Julian Norton: Curious cases of an on-call vet

Emerald the chameleon made herself at home in the surgery.
Emerald the chameleon made herself at home in the surgery.
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My night on call set the tone for a busy day ahead. I was woken by my pager, summoning me to a pony suffering from colic. Colic is the word used to describe abdominal pain, and is a common problem in horses.

The equine bowel is an accident waiting to happen, long and tortuous as it is. Colic can be very serious, even life threatening but luckily for Dotty the Shetland pony, her colic was simple to deal with - an intravenous injection of an antispasmodic drug to stop her cramping pains was the ticket.

A 20-year-old cat, unable to stand, was the next patient to break my sleep. Sadly, there was no magic injection to cure the march of old age, but this was quickly followed by a call to see a sick calf whose story had a happier ending.

“It’s the one you came to see a couple of months ago,” explained Mike. “It had pneumonia then, but now it’s laid out. I fetched him in with his mother last night because he didn’t look quite right.”

An urgent call like this, at the time of morning when everyone needs to get to school and work, presents a logistical problem in my household. But, with some minor juggling, everybody ended up in the right place at the correct time.

The young Beef Shorthorn was in a lot of pain. His bloated abdomen was as tight as a drum. Bloat like this can be rapidly fatal if the pressure is not relieved quickly. I cleaned and numbed an area on the left flank, so I could insert a device called a trochar and cannula. As the pointy tube entered the rumen, the hiss of escaping gas told me this little calf would be fine. Its abdomen deflated like a burst balloon, and soon resumed its normal proportions.

After stitching the tube in place to allow the rumen to recover, I headed to the practice to see an anaemic bloodhound puppy called Rudie. Anaemia in a bloodhound seemed a contradiction in terms!

After a house visit to vaccinate nine cats, it was time for afternoon surgery. One of my patients was Emerald, a young female chameleon. Her new owner had found her lying in the bottom of the tank and she was dead. By the time they arrived, the chameleon had revived, and as we discussed her problems, she slowly made her way up my arm onto my shoulder and sat on my head. In exotic species, health problems often arise from husbandry issues. Emerald was suffering from dehydration. After some detective work, it transpired that the foliage in her tank was not correct. Chameleons can’t drink water in the conventional way and rely on imbibing moisture from the surface of leaves. The plastic leaves in Emerald’s tank wouldn’t hold sufficient water.

My next client was flustered. “I’m sorry, Julian. Eric and Charlie need their nails cutting and Charlie needs his blood test. The problem is, I’m due a conference call with work in 30 seconds. Do you mind if I take it?”

I agreed to clip the nails and take the blood in complete silence, but the next ten minutes was very odd: “Thank you all for joining me today. I know you’re all busy, but Steven has some questions about the costings for the branch restructuring… Well, yes, but most of the IT costs, hardware and so on are accounted for centrally and the local networking costs can be offset. The lead time is short so we can source them at short notice...”

It all sounded a million miles away from my day. I was happy to be kneeling on the floor, clipping a greyhound’s toenails.

Julian’s book, Horses Heifers & Hairy Pigs: The Life of a Yorkshire Vet, is on sale now.