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  • David Jefferson

She called out “carrion” and dived. He thought she said “carry on” and

for two strokes he flew on. Her position was always a little below, a little to the

right. That space was now empty. He watched her circle down. The kill was off

to the side, not in the middle. Easy pickings, no traffic. It annoyed him that she

always saw the food first, first to dive, first to eat. The others had started to caw

and drop. It was a Squirrel, large, gray. Body split open, guts strewn. Easy

pickings. Carrion.


David A Jefferson, DVM

  • David Jefferson

Unless their work is in a laboratory, any veterinarian you talk to will have his or her war stories of getting hurt by their patients. Large animal vets have their own unique encounters. In dealing with cattle and horses there is always the potential for serious injury. I have been the recipient of a few bites, countless kicks, many body slams, and lots of getting stepped on.

On more than one occasion I have been knocked flat on my back. Thirty years ago an Arabian horse recovering from general anesthesia got up too soon. He was completely disoriented, fell on me, and broke my leg. That followed my removal of his testicles, so we can count that injury as payback. It began a long unplanned vacation. A very opinionated race horse kicked me squarely in the crotch. Great aim! That ended that day’s work. It was an uncomfortable ride home and the start of another vacation.

A friend of mine at vet school was too trusting with a dairy bull. The bull got him in a corner and pressed his head against him in a corner. That episode resulted in the removal of my friends spleen and a few feet of intestine.

A body slam is when a horse wants to be in the space you are occupying and moves in fast. Done slowly and deliberately it’s called crowding. When a horse weighing 1000 pounds moves into your space, you either give way or should have a plan to enable you to stand your ground. When you are in tight quarters with a horse, a plan going in is essential.

Years ago, when I first started in practice, most draft horses were housed in straight stalls, sometimes called slip stalls. These stalls have two high side walls and a front, but no rear wall. It’s like a big wooden chute, 6 feet wide and 8 feet long. The front is cut away so that you can access the manger which is built into the front wall. Hay and grain can be delivered from in front of the stall so that you don’t have to get in with the horse. Horses with feed anxiety don’t pay much attention to the rules of proper behavior.

While straight stalls are rarely seen today, they are educational in teaching how to handle a horse in tight quarters. To lead a horse into a straight stall you walk in with him, on his left side, using a lead shank attached to his halter. At the front of the stall you pick up the end of a rope that is tied to an iron ring attached to the manger. There is a snap on the rope’s free end that attaches to his halter. Once he is secured, you remove your lead and push against his left shoulder so that he will step over to give you some space to get out. The rope securing him is a few feet long. It’s long enough so he can move around, but not so much that he can get a front leg over it. I am describing the stall in detail to highlight what a potentially dangerous place it can be if you are in there with a big horse.

Draft horses used to be the farm’s power source, doing the hard work of plowing, planting, cultivating, logging, and haying. They usually weigh from 1500 to 2000 pounds. In the old days they were put up in straight stalls. Days they were either worked or were in an outside pasture.

Straight stalls made for economical housing as three horses can fit in the same space that one box stall would take up. The only time farmers would go into a straight stall themselves was when they were putting the horse in or taking him out. Grooming, harnessing, and shoeing were all done out on the barn floor. It was just too tight a space in the slip stall for you and the horse, especially if a horse had a tendency to crowd you or to panic.

When you are in a straight stall with a big horse and he moves in your direction, you can only back up so much and you’ll encounter the wooden side wall behind you. Draft horses all had single syllable names for reasons of economy. Moms with kids with long names know that. Horses know their names and simple words like whoa. As they worked in teams, the preferred address is their name first and then the action you want them to take. “Bob, Haw!” or “Sam, Gee!” If you were in the horse’s stall and he started to move your way, you would say, “Pete, git over!”, and push against his shoulder. If that didn’t work, your next move would be to slap him on the rib cage and repeat the command, but louder and sharper: “PETE! GIT OVER!” Occasionally that might be ignored too, and you are suddenly like the guy between a rock and a hard place. The horse may not respond because he is interested in getting to his feed and is not paying attention. Sometimes, rarely, you might have a willful horse on your hands.

An oldtimer who worked his horses in the woods shared his knowledge with me about handling such situations. He always carried a 10 penny nail in his shirt pocket. A 10 penny is three inches long. If crowded by the horse, he would reach into this pocket, grab the nail and hold it in his fist with just about ½ inch of the point exposed. If the first, “Pete, git over”, didn’t get a response, he would hold the nail against the horse’s side. It wasn’t a jab, it was more like a steady push. Horses have very sensitive skin, and their immediate reaction is to quickly step away from anything sharp. It takes very little pressure, and should always be accompanied by “Pete, git over!” so that the next time just the command will make the horse move. Another old timer told me, “No sir, I never use a nail. I make a fist with my left hand but leave my thumb ticking out. One good poke in the eye with my thumb and they move. Works every time.” I can tell you from a couple of experiences, he was right.

