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Christmas Past

Ask most vets about Christmas and you’ll get plenty of stories about the weird and wonderful things they’ve done on that special day.  Of course, the truth is, it’s only another day from an animal perspective. Illness and injury have no respect for festivals and holidays, secular or religious.  So just like all the other emergency services, somebody has to be on-call and ready to respond.

Assisting at an animal birth has added poignancy at Christmas, especially if it involves being in a stable or barn.  For dogs, I have always advocated choosing the spring season for mating. The puppies come into the world in early summer, avoiding any chance of a caesarean on Christmas morning.  For farm animals, there is no such luxury for commercial reasons and I have attended many calvings on Christmas Day in years gone by.  

One year I was called from my Christmas lunch not to a cow but a sow.  I was muttering under my breath driving to the farm (I won’t repeat the words). Still, I cheerfully reminded myself that I was quite well equipped for a farrowing, having long arms and small hands. The big difference between a calving and a farrowing is the former is normally done standing up and the latter always on the floor, as sows lie down to give birth.  Now, when I say “floor”, I mean cobbles covered with what you might expect in a pig sty. Albeit with some straw sprinkled over the top.  

So, in order to assist a labouring sow, you have to lie down flat on the “floor”, directly behind the patient, and gradually inch forward, inserting a cleaned and lubricated arm in the time-honoured James Herriot fashion.  Now, the naughty little piggies inside get the idea that someone else is in the room and take evasive action.  What this means is when I touched a piglet’s snout, in an attempt to get my fingers behind its head, it wriggled backwards out of reach of my rescuing hand.  Result: you have to inch in further and further until the inevitable happens and you press your face firmly against the sow’s rear end.  Despite these circumstances, the single-minded desire to help a dozen piglets into this world displaced all thought of physical discomfort, albeit a place they clearly were not keen on entering.

After half an hour or so, I had successfully delivered one big piglet at the cost of an arm that the powerful contractions of the mother, who grunted quite contentedly throughout, had squeezed lifeless. Realising I was reaching my physical limitations, I decided the one member of the litter that was now happily filling up on milk was probably the cause of the whole situation, acting as a cork stuck in a bottle.  Not that my mind was turning to my abandoned lunch with its rather good red wine!  So I reached for a different and, under the circumstances, a much more useful bottle. That of oxytocin solution that I had brought with me and administered a good dose by injection.  

Now, oxytocin is a wonderful hormone but it needs careful use.  As I’m sure many of you know, it enhances uterine contractions and also causes milk let-down.  An excellent combination for the birthing mother.  Unless there’s an obstruction.  Then it’s potentially a disaster as I often explain to dog breeders who request it for their medicine cupboard. A roundabout way of saying no, your whelping bitch cannot have it until after we’ve examined her.  Anyway, back to the farrowing. With fat piglet No.1 now in heaven (all teats available and literally spraying milk) I’m glad to report his litter-mates arrived in quick succession, leaving the farmer and I admiring  the scene with not a small amount of satisfaction.  

All animals have their specific smell, often not unpleasant, but that’s when it’s on them not us.  The most pervasive is the billy-goat. The salt-tang-ammonia scent is somehow resistant to several changes of clothes and multiple showers and hair-washes.  Second is possibly pig, certainly not so bad, but not welcome at the by-then Christmas tea table.  Maybe all the wriggling around on the “floor” ingrained my skin with a certain aroma. Not that I cared a fig as the job was a good ‘un and it was still Christmas Day.

Happy Christmas to all readers and clients from us all. We wish you peace and happiness and a New Year better than some of the last!

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