James Herriott Moments

If you love animals and have an interest in veterinary medicine, you have probably read James Herriott’s books (All Creatures Great and Small, etc.). [ If you haven’t read them, you will enjoy them, so go read them.  Then you can finish reading this some other time.]

In many ways, my first year in practice was much like his.  We both went to work for a picturesque older veterinarian in a beautiful but foreign (to us) countryside.  We both were full of scientific knowledge, but woefully short on experience in practice and in dealing with our clients, particularly since our clients came from a different cultural background than we did.  While there had certainly been many advances in medicine and technology between his first year in the 1930s and mine in 1978, some things never change.  Animals still get sick and people still care about them. Veterinarians and clients still have occasional disagreements over differing expectations and failures to communicate.  You laugh, you cry.

Herriott’s books are autobiographical, but they are written as novels, rather than historical records.  This means that he leaves out a lot of dull stuff and does a great job of presenting things in a humorous or dramatic fashion, as the case demands.  Not that he is making anything up, as heaven knows truth is stranger than fiction, and there is no need to embellish it.  On the other hand, there are a lot of what I call "James Herriott Moments" where just as he is about to drive away from the farm, or just as the patient is about to die, or just as the mystery seems unsolvable, Dr. Herriott has a flash of intuition that saves the day. 

When I was a kid, my father (who was an attorney) would often comment that one of Perry Mason’s dramatic tactics was actually not something that could really happen, such as presenting a "surprise witness".  I asked why they would put something so inaccurate in the program and he replied, "Because it makes a better story that way."

I have no doubt that James Herriott saved the day many times, and dramatically, too.  I do have some doubts that his flash of intuition was always so dramatic and just in the nick of time.  However, I don’t begrudge his telling of the story that way, because it does make a better story that way.  Also, if you filled the book with anecdotes about how you figured things out a week later when it was too late, it would never have made the best-seller list.

I must admit that some of my James Herriott Moments have definitely come too late.  Most cases are not solved by flashes of intuition, however, but by systematic detective work.  You take a careful history that includes everything about the pet’s lifestyle and what he’s been doing lately.  You cross-reference the problems with known breed-related problems.  A thorough physical examination and laboratory tests (if needed) round out your collection of facts.  These get processed to give you a list of the most likely causes, and then you work through those.  If you’re hitting the wall, you consult with a specialist, or send the case to the specialist if the people can go.

Sometimes, though, you DO have a James Herriott Moment, and it’s pretty cool.  This apparently obscure and difficult problem presents itself and somehow you just know what’s going on and what to do about it.  You still need to confirm with testing or response to treatment (because your intuition might be wrong; it has been before, sometimes), but it’s pretty sweet  when this happens, especially if it’s a long-standing problem that’s been seeing three other doctors. Of course, a little luck doesn’t hurt, either.  That luck factor is why you never bad-mouth the other doctors.  You don’t know what things looked like when they saw it.

I had a James Herriott moment just the other day.  This ninety-eight pound German Shepherd came in with a history of an ear infection going on for five months.  His ears were rather sore and swollen.  The owner had never been able to put any medication in the ears at home, due to the dog’s pain, size, and generally uncooperative disposition.  This is bad, as one is very unlikely to treat an ear infection successfully without touching the ear.  The previous veterinarian had been periodically anesthetizing the dog to clean and treat the ear.  Of course, it would quite an ordeal to do that every day for a week or two, which is the kind of treatment ear infections usually need.  So, they’d treat him, and then the owner would take him home and do nothing until he couldn’t stand it any longer, and they’d do it again.

Even though the ears were horrible and the dog went nuts if you got close to them, I did manage to get a diagnostic swab.  They were too swollen to get a scope into, even if I had anesthetized him, so we didn’t bother with that.  Under the microscope, the swab showed mostly yeast (which need to be dealt with , but are ALWAYS secondary to something else), and (here’s the lucky part) half an ear mite.  The ear mite is lucky for two reasons: the first is that I found it when the other guy missed it, and I am sure he was looking; the second is that ear mites are SO treatable, as opposed to some underlying allergic condition that would have to be managed for life. 

