LOOKING BACK: Sick as a Dog

Warning: Longer post!

One of the most stressful parts of travelling with pets is the fear of what will happen if one (or all) of them get sick, injured, or otherwise in to the sort of trouble that animals have a knack for getting in to.  With twelve in home pets and seven horses, vet visits have always been a regular part of my life, but the worry about them increases tenfold when you’re living on the road in unfamiliar countries.  Cultural differences can impact everything from office hours, emergency access, medication types, surgical standards, and my worst fear, the emotional value of a pet.  This weekend we’ve been dealing with two dogs who have picked up what are likely tick borne illnesses, and its had me reflecting on the veterinary experiences we’ve had on this trip so far (of which there have been quite a few).

First, for those considering travel with pets, its important to mention that we did a whole lot of pre-trip preparation before embarking on this journey.  All twelve of our animals were Passported, wormed, vaccinated, and cleared by a veterinarian for travel.  We had to research every single country that we were considering visiting to ensure that they would meet import requirements no matter what border we crossed.  Additionally, because half of our dogs have pre-existing conditions, we stocked up on a variety of prescription pain medications to be sure we could keep them comfortable for the duration of the trip.  And of course, there’s the need to be prepared for fleas, ticks, and other parasites.  The total preparation costs for the animals alone exceeded $2,500… I’m still paying some of it off!

We encountered our first vet fairly early in to our journey.  Following Denmark, our plan was to proceed to Norway before visiting the other Scandinavian countries.  Both Norway and Finland (like the United Kingdom), require that dogs have a tapeworm treatment 24 hours prior to entering the country.  So our first visit to a vet was to fulfil this requirement.  The vet in Denmark was equivalent to one we would see in England, most especially in terms of cost.  It cost around $300, and ultimately would turn out to have been a complete waste of money…  this was the first instance of my poor planning skills coming to life; we never made it to Norway.

The next vet exposure came in the Czech Republic.  On leaving Poland, we had noticed a mass in Raj’s groin area.  Initially I assumed it was an abscess that needed draining, but when I was unable to preform that minor operation on my own (I have some experience in that particular area), we decided to have a vet examine the growth.  We were staying with a HelpX host at the time, and they were friendly with their veterinarian, who they invited to come visit and took a look at Raj at the same time.  The vet was very friendly, though not entirely comfortable with his English (it was actually very good, as we tried to reassure him).  His opinion was that it was possibly a hernia, my fear, or a retained testicle.  He advised us to keep an eye on it for the time being.

Our next stop was Austria, and we were in a vet’s office within the first week.  Jäger decided that he didn’t want the cats to be left out of this vet business I suppose, and he decided to get in on the action by jumping out of the caravan directly in to Moomkin’s hungry mouth.  Moomkin is decidedly NOT cat friendly, and I literally threw myself over the bottom half of the caravan door and onto him to free Jäger from his very dangerous jaws.  Jäger escaped to freedom and had no outward signs of damage, but he was clearly mentally shaken and over the course of the next hour, seemed to grow incredibly uncomfortable, with distinct swelling of his abdomen.  A quick Google search (always dangerous) brought to light the potential for severe internal bleeding even without external marks, and I immediately rushed him off to the nearest emergency vet.

A series of x-rays and over $150 dollars later, a still clearly painful Jäger was returned to me by a laughing veterinary nurse, who informed me that his discomfort and swollen belly were due entirely to the ENORMOUS amount of food he had obviously ingested that morning.  I spent the entire ride home threatening to feed my kitten to Moomkin after all for scaring me half to death and wasting our money just because he had decided to be a fat ass.  We saw the Austrian vet again not long after for a check up and ultrasound of Raj’s groin, and they jokingly asked if our kitten had survived his overeating episode.  They were also able to reassure us that Raj’s growth was not a hernia, as feared, but likely an infected haematoma.   We discussed surgery options and agreed to schedule it the week following.

Unfortunately, our time in Austria was, in a word, eventful, and we weren’t able to make it back to the vet’s there.  It would be another few weeks, in Croatia, where Raj would finally have his surgery.  The Croatian vet office was the first time that I truly felt the cultural differences come in to play.  We were not in a major city, or along the busy tourist coast, but buried deep in the mountains, in one of the poorest parts of the country.  The vet clinic was clearly more used to treating livestock then pets, though we were lucky to be seen by the vet that our hosts had recommended as the best for small animals.  She scheduled his surgery the next day, taking me at my word that the vet’s in Austria had ruled a hernia out.

