Comprehensive  Ways To Delightful Healthy Pets
I USUALLY BRING MY DUCK IN AT TWILIGHT
Never assume a medication is safe for a pet unless it is prescribed for that pet—even if it is safe for a different species.
“IUSUALLY BRING MY DUCK IN AT TWILIGHT,” said the voice on the phone, “but time got away from me and I didn’t get out there, until I heard the screaming.”
It was 9 P.M. and my son was finally asleep. The man’s voice was low and mellifluous, although it sounded frantic. He described what had happened, and I told him to meet me at the clinic. My husband was already handing me the keys and I was heading for the door.
When I arrived at the clinic, I saw the man with his pet duck. She was a beauty. I was impressed by her wild curling head feathers and multicolored wings. But the bloody kitchen towel wrapped around her right leg gave me a shudder. “I stopped the bleeding,” he said, “with a tourniquet.”
Rutger was the man’s name. He was a tall, gentle man with salt-and-pepper hair.
A raccoon had taken hold of Vaya’s leg and tried to pull her whole body through the chicken wire of her outdoor enclosure. Rutger had heard the squawking and was outside before the raccoon could really pull, but the damage had already been done. Rutger said there was a brief stare-down before the hungry bandit let go and loped out of sight.
Vaya was in shock. Rutger had scooped her up, wrapped the leg, called me, and come right over. He had tears in his eyes as he said, “You think we ought to just put her out of her misery?”
It was a mess of a leg. The webbing was torn in several directions and bloody skin and muscles were lacerated around the thigh from the chicken wire. There were no punctures or bite wounds—which was good. “No, I think we can fix this. Let’s take an X-ray to check for fractures.” It was going to be a long night.
In those days, there was no ER for animals. There were few vets who would handle a duck anyway, so it was up to me.
The radiograph I took showed a fracture. Luckily it wasn’t displaced, and there were no fragments. I started to feel more confident. It seemed unlikely that she would lose the leg. I recalled a duck at the Stillman Nature Center, in Illinois, that had one leg and was still able to swim normally. I was relieved that Vaya’s leg looked as if it might heal, if we could keep it from getting infected.
I anesthetized the duck by putting her face in a cone of isoflurane gas anesthetic. Rutger would have to be the anesthetist. He was a fast learner. Vaya was snoozing in seconds.
I had already given fluids for shock. I thought through the medicines I’d need. I had to carefully consider the safety of each one for a duck. There weren’t a lot of safe, medical options at the time, nor were there many books or resources available on duck leg injuries. With any exotic animal, I worried about reactions to pharmaceutical medication. I had seen too many cases in wildlife or zoo medicine where a medication that was safe in one species was given to another, with disastrous results. A dewormer that was given routinely for many species of animals at a local aquarium caused a deadly reaction in Beluga whales in a matter of minutes. Certain anti-inflammatories that are safe for dogs can be fatal for cats. Several antibiotics that humans can take will destroy the GI tract of a rabbit. The most glaringly obvious example is a miticide used to treat canine mange mites. Miticide will not only kill a mite infestation in a pet tarantula’s cage, but will also kill the tarantula. Spiders and mites are, in fact, closely related.
That rule also applies to herbal medicines. For example, full-strength tea tree oil that is generally safe to use on fungal or bacterial skin infections on humans and dogs can cause neurologic dysfunction and even death when applied topically on a cat. However, it can be used on cats when significantly diluted.
Birds, fish, mammals, and insects have developed their own tolerances for medications. When giving medications that have never been tried in a species, we must proceed with caution. And then, based on the severity of the condition, it is wise to use only what is absolutely essential.
“Be like a duck. Calm on the surface, but always paddling like the dickens underneath.” —MICHAEL CAINE
For Vaya, I used only medications that I knew were safe for ducks. My first priority was alleviating pain. I injected her with a morphine derivative. For the topical preparation, I decided to go with a diluted herbal preparation mixed with an old-fashioned burn cream. This would help heal the skin. I added yarrow to stop the bleeding and as an antiseptic, comfrey to help heal the bone, and calendula as an antibacterial. With the leg healing in a splint, the immune system would need to be supported by supplements. There were other herbs I considered, but I didn’t have them at 10 P.M. on a Saturday night. I used what I had, confident that it was a good, safe combination. I didn’t want any infection under the wrap.
A duck’s leg doesn’t have a lot of extra tissue, and what it does have is not easy to sew. I cleaned the area with some diluted Betadine (antiseptic povidine-iodine). I had to pluck some of the damaged feathers. Rutger watched without flinching. He was a real trouper. Then I started sewing things back together over the leg. It was like a jigsaw puzzle.