The James Herriott Moment thing is that my plan to treat an ear infection without touching the ears worked (which was by no means a sure thing).  We put him on prednisone orally to relieve the inflammation, shrink the swelling and reduce the pain.  Ketoconazole orally to kill the yeast from the inside out as he grows a new layer of skin.  Revolution goes systemically to begin killing the ear mites by oozing out with the new ear wax he makes.

In seven days, we rechecked him, and he was ninety percent improved without ever touching his ear.  Then we put a muzzle on and I just put my finger in his ear for a few minutes. He finally quit going nuts because he realized that his ear didn’t hurt any more.  After that, I was able to look into his ear canals, flush them out and medicate them, although he was still pretty wacky about it.  He’s continuing his other treatment, too, and he is going to get well (after FIVE months, Whoo-Hoo!)

It’s a James Herriott Moment, folks.

8 thoughts on “James Herriott Moments

  1. Stanley Lajeuness says:

    I’m so sorry to bother with this but like a lot of people my dog is my baby he goes literally everywhere with me in the summer I leave the cert running and he gets a bottle of water he has learned how to drink out of a sports bottle without getting it everywhere but unfortunately I cannot afford to take him to the vet but lately he has been whining and pawing at his ears mainly the left naturally we thought ear mites but they are very clean and have no odor from what I’m told that they would be very dirty and have an odor can anyone give me an idea of what to do to check what’s wrong I he has only done this a few times but I don’t want him in any discomfort at all thank you for taking time toread this and thank you for any advice given

  2. Doc says:

    Hello, Stanley,

    This could be anything from bad allergies (sometimes they break out inside the ear canal instead of elsewhere on the skin, like you might think) to a foreign object down in the ear canal.

    I don’t know how to sort this out without actually looking in the ear with a scope.

    I would not put any medicine in the ear, as if the eardrum is damaged, it could get into the middle ear and damage it.

    Sorry I don’t have a way to help you long distance on this.

  3. Susan says:

    Hello Doctor, Guess you stopped posting in 2015, but YOUR site is unequaled/ the best!
    Learned somthing about ear problems & etc too. My cat was treated by a vet for mites with antibiotic, chlorhexidine flush and silver sulfadiazine 1% cream on outer ear flap 2X daily for about 4 weeks now.
    Unfortunately he kept shaking his head badly,
    the ear kept bleeding & I now wrap gauze bandage over ear but keeps bleeding What do now ? Guess to new vet/ amputate ear flap 🙁

  4. Doc says:

    Hello, Susan,
    Thanks for your kind words. I’m working on a few post topics now.

    There’s got to be something going on besides mites.

    Unless your cat has skin cancer in his ear, I doubt that amputation will be necessary. However, it does sound like it’s time to seek a second opinion.

    If this were a dog, we’d be on pain medications for a situation like this, but there are so few that a cat can take on a continuing basis.

    I do think that something is being missed somehow when you discuss no improvement in four weeks.

  5. Susan says:

    Hello Doc- Thank you for response. My white cat had to have part of both ear flaps removed due to tumors. We’re on week 2 with new vets oral medication & stitches will be removed in 1 more week. He’s doing beautifully and 98% very relaxed and happy (e collar he does a bit of head shaking probably just habit or stitch- itch) Whew! 🙂

  6. Susan says:

    Hello again Doc,
    We were told my all-white short haired cat had tumors on both ears & most of both ear flaps had to be surgically removed. We’re about 7 days thru of 10 days of home followup cream treatment again after minor ear edge infection & Clavamox antibiotic. He looks pretty good (ecollar or he’ll scratch at ear again) Do you feel white cats are more susceptible to ear tumor regrowth? I really can’t afford further checkups or treatment.What’s your opinion please?

  7. Doc says:

    Hello, Susan,

    There are some cases where we believe that sun exposure in a white cat may be contributing to the development of squamous cell carcinoma.

    Cancer is a very complex disease, and cases do not have to “follow the book”.

    I really cannot give you a definite answer, even if I had examined your cat.

    The doctor who is actually seeing your cat is usually your best resource.

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