Working with cattle and horses you have to be quick on your feet and be able to predict their next move. Horses in particular clearly telegraph what they are about to do. I call the expression on their face and their ear carriage the crystal ball. When you are around an animal that outweighs you, it’s important to be aware of what their intentions are. If you are mindful, the chance of getting hurt is minimal. It’s interesting that horses can be dangerous even as they are being euthanized. You can’t predict which way a horse will fall in this procedure, and following your vet’s exact instructions at that time is critical.

  • David Jefferson

My first job out of vet school was with Dr Fred Erb of Landaff, New Hampshire. Fred had an old fashioned set of values and the respect of all his clients. He was proud of his German heritage. He was not a particularly tall man, but he had a barrel chest, a deep voice, and was very strong. He also had a loud “har de har har” laugh you could hear the next farm over. The episode that characterizes Fred for me happened during my first year of working for him. I had called for help. He gave me that, but also gave me a good standing with a client when he could have thrown me under the bus.

I was on a dystocia case in a cow named Blossom. The word dystocia means difficult birth, and that is what she was going through. Blossom was a black and white Holstein, which is one of the bigger breeds. Fortunately, the farm was just a 10 minute drive from the office. Harry, her owner, told me that Blossom had been straining for a few hours with no results. He stood next to her hind end and held her tail around to the side so it wouldn’t be in my way. I first put on a plastic glove and sleeve and lubricated it to do a rectal exam for a quick evaluation. In cows the rectal exam gives lots of information. As you feel through the rectal wall, you are able to explore the uterus, ovaries, and the fetus. I didn’t have to go in much past my forearm to feel the fetus’s head and forelegs. He or she was in the right position, head and forelegs heading toward the birth canal. I started bouncing the calf by pushing down over its shoulders. The calf reacted by pulling away. That was good news. We had a live calf!

I backed out of the rectum and pulled off the sleeve that was coated with Blossom’s manure. Then I washed her hind end with soap and water until everything was squeaky clean. After that I rolled up the sleeve of my shirt and scrubbed my right arm and hand. I pulled on a sterile glove and sleeve and applied lubricant liberally up and down my arm. Then I coned my hand and gently slid it into Blossom’s birth canal.

I was able to grab one of the calf’s feet, but that’s all. I kept wondering, she seems to want to calve, and all of her pelvic ligaments are relaxed, but why is there no room in here. Everything felt very cramped. What was I missing! After a couple of minutes I realized I was over my head. I pulled the sleeve off and said to Harry,

“I really don’t know what’s going on here. I’m going to see if Dr Erb is at home.”

I called Fred on the vehicle Motorola radio (this was long before cell phones) and was relieved to get him right away.

“Fred, I’m over my head on a calving case at Harry’s. Can you come bail me out?”

As we waited for Fred’s arrival I made small talk with Harry. As we talked I felt restless, wondering what I was missing with this birth. Fred arrived, joking with everyone as he always did. After scrubbing up, he lubed up his arms, and dove in. No sterile sleeves for Fred. He always said, “I can feel more this way.” He fussed around for about 5 minutes, did some grunting, used a lot of body mechanics, got up a mild sweat, and then said:

“There, I think I got things going. I’m pooped. You take back over. ” I did, and now everything inside that cow made sense. There was the calf’s head, cradled as it should be on its front legs. What did Fred do in there? I delivered a rambunctious bull calf. Back at the office he sat me down.

“That was a uterine torsion. It was about as complete a twist as I’ve ever seen. When the uterus is twisted like that, it rotates the whole birth canal. It’s no wonder you couldn’t make heads or tails of it.”

“We learned about it in school, but I’ve never seen one, and I’m not sure I have the strength to correct it like you did.”

“That didn’t take strength. All that grunting was a show put on for Bill so he wouldn’t think you were a dumb-dumb.”

“Well, it looked like you were working hard.”

“Nope. I had the correction done right away. What you do is slide your hand into the birth canal, and follow the folds to find out how complete the torsion is and in what direction it is going: clockwise or counterclockwise. Then you grab one of the calf’s legs and push straight ahead. For just a second the calf is floating in the uterine fluid. Use the leg you have as a lever to flip the calf’s body over. The uterus will unwind at the same time. It just takes some coordination. It was one more thing I wasn’t taught in vet school. I said that Dr Erb was very strong. I tried flipping these cases after that, but just didn’t have the upper body strength to flip things around.

Some vets will roll a cow with a uterine twist onto her back and lay a plank across her abdomen. Believe it or not, one or two men stand on the plank, and two more roll the cow in the correct direction. The pressure of the plank makes the uterus stay in one spot, and the cow untwists around it. If this sounds complicated, it is, and truth be told, I was never able to make it work myself.

In any event, Harry never knew how Fred saved face for me that day, and I was always grateful for that kindness.