Cats, dogs, people funny and heartbreaking stories from a pet veterinarian
With insight and humor, Dr. Philipp Schott shares tales from the unlikely path he took into his career of veterinary science and anecdotes from his successful small-animal clinic. Dr. Schott brings to his writing the benefit of many years of expertise. Wisdom he imparts on readers includes the best way to give your cat a pill, how to prevent your very handy dog from opening a fridge, and how to handle your fish when it has half-swallowed another.
Through these and other experiences, Dr. Schott also learned that veterinary medicine is as much, if not more, about the people as it is the animals. And he will have you laughing and crying as you embark on this journey of discovery with him.
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About the Author
Philipp Schott practices in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he manages one of the largest pet hospitals in the province. He blogs frequently and travels extensively.
Read an Excerpt
Bobo the Christmas Gerbil
Like most children and almost every veterinarian, I was fascinated with animals from a very young age. And like most children, my fascination spawned a relentless campaign to obtain a pet. My parents were, however, not "pet people." Far from it. My parents didn't have pets growing up (it was war-torn Germany after all — there were many other priorities, like survival), and none of the people they knew once we immigrated to Saskatoon had pets. It simply wasn't part of their world. They didn't view pet ownership as a bad thing, necessarily, but it was something "other people" did, like line dancing or cross-dressing. A dog was so clearly out of the question that I never actually dared to ask, and I understood that the suggestion of a cat would be received no differently than a suggestion of a warthog or a rhesus monkey. So I set my sights lower and began the work of building up the Mongolian gerbil as the ideal pet in my parents' minds.
This prolonged effort had no discernible effect whatsoever until Christmas of 1977, when a large, rectangular object covered by a decidedly non-festive grey tablecloth appeared under the tree. I had more or less given up on the gerbil campaign by that point. I was actually afraid that the large rectangular object would be a gigantic Meccano set as part of my father's own campaign to get me interested in something "practical." But no — to my astonishment, the object revealed itself to be a cage. A large cage, hand-built by my father out of heavy gauge one-inch galvanized steel mesh. This cage was solid. It appeared to be designed to help its occupant withstand earthquakes, tornadoes, mortar attacks and significant civil unrest.
But there was no occupant.
"Oh wow! Thank you, thank you! It's a ... It's a ... It's an empty cage."
My parents peered closely at the cage and then looked at each other. There had been a gerbil in there just half an hour ago. Now there was no gerbil. My father, the physicist, expressed astonishment and disbelief that a gerbil could pop through one-inch mesh. But pop through it evidently had, like a button through a buttonhole. The remaining gift openings and assorted Christmas rituals were abandoned, and the hunt was on. Two bewildered adults and two manic children scoured the house until eventually the gerbil was found, pooping silently in a corner under a cabinet.
Incidentally, as an aside for the uninitiated, a Mongolian gerbil is a small desert rodent (I first wrote "dessert rodent," and it slipped by the spellchecker as well) with tan-coloured fur and a long tail ending in a fuzzy tuft, a bit like a lion's tail. They bite a lot less than hamsters, and they stink a lot less than mice.
As soon as the gerbil was captured, my father set to work covering the cage with fly screen. This was effective for a day or two, but then the gerbil chewed through the fly screen. It was patched and patched again, but the gerbil was nothing if not relentless. What eventually put a stop to his repeated escapes were sunflower seeds. Or, more precisely, the morbid obesity caused by the continuous intake of high-fat sunflower seeds. He soon became unable to squeeze his bulk through that mesh anymore. So he stayed in the cage, exchanging his freedom for tasty snacks. A trade-off familiar to Doritos addicts everywhere.
Over time, the gerbil and I became close. Or, more accurately, I should say that I became close to him; for his part, I think it's safe to say that the gerbil was largely indifferent to me — or really anything other than his sunflower seeds. I originally named him "Berbil," but this morphed into "Berbo" and then "Bobo," which is ultimately the version that stuck.
