touch (touching and moving cats in particular ways to increase tolerance of human contact) and various food supplements to enhance health. Even so-called animal psychics are consulted by desperate owners seeking a solution to a problem. Best avoided.
SUPERSTITIONS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
1. A three-coloured cat will keep the house safe from fire (always encourage the more conventional use of a smoke detector alarm).
2. On every black cat there is a single white hair which will bring wealth or love to the person who removes it without the cat scratching them (don’t try this at home, unless you believe that wealth and love can be found at A&E).
To complete your training, you need to remember a couple of important rules: firstly, all cat lovers are kind and well-meaning. Though they frequently make great companions, you should never give one the ultimatum, ‘It’s me or the cat!’ You are replaceable; the cat isn’t. Secondly, a cat has the capacity to be anything a person wants it to be and is therefore the perfect partner – another human cannot do this, not even in a cat-themed ‘onesie’ with whiskers and silly ears, so please don’t try.
If you find yourself, as you come to the end of this experience, whimsically searching YouTube for the latest footage of a cat playing a piano or hovering round the leopard-print soft furnishings in John Lewis, do not be alarmed. Ailurophilia is catching but not nearly as sinister as it sounds.