Fence Fighters


Part 1
Did that really happen?
Emotions matter but they can certainly interfere. Back in the day one day, before the advent of computers, I stood in our treatment room, writing notes in a hospitalized pet’s medical record hoping to go home to dinner, when Martha, our unflappable client service person, derailed my focus. Nothing unusual; interruptions are the meaning of life in a veterinary clinic.

“Dr. Nichol, a lady on the phone says that the dog next door has torn the leg off her heeler. What should I tell her?” Really? In the space of one second, my mind darted from: when frightened by sudden events people exaggerate often minor injuries to: could that have actually happened? And so I replied, “Tell her to bring that dog right in”. How ever severe the problem truly was, it would need our help.

During the next 20 minutes I finished my records while my mind recalled other hyperboles of past panic. “There was blood everywhere” and “He vomited all over me”. As we waited for the arrival of an injured pet we needed to be ready for anything. When Martha reappeared in the treatment room the look on her face said it all.

Wasting no time I headed for the front desk. Standing with a leash in one hand, and the complete right front leg of a blue heeler in the other, was a mother of two nearby youngsters. At the end of the leash stood, on 3 legs, a rather unconcerned blue heeler.

Well, you don’t waste time thinking about how in the heck this could happen. As I scooped that pupster up and hustled him into the treatment room I gave orders for IV catheter, fluids, and rapid acting corticosteroids. While Bruce, our competent but sometimes headstrong veterinary assistant, gently held our patient I completed an efficient exam. The dog’s front leg had been literally ripped-off. Not even the shoulder blade remained, only torn nerves, muscles, and arteries – temporarily spasmed shut. The dog showed no clear signs of shock – yet. It was remarkable.

Emergency medications were flowing fast. Anesthesia was started and the “amputation site” was prepped and sterilized. As we hurried this lucky-unlucky dog into surgery I realized I hadn’t said a word to his family. While quickly scrubbing I summoned Martha for a quick word. “Please inform these folks that their dog’s situation is tenuous but ‘So far, so good’. I’ll share updates as we go.”

Part 2

Surgery by Dog
Surgical amputations are unfortunate but sometimes necessary. We like to fix problems rather than removing body parts. I’ve done plenty of these. The anatomy is complicated; a good doctor follows established procedure. “Blue” the blue heeler didn’t benefit from any of that until he landed on my operating table. His amputation was performed by the golden retriever next door who, unless I missed my guess, was not a trained surgeon.

Treating the wound, where Blue’s right front leg once lived, was not my only priority. He’d suffered significant fluid loss when this appendage was unceremoniously ripped from his body only 30 minutes before his arrival at my veterinary hospital. As generous volumes of IV fluids restored his blood pressure, the severed arteries began to leak. My training and experience served him well. I was able to quickly identify and ligate the big vessels and then concentrate on the smaller branches. Electrocautery made quick work of stanching the loss.

As our blood pressure, oxygen saturation, and ECG monitors reported Blue’s vitals I felt gratitude for this boy’s otherwise robust health. I fitted his remaining shoulder muscles back together, sutured the deeper tissues, and finally the skin. Our patient remained remarkably stable but he wasn’t out of the woods.

All anesthetic recovery cases deserve careful observation; there were multiple watchful eyes focused on Blue as he began to blink and stir. When I was satisfied that he was really on his way we added pain medication. I then pulled off my surgery gown and headed for a meeting with the nervous family to share the good news. I found out how, during a fracas with the retriever next door, Blue had become an instant amputee.

I learned something else, a valuable lesson that I carry with me to this day. Fear can strike hard when someone you love, whatever the species, suffers an injury. Frantic phone calls may contain exaggerations. But when Blue’s person telephoned that her dog’s leg had been torn off, well, she was not inflating the facts. Opportunities to practice empathy never take a day off.

Part 3

Unhealthy ‘neighbor’ relations
“Blue’s” backyard was separated from the neighbor’s by your average chain link fence. Some dogs ignore this contrivance but for others it’s a formula for disaster. Think about Blue if your dog engages in through-the-fence displays of aggressive madness, aka fence fighting. If these dogs were actually fencing, I’d be less concerned.

Dogs communicate almost continually. They’re genetically programmed to protect territory as well as to connect socially. Fences get in the way and often lead to trouble.

The natural response to the approach of another dog is body signaling that conveys their intentions. These greeting rituals require freedom of movement for sizing each other up, along with rear end sniffing for identification. A clear sign of a budding friendship is competitive urinating.

Blue and the golden retriever next door had a long history of running the fence, growling, barking, and snapping. Unable to interact like normal dogs they became intensely frustrated by that @#%&* “artificial” barrier! The signals they swapped were bizarre and provocative. Their people had assumed that all this racket was just an annoyance, until Blue’s leg poked through the fence. The golden on the other side grabbed it instantly, hard and fast, literally tearing it off. This could have ended much worse.

Never believe that events like this can only occur once. Even a hint of trash talking at the property line absolutely must be prevented. For Blue and the dog next door to abandon their mutual enmity it was imperative that they never see each other again. Avoidance of the arousal trigger was the only legitimate solution. Finger pointing between neighbors could have driven the discussion but these folks loved their pets and were ready to work together. I advised them to combine resources to eliminate the risk. Fence covers are available on the Internet. A block wall would be even better.

Everyday there are opportunities to solve problems with cooperation and compassion. Blue is now safe, active, and playful on 3 legs. We hope he has forgiven his neighbor, a dog he never sees.