Eventually Bobo died and was not replaced. The cage ended up in the basement with the suitcases and old coffee makers and was forgotten until one bitterly cold January morning when my father found a pocket gopher, an essentially blind burrowing animal that should have been hibernating but was out wandering in disoriented circles on a snowy field. My father dusted off the cage and then, to our collective astonishment, walked out onto the field to scoop up the surprised rodent. Failing to recognize the good deed, it bit him savagely, but my father persisted and brought him inside and placed him carefully in the cage. Ultimately, over the course of the next three or four months, he and the pocket gopher developed a peculiar and, it seems, mutually beneficial relationship. The gopher was released in the spring, and the cage never saw use again. In my mind's eye I picture it in some deep substratum of the Saskatoon landfill, intact, unbroken, still sturdy like the day my father built it.CHAPTER 2
The Accidental Veterinarian
I did not plan on becoming a veterinarian. In fact, when I was a child, I was only dimly aware of what veterinarians were as we did not have any pets other than the gerbil, for whom professional medical care was honestly never a consideration. For many years I wanted to be a geographer or a historian at a university. Yes, I was a strange child. Then, in high school, my interest in animals and nature, which had always been there at some level, began to grow, and I added zoologist to the list. But veterinarian still wasn't on the radar.
My father was a practical man who had become cynical about academia. He was a physics professor at the University of Saskatchewan, and he believed that academic jobs were going to become increasingly scarce as well as increasingly unappealing due to ballooning university bureaucracy. Consequently, he viewed my interest in pursuing an academic career in zoology, history or geography with growing apprehension. He was fond of the pithy German phrase "Brotlose Kunst," which translates directly as "breadless art" — in other words, a career or job that doesn't put bread on the table. He left the choice up to me but made it clear that he recommended I pursue a profession instead.
I was a freakishly obedient teenager (mostly), so it came to pass that I spent a sunny Saturday morning in March of 1983, the year I graduated from high school, methodically going through the University of Saskatchewan's course calendar. The programs were listed alphabetically. I began eliminating them one by one: Agriculture (boring), Anthropology (Brotlose Kunst), Art (Brotlose Kunst) ... and so on. As per the proffered advice, I paid particular attention to the professional colleges, but I steadily, inexorably eliminated them all too: Dentistry (ha), Engineering (boring), Medicine (nope — sick people are gross), etc. I was comprehensively alarmed by the time I got to Theology (ha) as I had almost reached the end of the alphabet without finding anything that made sense to me. There was only one program left. I turned the page and saw Veterinary Medicine written there.
Huh. Veterinary Medicine.
I couldn't think of a counterargument. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more appealing the idea became. This was essentially applied zoology! Moreover, I reasoned that I had always liked dogs and cats, although I had never owned one.
In the impulsive way of 17-year-olds, I decided right then that, yes, this was Plan A. It also helped that the father of a girl I had a crush on was a professor at the vet college. But I knew absolutely nothing about the profession. I hadn't even read James Herriot. Incidentally, for the equally uninitiated, James Herriot was the world's most famous and beloved veterinarian in the latter half of the 20th century on the strength of All Creatures Great and Small, his bestselling memoirs and the popular BBC TV series based on them. He is perhaps now in danger of being eclipsed by Australia's buff "Bondi Vet," but for people of a certain age, Herriot is the veterinarian against which all others are measured. When I did find out more about veterinary medicine, I began to waver (Herriot had the opposite effect on me than he did on most people) and completed a biology degree first, but my faculty adviser echoed my father's advice — get a profession, go into veterinary medicine like you had planned. And so I did.
The great majority of my colleagues had wanted to be veterinarians for as long as they could remember. In most cases they'd had to move a considerable distance to Saskatoon or Guelph to attend veterinary school. Their plan was clear, and their commitment was strong. In contrast I still marvel at the accidental nature of my entry into the profession, a profession that has not only given me a remarkable career, but through which I met my wife and moved to Winnipeg. What would have happened if the U of S hadn't offered Veterinary Medicine, and the last entry in that course catalogue had been Theology?
Some accidents are happy. This is one of them.CHAPTER 3
It was a decade after Bobo the gerbil before another pet came into the house (the pocket gopher never being tame enough to be considered a pet). I continued to want a dog, but only in an abstract sort of way as it was simply not going to happen.
