ETCETERA / Other people's jobs: No7 The Vet

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I niftily step around an unfortunate loop of dog-dirt; move from the breezy outdoors and into the compacted animal smells of the reception area of the veterinary practice. I sit down. The man next to me reads a leaflet which asks itself What Makes a Cat a Cat? Sitting opposite are two young women with toy-sized dogs held glamorously between their breasts. One of these dogs, wearing a natty, multi-strapped tartan waistcoat, has hot, sharp, frightened eyes. Other people are arranged around the room with their boxed, basketed, tea-

towelled or merely reined-in cats and dogs, and the whole effect is Walt Disney. A roomful of watchful eyes, the velvety texture of fur, the strange hairlessness of humans. There is a shared atmosphere of faint trepidation.

An enormous, stately Alsatian precedes its soft, sweating owner into the room. A bangled woman, holding a dark cat on her lap, says admiringly to herself, 'That's a big dog]' As the animal brings its full weight and length into the room, it is apparent that its rump has been shorn, and a neat sickle of white stitches is visible.

Conscious of my solitary, uncoupled state, I stand up and make my way past an illustrated chart which lists the common dog breeds: 'Pug; charming, do not overexert.' The chart reveals that dogs are most often 'noble, affectionate, keenly intelligent, charming and affable'. I pass a sadder poster which tells me, 'One day: the time will come to say goodbye', and make my way past the X-ray room and abunker full of cages to an operating room where Carol, the veterinary surgeon, is working with Keith, the veterinary nurse.

If I could extend the dog-chart descriptions, I might describe Carol as keenly intelligent, watchful, steady, exact, brisk and requiring plenty of exercise; whereas Keith appears dutiful, rewarding, intuitive and friendly, with a touch of self-deprecation.

Carol's first operation today is marked down as an 'OH Queen'. In other words, a cat is going to be spayed, a very common and necessary operation.

'Do you do as many castrations as spayings, Carol?'

'No, curiously enough. Owners don't have the responsibility of kittens with a tom cat. Male owners sometimes tell me I'm being very cheeky to suggest they have their cat's manhood taken away. 'Spaying is different,' they say.'

Keith holds the obliging cat, Black Bess, in an expert, paw-disabling clinch while Carol trims a patch of fur from a hind leg and, finding a vein, injects general anaesthetic. The unconscious cat is stretched out on the operating table with lengths of silky blue rope tied to its front and hind legs.

'It's a bit like a rack isn't it?'

'Yes, sometimes the owners think their cat's grown six inches,' says Keith.

Carol scrubs up with antiseptic fluid. She seems to enjoy this long, finger-by-finger procedure. 'I get carried away sometimes.'

Carol removes a patch of fur from the cat's flank and secures a fresh blade in her scalpel. She slices through the epidermis - the cut is about half an inch long - and neatly snips away fatty tissue. Keith gives the cat another squirt of anaesthetic.

'The muscle was pulling back a little,' explains Carol. 'Now I've just got to delve in and hope I've got the right bit. I don't suppose you are squeamish?'

It does not take much delving and one 'horn' of the uterus emerges and is clamped with crushing forceps, to prevent haemorrhage, and snipped through. Keith stands opposite Carol with a box of catgut reels. ('It's not really cat gut, that would be a little ironic.') He passes a length of catgut of the appropriate weight to Carol, and a ligature is knotted round the uterine tube.

The horn of the uterus trails along the shorn patch and is joined by the second horn, again expertly located through the tiny slit. The two horns look like fleshy earthworms on a grey bit of smooth land.

'Presumably it is rare for a cat to have a kitten after this operation?' I banter weakly, feeling slightly ill.

'No, they shouldn't have. They also tend to make better pets. The urge to roam around diminishes.'

I sit down heavily on a chair and drink from a glass of water Keith considerately provides. I revive. 'Sometimes the smell in here can get to you,' explains Carol.

'Do they still have sexual relationships?'

'They shouldn't but sometimes they do. Keith's cats are a prime example.'

'Yes. Mine are two castrated men.'

'I think Keith's are just frisky, though; just playing.'

'Are they Keith?'

'I wouldn't like to say.'

After removing what has to be removed Carol tidily sews up the opening with a clever under-the-skin stitch, 'so there's nothing for the cat to get hold of. Very much better.' The stitches will dissolve.

'She's the best stitcher here. She should get a stitching medal,' says Keith.