We have had a few unusual animals in the practice over the last couple of months. Dogs, cats and rabbits are the norm, but there have also been some ferrets and the odd hedgehog and, most recently, one or two alpacas.
It always makes heads turn in the waiting room, or outside the surgery in New Row, Boroughbridge, when one of these elegant and leggy camelids walks down the road.
A little alpaca called Hope was born with a problem with one of her front legs. There was some pain and the leg deviated from the normal straight and narrow. I had tried some treatment, in the form of splints when she was smaller and injections as she got bigger. Neither seemed to help.
Eventually, her owner, Jackie and I decided we should take an X-ray of the leg. X-rays are always the next step when faced with a lameness that is not improving. The problem was, I hadn’t X-rayed many alpacas before. I knew what to do though. An alpaca’s leg is, of course, comparable to that of similar creatures, so I could extrapolate my knowledge from other species. This is something veterinary surgeons do very frequently.
We learnt comparative anatomy at vet school, which is exactly what the name suggests. It is impossible to learn every detail of every species, both in terms of anatomy, physiology and pathophysiology. So, instead, we learn from first principles, building up specific knowledge of the different groups of animals, and from there we can always work things out.
This is one of the reasons that being a vet is so much fun and so challenging. The other thing which gave me confidence was that, while Hope had a bad leg, she also had a good leg, so the first job would be to take a radiograph of the good one. It would provide a perfect normal against which I could compare the bad leg.
But my biggest problem was actually working out the practicalities of the job. Lame horses (in most cases) can be X-rayed in situ, at the yard or stable. Modern X-ray machines can connect directly with a laptop and perfect, high resolution images can be obtained instantly and horse-side. Instinctively, I started to think about loading up the X-ray kit to obtain the images on farm. But Hope the alpaca was no bigger than a Labrador and I soon realised that it would probably be much simpler if I arranged for her to come to the practice.
The next task was to rearrange the system. Dogs and cats are, by necessity, sedated and X-rayed lying on the X-ray table. They need to be motionless to get a good image. They also need to be in very specific positions, so the beams go through at the correct angle, highlighting exactly the correct bit to make a diagnosis. The X-ray beams go vertically downwards from a generator head above the patient.
In Hope’s case, I didn’t really want to lie her on her side, as she was likely to struggle, so I decided to take the pictures using a horizontal beam, in the same way as we would in a horse. In this way, I managed to get perfect X-rays of the affected leg and also the good leg for comparison. Stage one completed!
Then I just had to work out the cause of the problem with her leg! I peered at the X-rays. Luckily, it was very clear: a classic case of an infection at the growth plate. No wonder she was lame and the leg deformed. I’d made a diagnosis. All that remained was for me to get Hope started on some treatment.
The Yorkshire Vet continues at 8pm on Tuesday on Channel 5.