Predatory Aggression – Lucky to be alive

woman grey poodle

Bad Guts
Early in my career my veterinary clinic had a feed store as a next-door neighbor. Being a backyard poultry farmer, I visited often for chicks (baby chickens, that is) and lay pellets. I lived the life of North valley chic. The only thing missing was the chic.

This was the pre-emergency clinic era; veterinarians handled calls at all hours, day or night. If you had an associate doctor you could rotate nights and weekends. At my place, I was it.

It was a weeknight around 10:30; I was just snuggling into bed after a long day when my pager beeped on the cramped bedside table right next to my head. (Remember pagers?) An 11 year old miniature poodle had survived an argument with a German shepherd. The female voice on the phone was distraught, jabbering. She told me that her little dog, “John”, had intestines hanging outside his abdomen. Desperately hoping she was mistaken I replied, “I’ll meet you in 10 minutes.”

My client, an elderly lady, arrived just before I did. I hustled ahead of her to unlock the front door and switch on the lights. My first look at John, cradled in her arms, revealed that his person had not exaggerated.

Heat dissipates fast from exposed intestines. A quick exam revealed that John was already shocky, his body temperature trending down. Having already called my excellent veterinary nurse Amos, I wrapped that pupster in our hot water circulating blanket, applied a torniquet to a front leg to raise a vein, and started IV fluids and rapid acting corticosteroids. As soon as Amos busted through the door he began clipping, scrubbing, and gently bathing our patient’s intestines. With the little guy’s vital signs improving I led his nervous wreck owner to a seat in reception for a Cliff’s Notes version of our plan.

There could be no guarantee of success but because she had acted fast her dog had a decent chance of survival. I sent her home to wait for my post-operative phone call. With anesthesia underway in Amos’s capable hands I scrubbed, gowned, gloved, and headed for surgery.

The Geek Next Door
I admit to being an annoying adherent to the Queen’s English, having shaken my head when hearing the noun ‘geek’ misappropriated. In our highly digitized society people can be fondly referred to this way or even adorn themselves with this moniker. It was not always so.

Miller’s Feed store was a bit like the bar in “Cheers.” Doing business there was accompanied by constant chirping, cackling, and occasional crowing, with the added bonus of colorful if tasteless humor, making my visits with Jay Miller and his staff a bright spot in my day. Among his cadre of slingers of hay bales and 50# feed sacks was “Red”. The bright crimson bushy hair on his cabeza and chin suggested that, while descriptive, this wasn’t his real name. Known for his rather strange comments Red struck me as a odd fellow right from the start.

It was around this interesting time that John, the 11 year old miniature poodle with penetrating abdominal wounds, graced my operating table. At about 11 PM on the night I met his intestines I was determining which portions would live and which simply could not make it. Factors such as blood flow and the color of the tissue enter that in-the-moment decision. I removed two sections of devitalized bowel, sutured the ends together, and copiously irrigated his abdomen with warm saline.

Despite IV antibiotics and sterile technique, John could still be at risk of a raging peritonitis. I installed irrigation tubes in his abdomen as I closed with 3 layers of durable suture. We nursed that little guy for 4 days before I acknowledged that he could finish recovering at home. Later that day I dropped in next door for a sack of hen scratch and, of course, the joke du jour.

There was a missing face. Over the sound of dozens of foul, without thinking that it was none of my business, I blurted, “Where’s Red today?” With a somber face Jay replied, “I had to fire him. He turned out to be a geek.”


Turkey Jerky?
John bounced in the door for his suture removal 10 days later. If it weren’t for his undignified tummy haircut you would never suspect that he’d been disemboweled by a dog 8 times his size. Happy endings is what we’re all about. It was shaping up to be a good day.

The door had hardly closed when a man and his granddaughter arrived carrying a cardboard box – never a good sign. Martha at the front desk took a peek, raised a quick index finger, and grabbed the box. I was irrigating an ear canal as she zipped into the treatment room. The 5 day old turkey, looking confused but active, had a loop of intestine hanging from an open abdominal wound. OMG! Was this “John” with feathers? While examining the hapless poult I asked Amos to fired up the warm water blanket.

