We named the inconvenience "Shelley," to honor the receptionist, Michelle, who felt sorry for her one fine summer Saturday morning and brought her to our office. Shelley was a bedraggled-looking, flea-infested, skinny stray cat who appeared that morning on Michelle's doorstep and tried desperately to enter her home. She was not the least bit threatened by two, large barking dogs, nor was she deterred by two rowdy, curious young boys, yelling and pushing each other to get a better look through the front window. Michelle couldn't keep her, and didn't even want to risk bringing her into her home temporarily, so, for lack of other immediate options, she brought her to work. This is universally considered, in the veterinary business, a bad move, as we cannot take in all the homeless waifs we come across, for obvious reasons.
Shelley poured on the charm big-time while I was examining her - she had one chance to make a good impression, and she knew it.
"Uh, Michelle," I said in my best "you've really done it now" tone, "she's, um ... in a family way, so to speak."
"No way," was the only thing she could say.
Heavy sighs went around the room while Shelley purred loudly and kneaded her front paws on the metal exam table as if it were the best, most comfortable place on earth. We didn't want to take her to the SPCA or LAPS - they already are overburdened with cats that need homes. Neither of us could keep her. We could think of no one but then, a brilliant stroke hit me: my parents.
At that time, my parents were cat-less. Having lost their dear cat, Fronk, to a severe illness, they were prime suckers - er - candidates - for prospective ownership of this cat. Uh, and the kittens - yeah, that would be a hard sell.
Surprisingly, it didn't take much convincing. We assured my parents that Shelley (based on unreliable palpation in early pregnancy) probably would only have only three or four kittens, and after they chose one to keep Shelley company, we would find homes for the rest. Heck, we already knew of one person who would almost certainly be interested in a kitten. Noticing a trend in the vernacular here? Words like "probably" and "almost certainly" may sneak by my mom, who already was excited about having a cat again, but don't sit well with my dad, who can see nothing but trouble at every turn. Not only that, but they agreed (my dad begrudgingly) to adopt the wayward cat sight unseen - we called them on vacation. Luckily, we're pretty good judges of character, and we deemed this cat a winner on personality alone. We knew her health and looks would improve with our specialty TLC and some good nutrition, flea treatments, dewormer and other such niceties.
And improve they did. We watched her blossom into a beautiful, sleek, long-haired black cat. She stayed with us at the hospital for the duration of her pregnancy, which everyone enjoyed. She was allowed out of her cage, and spent her days looking out the window, or sleeping on the warm dryer soliciting rubs to her increasingly expanding belly from anyone happening her way.
We had a pool among the staff as to the day of the big event and the number of kittens Shelley would have. I based my prediction on my expert palpation skills, knowledge of the gestation cycle of cats, and firm belief in Murphy's Law: it would be July 29, a Sunday, since I wouldn't be around that day. I compared my palpation to radiographs (X-ray pictures) taken during her pregnancy, and decided there would be three kittens. I was wrong by one day and one kitten. D'oh! And the prize (shared by two employees) was a Wegman's ultimate chocolate cake. Blast!
Shelley had her kittens on July 30, and she had four. It was a very exciting day for all of us. The entire process took about four hours, which puts my experiences with my two children's deliveries to shame. And Shelley didn't even mind people coming in and out of her room.
Not once did she blame any of us for her pain, nor ask for an epidural. A few times, she let out a meek, little grunt as she passed a kitten through the birth canal, which required two, maybe three pushes each. Man, I wish it had been that easy for me. Of course, I don't plan on having quadruplets any time soon, thank you very much, so more power to her.
But, you know, it isn't always that easy for animals. Pregnancy, labor and delivery can be risky for pets, as in people. A 20 percent death rate among the litter within the first 12 weeks of life can be considered "acceptable" in dogs and cats. Depending on the breed, condition of the mother and environment, the losses may be even great.
Infectious disease, for example, may cause problems for a mother and her offspring. I saw a tragic instance of this some years ago - a mother and her entire litter of puppies died of acute parvovirus infection. What's worse: parvovirus is a preventable disease, and if the owner had seen to vaccinating the dog before she became pregnant, her death and that of all her pups would have been avoided.
Most cats, especially the domestic shorthair (aka alley cat) have little trouble with pregnancy, labor or delivery. Like Shelley, most, if fed a decent diet, and if in reasonably good health, will go through the process unassisted and unscathed. For cats and most dogs, a breech (hind end first) delivery poses no problems. That being said, some purebred cats and small breed dogs can have multiple problems with the entire process of gestation, labor and especially delivery.
What could go wrong? Everything. In fact, anything that can go wrong during a human pregnancy can go wrong in animals, too. Of course, we generally don't follow animal pregnancies as closely as we do for women, so some of the more subtle problems may go undetected. Fortunately, dog and cat pregnancies last only 65 days on average. The most common problems we see are miscarriages, stillborn young, birth defects and delayed or difficult labor.
Yes, we do caesarian sections in animals, if the need arises. When would the need arise? A caesarian section may be required when labor doesn't start normally or stops before completion, when a kitten or pup is stuck and cannot pass through the pelvis (birth canal), when the mother's life is jeopardized by the fetuses, or, a caesarian may be planned, to avoid complications in high-risk cases.
Shelley proved herself to be an excellent mother, nursing, cleaning and cuddling all four of her progeny with gusto. And although she trusted people without question, accepting congratulations and compliments with dignity, she was compelled to defend her babies against curious canines with the ferocity of a mother lion against the jackals.
This particularly was rough for unsuspecting dachshunds, to be sure - "Shock and Awe" would be an appropriate term. Of course, when the Army coined the slogan, I sincerely doubt that they intended to make their adversaries literally pee their pants.
Daverio is a veterinarian at Williamsport West Veterinary Hospital. Her column prints every other Sunday in the Lifestyle section. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.