Sunday, May 26, 2013

The point of all this

I was on the phone with my mom yesterday, and she asked what I was doing next week. “Going to a large shelter in [big Southern city,]” I say.

“I’m not sure what the point of all this is,” says my mom with her PhD, who had been so enthusiastic when I told her that I was planning to do a PhD in the genetics of dog behavior after I finished my internship. “But you have known what you’re doing before, so I guess you do this time too.”

“Do you want me to try to explain it?” I ask, and she allows that this would be acceptable.

So I try to explain why I’m doing a year of clinical work in shelters if I am so interested in dog brains. The thing is that I have always been interested in both research (and teaching and writing peer-reviewed papers and being hidden in the ivory tower) and in being in a shelter or in the field and getting my hands dirty and making a tangible difference. I do want to figure out the mechanisms behind pathological fearfulness in dogs, and what makes domesticated animals like dogs different from wild animals like wolves. But I also want to keep connected to the world of the animals who are actually suffering from shyness, both so I can get new ideas about what needs studied, and so that I can try to apply some of what I learn.

I have always felt that my two interests, in fearfulness in dogs and in clinical shelter behavior, are closely intertwined. But the institutions I’ve learned from don’t seem to see it that way. Four years of clinical work for a DVM degree (in which we were told again and again that more veterinarians are needed in research, but in which we had no classes about research topics). One year of a research Masters. One year of a clinical internship. Next, several more years of research. My internship mentors worry that I am too interested in research and not enough in clinical work. My PhD mentor worries that I am too interested in clinical work and not enough in research. When do I get to do both at once?

After I’m done with schooling, maybe. I’ve learned a lot about how shelters work in my internship, and maybe even more importantly, I’ve seen some possible career paths in consulting for me. Part time work, called in on a temporary basis to work for large animal welfare groups dealing with issues such as enrichment in temporary shelters after large seizures of hundreds of animals, or behavioral evaluations of large numbers of seized fighting dogs. The other parts of my time spent teaching? Doing some research? It’s way too soon to try to figure out the details, but at least I have ideas of where to look to put together my perfect patchwork of jobs. And hopefully with my internship under my belt I will have the street cred to say that I know how shelters work and what their common problems are.

Maybe I should have just said that there are lots of broken dog brains in shelters, and left it at that!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Making replacement nipples

Kittens like to nurse on things. It is best to nurse on mom, but orphaned kittens will nurse on other things. A favorite option for many orphans is the belly and genitals of their siblings. This can be physically traumatic for the recipient. One solution to the problem is to separate the kittens, but a lonely kitten is a stressed and pathetic creature (and stress leaves them more susceptible to disease). Another solution is to offer something better to nurse on!

Today I got mad when a newly arrived kitten was nursing on his littermate, and as I had a little free time, I decided to make an offering for him. Materials: nipples for kitten bottles; some soft fleece; needle and thread; rice; a plastic bag; a binder clip. I sewed the nipples into the fleece, sewed the edges of the fleece together to make a fleece bag, warmed up the plastic bag full of rice in the microwave, and put the warm rice into the fleece bag. I secured it closed with the binder clip.

I predict the kitten will hate it, because cats always hate things that you put a lot of work into.

The fake mom, in production

The fake mom, in place, being ignored by kittens

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Keeping score of kittens

Last week I worked in a kitten nursery — a small building off of a larger shelter, full of underage kittens (mostly orphans, some with moms). Although this shelter has literally hundreds of kittens out in foster care, kitten season in the South is so intense that they have this separate building just as a nursery, with its own staff and volunteers (and for these two weeks, its own vet! With consultations from the main shelter vet, of course).

Cats seem to take the approach to reproduction that you should make as many babies as possible, and if not all of them make it, that’s life. Outdoor, unowned kittens have about a 75% mortality rate. Cats are mostly very good moms, but kittens are just so little and fragile. After a few days of kitten deaths I became almost manic. I would not lose more kittens! I started keeping score, me versus kitten death.

  • Feral mom is too scared to take care of her neonatal kittens. I give her a place to hide and some time to figure it out. I give her too long, and her three kittens die. Three points to kitten death.
  • A cat is brought in while in labor. It becomes clear that things are not proceeding, so we take her to surgery. Three kittens survive. I sit with them for two hours trying to get them to nurse. They do, a little bit, but their mom doesn’t recognize them as hers since she wasn’t awake when they came out. One dies. I foster the other two onto a receptive mom with her own four kittens and spend another hour making sure they learn to nurse on her and can defend their nipples from their week-older foster siblings. So far, they are still alive. Two points to the Dog Zombie, one point to kitten death.
  • Six kittens in a little cage feel funky for several days, just sitting around and not playing like normal little fiends. I give them fluids for several days but they don’t perk up. We start them on antibiotics that are good for GI disease, because they have diarrhea and deworming hasn’t helped. When a new cage opens up, I move three of them into it, so everyone will have more space. I coddle them with fluids and medication to make them not feel sick to their stomach. At the end of the week, two of them are playing and three of them are eating. Three points to the Dog Zombie. (The other three are holding steady. We’ll see.)
  • One kitten is a little lethargic and dehydrated one evening. I give her fluids, but I am not worried about her. The next morning she is found dead. I do a necropsy and find that she had pneumonia. This is weird, because she didn’t have an upper respiratory infection, so where did it come from? But her lungs were definitely funky. I panic and give her cagemate antibiotics that are good for pneumonia, since whatever happened to her, it happened so fast that I want to prevent it rather than wait and see. One point to the Dog Zombie?
  • One kitten fades fast and dies. (One point to kitten death.) His cage mate starts to fade the next day, lethargic and dehydrated. I necropsy her brother and find a bad infection in his GI tract. I start the living kitten on antibiotics that are good for GI infections and leave orders for lots of warming pads and fluids. She does not survive the night. A second point to kitten death.
Those are only some of the stories. I have learned all about antibiotics for head colds and stomach bugs, I tell you what. And I have learned that a roomful of kittens becomes much less cute after the first hour of dealing with it. But they will still make you manic trying desperately to save them all. You can’t save them all. But you also can’t stop trying.