Raj’s growth burst on the way to the vet’s the following day, covering my car with blood (gross), and leaving me feeling guilty and panicky for not having dealt with it sooner.  On our arrival, no less then four veterinarians came in to give opinions on Raj has he lay bleeding on the table.  They gave him two shots of anaesthetic as I was standing there, and when he was mostly asleep, ushered me out and told me to return four hours later.  I signed no paperwork approving surgery, they asked no questions about his medical history, and I don’t think they actually knew his name.  It was a very different experience to what it would have been in England.

Raj came out of the surgery fine.  They didn’t send the Little Man home with a cone, and since he’s a determined licker, we had to improvise with a box to keep him away from his surgical site.  We also had to return to the clinic every day for antibiotic shots, as pills weren’t available.  The vets were lovely, even if they were a bit less open about… well, anything actually.  To this day, I have no idea what the growth actually was or what may have caused it; they never debriefed us about anything, and only reassured Travis it wasn’t cancerous when he asked directly.  That was a bit disconcerting, but it was hard to complain about the other side of things, the cost… the total cost of the surgery and post-treatment came to under $100, and they generously waited until the first of the month for me to get paid to be able to afford it.  That’s right, they performed a surgery for foreign strangers, without ever taking any of my personal information, knowing in advance that they would have to wait nearly a week for payment.  How’s that for generous?

Our veterinary experiences in BiH have been the most culturally unique so far.  We walked in with Kova on our third day in country.  The receptionist called in the only fluently English speaking vet in the practice, which shocked me since he was clearly busy elsewhere and we didn’t have an appointment.  They gave us the works for Kova, which would have easily cost us over $300 back home.  They charged us 95 Bosnian marks (around $45), and when I was 5 marks short in cash, the attending veterinarian pulled the balance out of his own pocket and waved off my insistence I could run to an ATM.  When we returned with a swollen faced Kova a week later, they greeted us like old friends, treating both her and Wasi (he has a wart on his ear and needed some wormer), again without an appointment.  They then invited us for drinks, where we enjoyed homemade Rakija from one of the vet techs (who we now call Dr. Rakija), homemade cheese, and fascinating conversation.  Before we left, the vet gave me his private number and insisted we call him next time we were in town so that we could have a meal together as friends.  Drinking with the vets, now that’s something you don’t experience at home!

We will get to see our BiH vets sooner then anticipated tomorrow, and sadly not because we have free time for a meal.  Syn and Wasi have both spent the weekend running temperatures, eating only reluctantly, and clearly feeling under the weather.  Thanks to our preparations, we’ve had Carprofen (an NSAID) on hand to keep the fevers under control, but we’re pretty certain that they have both contracted a tick borne illness that will need treatment with antibiotics.  Despite our best efforts, regular tick treatments, and intense tick searches, the tick infestation in BiH is unlike anything I have ever seen before.  Travis once spent two hours pulling over 150 ticks off of Syn alone.  She and Wasi have been the ones that have spent the most time with me on the trail, so it makes sense they’re the ones that have gotten hit with whatever disease those nasty insects are carrying.

While I have been quietly freaking out all weekend with worry over my dogs, I’ve been surprised that my fear is no more than it would be in the same situation back home.  Despite the fact that the clinic here is in no way comparable in medical advances, equipment quality, etc, I feel confident that the vet knows what he’s doing and will give my dogs the best treatment possible to get them healthy again.  And while there is no doubt that dogs and cats here are seen more as working animals then pets, our conversations with this vet in particular have reassured me that to him, at least, my pets are worthy of the best treatment because animals have value regardless of their working status.

Animal lovers from countries where animals are kept solely as companions are often quick to judge other cultures for their treatment of animals as more practical parts of their daily existence.  I know that I was predisposed to assume that veterinary treatment would be somehow less, and that my animals would be valued differently because they served no “purpose.”  Our veterinary experiences in each of the counties we’ve visited have really opened my eyes to how important it is not to judge what you don’t know, and to be open to trusting even when things may not initially seem to be what you’re used to.  More importantly, they’ve shown me that animal lovers are all the same no matter where in the world they are, and that’s a really lovely thing to know.



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