As a vet, working with livestock, or large animals, is completely different to working with companion animals. Despite the obvious differences between species, it’s like working in two separate worlds; one is driven by economics and profit and the other by emotional attachment.
Farmers want healthy livestock to ensure a thriving flock brings optimal profit, while small animal owners want their furry companions comfortable as they are considered part of the family. Whether an owner brings a sheep or a kitten to the vet, regardless of species they expect exceptional care and being recommended the most appropriate options.
I do mostly small animal veterinary work, so I forget sometimes the considerations needed to tackle large animal health issues.
This was highlighted last week when a farmer brought in a 4 day old lamb with a broken back leg. His mother had unknowingly stepped on the lamb, snapping the leg bone in two and breaking the skin over the fracture. (This type of injury is unfortunately much more common than you might think!)
Now, if this were a puppy, we would have a few options:
Firstly, if finances were available to us, i would acquire an X-Ray and then determine what kind of orthopedic surgery would be most appropriate in healing the break. (Whether that be pinning, plating, or applying an external fixater–however it’s also important to note that not all breaks can be healed, especially if very traumatic and splintered. In some cases recommend amputation of the affected limb.)
The next option, placing a cast, isn’t recommended since this is a compound fracture (where skin over the break is also broken and thus increasing the chances of infection).
And the final option that I would offer my client is amputation. This is an acceptable option if finances are not available to us, if the break is extremely traumatic, if we suspect permanent nerve damage, and/or if the bone does not lend itself to healing well with surgery. (And I know I’ve said it before, but animals usually do just fine on 3 legs!)
So what are the options for this lamb?
Well a cast isn’t a good idea since the skin is broken over the fracture. And orthopedic surgery is out of the question as it would cost well over six times what the lamb would be worth to the farmer as a full grown ewe-(not to mention hygienically it would be nearly impossible to keep the surgical site clean as the lamb is an outdoor animal.)
Amputation? Maybe, but this would mean a huge amount of extra work for the farmer. The lamb would inevitably be a “pet”, meaning it would require bottle feeding and constant attention to ensure the wound heals. Not to mention the fact that it would be missing a leg–sheep produced for meat are given a monetary value based on weight. Missing one of its hind legs (where there is a significant amount of muscle mass) drastically drops this lamb’s eventual adult weight and selling price.
And the final option is often the one that becomes the most economically sound and ultimately “kind” measure; euthanasia. The lamb doesn’t suffer, and the farmer cuts his losses, being able to focus on the health of the rest of his flock.
A broken limb is only an example, but you see how the gears have to be switched when transitioning from large animal, or livestock medicine, to small animal medicine? The owner has completely different expectations and motives in seeking out veterinary care.
What would you do in this situation?