As for the rubbery webbing, I sewed it up with tiny sutures, and then I took out my trusty superglue. Once the leg was put back together, it looked like a Frankenstein body part.
Something like a splint would have to be fashioned to keep the leg still, but in a natural, slightly bent position. The tongue depressors I’d set out didn’t quite fit the bill. I looked around for an object I could make into a curve that was lightweight but stiff. A plastic detergent bottle on the counter would serve nicely. After emptying the detergent, I cut out a curved portion of the bottom. It was perfect. I wrapped it in soft cotton wrap and covered it with tape.
Covering the wounds with my concoction of herbal cream, I wrapped a Telfa pad and thin cotton over the whole leg. I anchored the plastic splint to a couple of feathers, and then to the leg with a cotton wrap. One more wrap with cotton gauze—it couldn’t be too bulky, too tight, or allow any bending of the leg, but it had to be light and durable—and the rig was finished. Now it was up to Vaya’s natural ability to heal.
I remembered dealing with duck patients at the end of my time at vet school. I had gone to a wildlife field course in Oregon instead of going on a honeymoon with my husband. Only he, being an ecologist, could have understood why this might be more important than drinking margaritas by the pool in St. Croix. There were fourteen vet students in the course, and we called it the Wildlife Honeymoon Course.
One part of the course involved detoxifying wildlife in oil-spill situations—particularly waterfowl. Local ducks from a nearby nature center were volunteered to be dipped into nontoxic oil and we had to clean them. Dawn dish detergent is what we used. It is donated to wildlife rescues for oil spills. When you start to scrub, it’s easy to soak the feathers with water and soap because they are saturated with oil, and the natural ability of the feathers to repel water is destroyed. But the more you wash, the more you can see the water beading up on the feathers, being repelled. We were literally washing them dry.
It was amazing to see it up close. I had never appreciated how well constructed the feathers of waterfowl are. They are perfectly suited for living in their environment. I would wash until washing was not possible—because the water just bounced off. Then the protective beading mechanism was restored—exactly like water off a duck’s back. I had a new appreciation for the magic of nature.
We learned how toxic oil spills really are, and what is done (much too little) to safeguard against them. We studied various other toxin sources: effluents, paper companies, strip mining, factories, roads, dry cleaning, and simple littering. We discussed the role of pollution laws and the Environmental Protection Agency and what protection—again, inadequate in my opinion—it offers for the environment.
The class was also taken to an enormous building that held acres of confiscated animal parts. We saw firsthand the many species of wild animals that are poached. They are all gratuitously killed for useless reasons. We gaped, distressed and horrified at gorilla-hand ashtrays, elephant-leg tables, the rhino-horn aphrodisiac, feathers of endangered birds, cheetah furs for hats and fashion, and much more.
The course that summer taught me many invaluable things, but learning directly what happens to wildlife when their world is filled with toxic oil and inhabited by poachers had a powerful effect on me.
Flash forward to when little Vaya woke up, blinked, and shook her feathery head like a slightly drunk duck. She was extremely lovey-ducky with Rutger, and their reunion was beautiful and happy. For the next few days he had to carry her outside and in; he had to help her eat and clean her leg and feathers. If he hadn’t she would have had to sit in her own mess because she was unable to stand on her own. We worried for three days, talking daily on the phone. Then suddenly she tried to walk. It still seemed painful, but her instinct to survive was strong. I was impressed by her efforts.
Six weeks later, after six rebandagings and much thoughtful care by Rutger, I went to his house for another recheck. He led me to her little outdoor pen, where she was happily walking on the lightly wrapped leg. This was the day we were to take off the last wrap. She was used to me by now, and quacked softly when I came over. We brought her inside, and I cut the bandage off. Her feathers had grown in and you could only see a scarred ridge where I had glued the webbing together. She was healed.
She walked outside, shook herself, and went straight to the pool as if she knew her six-week no-water sentence had been lifted. She waited while Rutger opened the gate and she hopped right in. She looked like a duck in water.
Vaya was in and out of her pond with no problem. There was no sign of infection or other lasting injury. I could hear her quiet quacking as Rutger walked me to the door.
I asked him, in passing, about her name, “Why Vaya?”
“Vaya Duck!” He answered. “Don’t you know Groucho Marx?”
I couldn’t believe I hadn’t caught that one.
“Yes,” I said, “I love to quote him. ‘Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.’”
We both laughed and shared a quick look of relief as I got in my car and he headed back to Vaya in the pool. It was just about twilight, and I knew he wouldn’t forget to bring her in.