Treating Large Animals is Easier than Treating Small Animals

Updated: October 30, 2014
Published: October 15, 2014
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Recently, my elderly and dilapidated cat, Scabs, who is named for a reason, has had the sneezes, much to my consternation. Scabs is an indoor cat and sleeps 25 hours a day — how could she catch a cold? I mean, she doesn’t DO anything. She’s practically in her own bio-dome, sheltered from the disease and filth of the outside world, with the exception of what we bring in on our shoes. I have a minor suspicion she’s sneezing just to mess with me.

Every veterinarian has a particular body system for every species that they are least comfortable with. The equine reproductive system is one of my challenges — a mare with an infected uterus is a complicated, heartbreaking case for sure, and a least favorite of mine. 

For the feline population, my Achilles’ heel is the respiratory system. 

Cats get asthma, cats get herpes infections that cause upper respiratory problems, cats get weird nasopharyngeal polyps that crop up at the back of their throats, cats get hypersensitivity reactions, cats get heart failure that causes them to cough — in other words, cats are complicated and their tiny little sensitive lungs don’t make things any easier. When I see a coughing cat, I run to my textbooks and consult my small animal colleagues. What am I supposed to do with a sneezing indoor cat? I’m a large animal vet, for crying out loud!

In my opinion, large animal respiratory problems are fairly straightforward. Horses commonly suffer from a condition the old-timers call “heaves,” because in bad cases, the horse is literally heaving for air. Scientifically, heaves is called Recurrent Airway Obstruction, or RAO, and is a sort of asthma-like condition where the horse becomes hypersensitive to some allergen in the environment — sometimes mold or pollen — and will chronically cough due to inflammation in the bronchi.

For cattle and swine, it seems all infectious causes of respiratory disease are conveniently lumped into a catch-all category: BRD (bovine respiratory disease) or SRD (swine respiratory disease). How nice is that?

For poultry respiratory diseases... they usually just die before I can even examine them, so I guess that keeps things pretty simple.

Of course, this is not to say I haven’t had my share of head-scratching respiratory cases in the large animal field. I once had a case of what sounded like severe RAO in a horse that, when I got out to the farm, found the horse dead in the field with no signs of trauma and the owner swearing the horse was just standing there a few moments previously.

Large animal respiratory cases can also become quite complicated when you’re dealing with populations of animals. Does swine flu ring a bell with anyone? Aside from the challenge of managing dozens or even hundreds of sick animals on a single property, cost comes into play and suddenly what’s best for an individual animal may not be what is best for the herd as a whole.

Cat vet challenges are more individualized, such as getting the angry wheezy cat to hold still for a chest X-ray and then interpreting said X-ray. Frankly, I’d rather deal with a barn full of coughing pigs than an angry wheezy cat, but to each her own.

Scab’s temperature is normal and her appetite is good. Her eyes are clear and nothing but an occasional “snick! snick!” in the form of the world’s cutest cat sneeze is worth noting. Just to be thorough, though, tonight I may get out my stethoscope, crusted with manure and lovingly repaired many times with duct tape, and take a listen to Scab’s little feline lungs. Healthy lungs sound the same in almost every species, so at least I’ve got that going for me.

Dr. Anna O'Brien

Image: Sari ONeal / Shutterstock