Then, while I was starting second-year biology at the University of Saskatchewan, we moved to an acreage about 20 kilometres southwest of the city. It had always been my father's dream to own land and live in the country. Experimental plasma physicist by day, gentleman farmer by night (and weekends and holidays). He began to collect tractors and then outbuildings to house these tractors.
One late autumn day a black-and-white kitten appeared in the tall grass around one of these outbuildings. It was good mousing terrain, I suppose. It was a boy, and it was probably about 10 weeks old. My parents had no idea what to do. I was preoccupied with school and with being a young adult with a car and a social life (such as it was), so I didn't pay too much attention at first. The kitten was extremely friendly. It would run up to you and immediately begin rubbing on your pant leg, purring at an improbable volume for such a small creature. And in the way of cats who hone in on the least cat-friendly person in any given crowd, he took a special liking to my father.
Winter can hit quickly in Saskatchewan, and it can hit hard. After gentle badgering from the rest of us, my father allowed the kitten to come into the detached garage and began to feed him there. He did this himself, saying he was in there all the time anyway. Sure, it was a nuisance, but not much of one. But the kitten was only to be allowed into the garage, nowhere else. Certainly not the house.
Somewhere around this time the kitten acquired a name. We called him Mook (pronounced like "took") because my mother said that was the chirping sound he made when he head-butted your hand: "mook, mook."
I imagine that many of you have already worked out for yourselves where this story is going. You are absolutely right. As winter set in, the garage became quite cold as well. My father said, "OK, the cat can come into the house, but only the basement. Nowhere else." Our basement stairs had a door at the top, so in theory it was relatively simple to keep him down there. Mook would, however, cry pitifully from behind the door. So soon my father said, "Well, during the day Mook can come up on the main floor, but at night he goes down. And he does not go into the bedrooms or my study."
A few weeks later I came home early from a Saturday running errands in town. My mother and brother were still out. When I came in the front door, I heard an odd sound coming from upstairs. It was a shuffling and scraping noise and the sound of my father chuckling, although he was home alone. I went upstairs and saw that the door to my father's study was open. I peeked inside and saw him on his hands and knees, playing with Mook, both of them delighted.
I started veterinary school two years after Mook came into our lives, and he was my constant study companion. He knew exactly where to lie on my desk so that I wouldn't shoo him off. He made some of the abstractions that were being taught seem more real, and he was a source of comfort when I was stressed.
In 1990 I graduated and moved to Winnipeg. Although I called him "my cat," Mook was really more my parents' cat, so there was no question that he would stay. He continued to have adventures on the acreage, including being quite seriously injured when he was either hit by a car or fell out of a tree, we're not sure which. My mother was visiting family in Germany when this happened, so my father nursed him back to health, giving pills, changing bandages and phoning me frequently for updates and advice. My father had never phoned me any other time for any other reason. Something shifted between us when he did this. Two adults talking together, needing each other. My father passed away two years later.
Then in 2002 my daughter, Isabel, was born. Mook was quite old by that point — I suppose 18, when I do the math. During one of the first visits with the baby to Saskatoon, Mook padded into our room and clambered up onto the bed, where I was holding Isabel, trying to settle her to sleep. Mook curled up beside her, purring. I remember so very clearly how grateful I was to him and how strongly I felt the connection from Isabel to my father through this cat. A living link. I couldn't stop myself from crying.CHAPTER 4
Making the Call
I sometimes have difficulty distinguishing which of my distant memories are directly of an event versus which are of seeing photos of that event. For better or worse, however, this is not as much of a problem for the most of the 1980s, when my parents no longer took photos of me or what I was doing, and before I started taking photos myself. My childhood and my adulthood are both lavishly documented, but that in-between period, when I was in high school and university, is largely a gauzy blur from which only a few memories stand out crisply enough that I have been able to hang on to them and cultivate them as way-posts from the era. One of these memories is of me sitting at the tan-coloured rotary dial telephone on the little desk in the front hall of our house in Saskatoon. I was dialling the number of a local veterinary clinic. Or at least I was trying to.