Talking briefly with my turkey clients I learned that they had rudely interrupted their neighbor’s dog as she dropped by their coop for lunch. I explained the frailty of their young, badly injured creature and the at-home nursing care he’d require. I actually had them until I presented a really low cost estimate. Grampa and child exchanged looks. The senior gentleman replied that replacing this bird, at the feed store next door, would be far cheaper. They opted for euthanasia.

I hate that. But how could I argue? So, admitting that I too was a turkey raiser, I offered to treat the little cuss and keep him if he survived. They gladly gifted me their bronze feathered peeper and vanished.

Anybody of any species who steps on his own guts takes priority. Amos customized a syringe barrel as an anesthetic mask to fit the tiny beak. A few blows of oxygen and halothane gas and our patient was deeply asleep.

You don’t clip the surgery site on a bird because, well, they don’t have hair. Instead I plucked carefully, scrubbed, and rinsed. Turkey John also needed fluids.


Tiny instruments; quick, steady hands
Anybody with a major trauma, including a 5-day-old eviscerated turkey, is assumed to be shocky. Blood vessels lose their tone, meaning that their diameter expands – fast. Blood pressure drops like a stone. The best surgical skill is meaningless if the heart and brain fail because they’re oxygen starved.

Feathered “John” (namesake of the aforementioned poodle) needed a rapid fluid infusion to fill up his vessels and raise his blood pressure. The little squirt weighed mere ounces; attempting to find a vein would have been an exercise in futility. Luckily, bone marrow can distribute fluids almost as fast.

I scrubbed a spot at the top of one of young John’s femurs (thigh bone) and inserted a hypodermic needle into the shaft of the thin walled appendage. A generous dose of lactated ringers solution was pushed in as a bolus. Then we marched the kid into surgery.

Only tiny instruments would serve our purpose; I directed Amos to ready our sterilized eye surgery pack. I made a skin incision and, astonishingly, found no damaged or leaking intestines. After thorough abdominal irrigation and careful trimming of the wounds in turkey John’s muscle layer and skin, I stitched him back together. As I tied the last suture Amos switched off the anesthesia. About 15 minutes later the little devil (John, not Amos) shook his head and wobbled to his feet.

John needed syringe feeding and warmth for a few days but pretty soon he was pecking for hen scratch and lay pellets with my other poults as though his innards had never had a bad day.

Of course, we had to call our recovering turkey “John” because he’d suffered a ravaging much like John the poodle – who was very clearly male. It was a few weeks later that a retired livestock veterinarian and personal friend, Dr. Leonard Vader, visited. “Doc” had a whole career of farm animal medicine behind him. Observing my happily pecking poultry population, he pointed to John and said, “Jeff, I think that poult is actually female.” What!!!???

aggressive dog

Can a dog who’s tasted blood ever be trusted?

Birds are rather different than mammals; it’s more than feathers vs. hair. Like us, it takes a male and a female to reproduce but their sex organs are internal. Turkey toddlers all looked alike to me until they reached middle school. Little John was only a few weeks old when the far more experienced Dr. Leonard Vader gently enlightened me regarding this tyke’s sexual identity. “Doc” had practiced livestock medicine since 1951. He didn’t miss much.

Surgical skills I learned in veterinary school saved the lives of John the poodle and John the turkey but I remember struggling with the horrifying aggression that nearly ended each life. What can you do with a dog who tries to kill other animals? Would people and other pets be at risk? Can a dog who has “tasted blood” ever be trusted?

Dogs are man’s and woman’s best friends for good reasons. We share similar social behaviors like forming groups for defense of resources, raising young, and for hunting. Dogs make great pets in part because they regard us as leaders. There’s more. They love us but they are also influenced by genetically programmed survival behaviors. We put good store-bought food in their bowls but a small defenseless creature can still trigger knee-jerk predation.

The dog who almost had young turkey John for lunch wouldn’t worry me much with pets or kids. The German shepherd who attacked John the 11 year old poodle, on the other hand, may also have been predatory but in an inappropriate way. A smaller member of the same species should never have been on her menu. The sometimes erratic movements of human infants and the frail elderly could trigger the same reflex from that dog. A thorough behavioral evaluation would answer vital questions about a pet with this criminal past.

Doc and I forged our friendship during my mid-twenties. I hadn’t been raised with kindness; this man was patient and wise – the father figure I had desperately needed. He has long since passed but his wisdom and empathy live on.