Most parents are all too familiar with the medical expenses of children. With ear tubes, tonsillectomies, braces, stitches for the inevitable cuts and lacerations—not to mention orthopedic incidents for young athletes—those with youngsters fully understand these incidents as a source of red ink on the family ledger.
The same can often be said of pets, a point well-proven by our Labrador retriever, Bella. Beyond the standard immunizations for getting any puppy off to a healthy start, Bella has had treatment for skin allergies, ear infections, surgeries for neutering, for anal glands and for a recessed vulva (you can Google it) and various and sundry other maladies. Once you’re on this slippery slope and have an emotional attachment to a pet, the odds that you’ll say “no” to such expenses are slim to none.
Bella’s most recent medical incident was surgery to remove a pea-sized tumor just under the skin on her rear leg, to the tune of $500-plus. Not to mention the price paid in several days of worry while waiting for the biopsy report that found the tumor to be benign, and not cancerous.
Typical post-surgery pet care involves keeping Boots or Rex from disturbing the surgical site. Dogs and cats are likely to try to lick the incision, or—even worse—undo those irksome foreign stitches or staples with which your veterinarian so carefully closed the incision. Infection is the first concern. Then, too, there’s the prospect of a longer healing period and more scar tissue if the incision is reopened.
The standard way to prevent your pet licking or reopening an incision is to have them wear a plastic cone that attaches at the neck, and radiates out past their muzzle. Veterinarians call it the “Elizabethan collar,” its conspicuous size and flaring shape suggesting the dress collars worn by England’s Queen Elizabeth I. “Cone of shame” is the everyday term. At least at first, a pet will stumble or be startled and confused when the cone bangs into furniture, doorways or impedes the climbing of stairs.
On the plus side, the cone all but ensures that your pet will be unable to reach their extremities and other points on their body with their mouth. The key words are “all but ensures,” since—as a veterinarian once told me—“some pets will find their way out of a cone like they were Houdini.”
One thing a veterinarian can’t control is how religious the “parents” of the pet will be in supporting their pet’s recovery. When they see that plastic cone on their pet’s neck, and watch their dog or cat bump into things, they’re likely to feel sympathy and be tempted to be lax in enforcement. My wife and I were victims of this misguided sympathy after our Lab’s recent surgery.
The vet’s instructions were clear: “Bella will wear the cone for two weeks, until the stitches are removed.” We’re both a soft touch for people or animals in distress, and Bella—whose last surgery had been nearly five years previous—was clearly distressed as she tried to navigate stairs, and move around furniture and in spaces too narrow for the cone to fit. Before long we had adopted the position of “We’ll watch her closely, and discipline her if she tries to lick or chew on the incision, and use the cone when we can’t.”
Bella seemed to have little interest in investigating her incision, and we gradually became lulled into the belief that we had little to fear if she went “coneless” much of the time. We made sure she slept on our bed at night—her preference anyway!—near enough that we could be aware if she began to chew or lick at the incision. Or so we told ourselves.
It should have been obvious that when we were dead asleep we would probably not know what Bella was up to, no matter how well programmed our subconscious was to be on the alert. Wishful thinking had led us to gradually give her more and more time without the cone, to the point that it was little more than a medical appliance sitting unused in a corner.
It was evening on the fourth day after Bella’s surgery. I had returned home from work and my wife and I were beginning dinner. Bella had been sleeping upstairs, and I called her down to give her the antibiotic that was part of a twice-daily post-surgery routine. I inspected the sutured area, also part of the routine, and noticed that the suture line was darker, and more prominent. A closer look revealed that every one of the half dozen black sutures was missing.
It was 6:30 on a Friday evening. In a panic I called our veterinary clinic, remembering the “emergency” option from the phone system prompts. As expected, I got an answering service, which took down my information with the promise that the veterinarian on call that night would be contacting me.
The veterinarian who responded—from a different clinic—was cautious, as she had a right to be. The wound could not be re-sutured if it had been open too long. If so, it would have to heal without closure, with a longer healing time, and more scarring. If suturing was possible, sedation and re-incising the skin at the site might be required. The cost could be as much as the original surgery; or more.
The bitter taste of self-rebuke was in my mouth as I sped to meet the veterinarian at her clinic, with Bella sitting quietly in the back seat. Bella was delighted to be there, since this clinic is also her boarding kennel, and she is a minor star there. In the examination room came unexpected good news: the edges of the incision had held together well enough that the simpler solution of closing it with surgical staples should do the job.
I held Bella as still as I could, while five times the vet triggered the stapler as it bound her incision firmly back together. The $240 bill for weekend emergency services should not have been a relief, but it was, compared to the prospect of a more expensive re-do of the surgery, or a more lengthy and less-successful healing.
The vet’s last words as I thanked her and left her clinic? “Use that cone!”