Dan was a nine year old Springer Spaniel who loved strenuous physical exercise. His owner, Dr Mullen, was a medical doctor who was an enthusiastic hill walker, so they made a good team. They would spend days off in the Dublin mountains together on six-hour hikes through the countryside. Dan was brought to see me because he had developed an irritating cough, and Dr Mullen was worried.
The cough did not affect Dan during exercise. He was still able to run for hours without any problem, but the following morning, immediately after getting up, he would cough repeatedly as he walked around the room. It seemed to be a productive cough: sometimes he swallowed after the cough, and other times Dr Mullen found patches of white phlegm on the floor. When Dan had been up and about for half an hour, the cough seemed to clear, and he’d be fine for the rest of the day.
I started by physically examining Dan. I listened carefully to his chest with my stethoscope. He had the perfect heartbeat of a fit dog, with slow steady sounds and no murmurs or irregularities. His lungs, however, sounded noisier than normal, with some wheezes and crackles. He definitely had some type of lung disease, and further tests were needed.
The following day, Dan was anaesthetised, X-rays were taken, an endoscope was used to directly view the lining of his airways, and finally tiny biopsies were taken of the many red sore areas that we could see. Dr Mullen called in three days later to discuss the full results of our investigations.
“I can say for certain that Dan is suffering from Chronic Bronchitis”, I began. “The initial X-rays suggested that that there was thickening of his lower airways, and using the endoscope, we could see that the thickening was because of inflammation of the lining of the small tubes of the lungs, known as ‘bronchi’. The biopsy of the red, swollen areas confirms that the disease process is simple inflammation, with nothing sinister going on. Finally, he has a mild bacterial infection in his lungs.”
Dr Mullen asked me if an antibiotic would completely cure his dog.
“Although antibiotics will help him, for a complete cure, he needs to go onto long term medication using other drugs. The chronic bronchitis probably started out with a simple infection, but there is now also an irritant and allergic aspect to the disease. The tiny particles of dust, smoke and pollens that are always in the air are perpetuating the bronchitis. We’ll use two drugs to help him. Firstly, a ‘broncho-dilator’, which will widen his airways and lessen the tight narrowing of the bronchi that is making them irritated. Secondly, a low dose of steroids will directly lessen the irritation. We’ll modify his dose of each drug so that he should be able to live a normal, symptom free life without side effects from medication.” There are other options for treatment, including an inhaler mask, but this treatment was my standard first stage.
Dan was sent home with three containers of tablets, and twice-daily medication ritual became part of his routine. I saw him again two weeks later, and the cough had almost completely stopped. He was suffering some side effects from the steroids, with increased thirst and appetite, but we were then able to reduce the dosage, so that he was given tablets only on every second day. When he came back a full month later, Dr Mullen was delighted.
“His cough has vanished completely”, he told me. “And he is enjoying his walks more than ever. The only problem is that he’s wearing me out! Do you know any tonic pills for a fifty-five year old human?”
Oscar, a ten year old cat, had started to lose weight, despite the fact that he was eating well. His coat had begun to look bedraggled, as if he was not grooming himself as much as usual. His owner had noticed him visiting his water bowl more frequently, and she had needed to fill up the bowl every day, rather than every three days.
When I examined him it was clear that Oscar had lost a significant amount of weight. His ribs were prominent, and I could feel the sharp tips of the bones of his back. When I weighed him, I discovered that he had lost a kilogram since his previous visit.
Physically, I could find no obvious cause of a problem, so I decided that a blood profile was needed. Fifteen minutes later, the printout from the biochemistry analyser gave me the clear-cut diagnosis of his illness.
Oscar’s blood glucose was around four times higher than normal. The only possible reason for this was the condition known as diabetes mellitus. Oscar’s pancreas had stopped producing the hormone called insulin, and as a result, his blood glucose was not being controlled. Weight loss, ravenous appetite and copious thirst are classical signs of diabetes, in cats just as in humans and dogs.
As I explained the diagnosis to his owner, I could see a worried furrow developing across her brow. I explained that Oscar’s condition was treatable, but that he would need to have a daily injection of insulin for the rest of his life. Her shoulders slumped, and she looked at me sadly. “Nobody would dare to give Oscar an injection”, she told me. “He’d just get so annoyed with us if we tried something like that!”
I reassured her that the injection was given with an ultra-fine needle, and that only a tiny amount of liquid would be needed. For a cat of Oscar’s size, the volume of insulin would probably be around one hundredth of a teaspoonful, which is literally a single drop. It was very likely that he would barely notice the injection.
I demonstrated the injection technique, using a piece of fruit – an orange – as a practice target. It took a few attempts until she had learned to hold the syringe correctly, but soon she was able to insert the needle steadily and firmly into the orange. She was still very anxious about injecting her cat, so we decided that it would be best for her to bring him in to see me for his injection every morning for the first week.
The technique was simple. I gave Oscar a bowl of his favourite food, and as he lowered his head to eat, I quickly slipped the injection into the scruff of his neck. He stopped eating for a moment, and looked suspiciously at me before recommencing his meal. On day three, his owner gave the injection herself, and by day five, she was able to do this quickly and confidently.
After several dose adjustments over a few weeks, Oscar’s blood glucose had returned to normal. At the same time, his owner reported that his excessive thirst had disappeared. It seemed that his diabetes had been controlled.
The success of his treatment was confirmed at his final visit six weeks later. As the cage door was opened, Oscar stepped out in a confident and dignified fashion, with his head held high. He had put on weight, he was grooming himself again, and even his whiskers looked alert and bristling. He was definitely a healthy cat again.