I was in the second year of my pre-veterinary program through the Department of Biology at the University of Saskatchewan. I was still waffling about applying to the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, but I wanted to keep all my options open. Admission to vet school was mostly based on marks, but they did insist that you have at least some experience working or volunteering in a vet clinic, so that you would have some idea of what you were getting yourself into. I had never been inside of one. Not even briefly. Even if I did go to vet school, it was my intent to use it as a springboard for a career in teaching and research in some aspect of veterinary medicine. But clinical exposure was mandatory regardless, so I made a list of the local clinics and their phone numbers, prioritized by convenience of location. I took this list to the phone and stared at it and stared at the phone. I was terrified. I would begin to dial and then hang up, swear at myself, and then begin to dial again. This was all made worse by the fact that I was extremely self-conscious, so I would only attempt to make the call when none of the rest of my family was home. My mother was almost always home.
It's bizarre to think back on that given how often I have to speak to strangers on the phone now, but at the time the fear absolutely paralyzed me. I doubted that anyone would be interested in having someone with no experience whatsoever hang around their clinic. I imagined these clinics to be full of serious people in starched white lab coats and green surgical scrubs doing serious things. I would only be in the way. I was comfortable in the biology lab. I was happy in the biology lab. I was really beginning to doubt whether this was a good idea.
But I tried again, and eventually I made it through all seven turns of the dial, literally sweating and shaking. A cheerful voice answered right away. "Of course," she said. "No problem. Come down any time. Rosemary loves students and could use a hand."
"Rosemary?" I thought. "The receptionist calls the veterinarian by her first name?" This was my first clue that my expectations were mostly out to lunch.
It was a sunny late spring day. I had the afternoon off from classes and labs and decided to go straight down. I was still very nervous, but the phone call had been the worst part, and once past it I felt a sense of elation that tempered my nervousness. It was a very small clinic with just two seats in the waiting room. There was nobody there. Not only were there no clients, but there was nobody behind the front desk. I stood there for several long moments, unsure of what to do, my anxiety beginning to rise again. Then there was a loud noise from the back, like something metal falling, followed by an emphatic "Bugger!"
I was on the verge of slipping back out the door when a young woman appeared in the hall leading back from the front desk.
"Hi, you must be Philipp!"
"Yes, I am." I extended my hand. "Pleased to meet you."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Accidental Veterinarian"
Copyright © 2019 Philipp Schott.
Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part 1: The Making of a Veterinarian
Bobo the Christmas Gerbil
The Accidental Veterinarian
Making the Call
Hogwarts on the South Saskatchewan
So You Want to Be a Veterinarian
Part 2: The Art of Veterinary Medicine
A Mile Wide
An Open Letter to the Client in the Park
Whose Name I Forgot
Please Repeat That in English
Why Hasn’t the Doctor Called Me Back Yet?
The Lonesome Zebra
Be Kind to Your Veterinarian
All the Wacky People
The Anatomy of a Vet Bill
At the Very Heart of It All
Cats & Dogs & Paranoia
In the Dark
When Darkness Overwhelms
Part 3: The Science of Veterinary Medicine
The Known Unknown Unknowns
The Wild Arctic Chihuahua
The Nature of Nature
The Stoic and the Cassandra
Pilling the Cat
The Firehose and the Pudding
Rainbow of Poo
Begins with the Letter “A”
Bread and Ears
Cough, Hack, Wheeze
That Distemperment Shot
Take the Parka Challenge
The Cats Who Might Be Canaries
The C Word
Making the Decision
Do They Know It’s Christmas?
Cat Goes Mad
When the Sky Goes Boom
Elwood Regrets Nothing
The Ineffable Weirdness of Dentistry
The Ballad of the Prairie Flea
There Are Worms in My Heart
A Dog’s Mind
Part 4: Peculiar Tales from Veterinary Practice
Consider the Ostrich
The Smallest Heart
Spunky Swings Low
Fish of Death
Finnegan vs. the Pot Roast
“Nasty, Big, Pointy Teeth”
What the Seeing Eye Dog Saw
Leroy and the Sombrero
A Thing I Am Terrible At
Edward’s Really Bad Day
Sniff the Teddy
He Ate What?!
About a Duck
Epilogue: Haiku for My Dog