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The Intensive Pet Care Unit


Dr. Aiken recently took a tumor from his own dog's jawbone. "He's so senile, so cute, he can't figure out why he can't yawn," says Aiken. He's also moved into brain surgery. "There's nothing out of the realm of what we'll try," he says. First, he'd studied up on the procedure, then he got a human neurosurgeon to sit by his side in the OR to give him pointers as he opened his first cat's skull.

"It's unusual to have a facility to save animal's lives," says Mark Sibley-Schreiber, one of the parents belonging to Tristan, a 15-year-old bichon frise who's currently in residence in the ICU's oxygen cage. Tristan has all the problems of a geriatric patient and all the attendant specialists: pulmonologist, cardiologist, urologist, dentist. And now a critical-care doctor too. Mark and partner Paul Sibley-Schreiber rushed Tristan to the ICU one night when he had trouble breathing. "Has he moved his bowels yet?" Paul asks delicately when he's allowed a few minutes in the ICU to celebrate Tristan's birthday. Hearing that he hasn't, Paul turns to Tristan: "You do it on my Oriental rug, don't you?"

At times, the vets measure themselves in terms of lives saved. A couple of days before, they'd tried to save a ferret, brown and squirrelly, who'd been discovered unconscious in the ICU next to Tristan, the bichon frise. Once, they'd tried to save a twelve-foot ball python, which had to be laid on two gurneys arranged end to end. (They'd searched for its heart in the four feet nearest the mouth.) And recently, they'd revived a bird, though when a resident pointed out, "We already saved one today," the short, commanding medical director let him know, "You're allowed to save more than one. It's like fishing that way."

One night, Dr. Jennifer Prittie, a very thin, energetic critical-care resident ("I forget to eat," she says. "I get busy"), brings in a dog from a facility where she moonlights. "The first vet said it was rat poisoning," she says in a scandalized tone. She'd loaded the black mutt, which had a hard mass in its belly, into a cab and brought him to the Animal Medical Center, arriving toward midnight. "I got him out of there," she announces brightly.

Then another vet races up a corridor carrying a dirty, tattered poodle like an armful of logs. In a few seconds, the vet backs through swinging double doors and into the resuscitation room. Quickly, Linda Barton, head of the ICU, is there, and so are half a dozen others.

"Car?" someone asks.

"He would've been lucky to be hit by a car," says Barton. The poodle, who'd been scooped up by a motorist from the side of a Bronx road, lies still as a bolster, except for a slight involuntary shiver. An oxygen mask is slipped over his snout. "Get some fluids in him," says Barton, a farmer's daughter who never raises her voice. When no one moves, she adds, even more nicely, "Why doesn't someone work on getting fluids ready?" Someone grabs the electric clippers that dangle from the ceiling and shaves a patch so that a vessel can be exposed, an IV started. A nurse snaps heart-monitor clips to all four legs.

Around the moribund poodle, the tight scrum of emergency workers is intimate, almost chatty. "I'm going to bet he's about to die," says a nurse. His heart is working, but barely.

"He's in bad shape," agrees Barton, almost to herself. "I don't think he got hit by a car." She's guessing it was a pit bull.

"He got gotten by something," says someone.

Barton touches the poodle's abdomen and the dog screams, sounding like a cow, his first real sign of life. "Oh, you hurt, don't you, baby?" says Barton. There, it seems, is where the pit bull might have done its damage.

He has several puncture wounds, and he's freezing, and if several things don't happen in a short period of time, he could well slip away. A rectal thermometer reveals that his body temperature is perhaps six degrees below normal. He's placed inside an inflatable cocoon filled with hot air.

The dog's and owner's names still aren't known; later, they'll discover an identification chip implanted in the scruff of the dog's neck, a method to make sure a lost dog gets returned. In this case, it works. The owner, it will turn out, is in the Navy and will be located at sea, happy to hear that in her poodle's case, fluids have gotten in, wounds have been fixed, body temperature has been nudged back to normal; that, in general, the dying process has ably been reversed.

Back in the examining room, Miss Cintron is proceeding through her list of concerns. Next is the matter of Junior's cage. Junior lives in a beautiful, multilevel ferret condo. Unfortunately, it has a wire-mesh floor. Dr. Donnelly believes that this may be part of the blister problem (which is known, technically, as bumblefoot): mesh irritating Junior's delicate pink feet. But Miss Cintron worries that if Junior is evicted from his condo, "he'll be bored in a small cage," she says.

"You could put two rats together," suggests Dr. Donnelly.

"They haven't been introduced," says Miss Cintron, alarmed.

"You could put toys in for him," Dr. Donnelly continues enthusiastically.

The appointment has lasted nearly an hour, and clients are backing up. Fortunately, Miss Cintron, conscious of the time -- "I don't want to take up your whole day," she says -- jumps to her principal concern, Junior's teeth. Rats, like Donnelly's next client, a rabbit, have continuously growing incisors. Usually, rats grind them down. But if the teeth fall out of alignment, even slightly, they'll grow into the gums. In the wild -- that is, in the subways -- they starve to death.

Dr. Donnelly wants to take a closer look at Junior's mouth. He lifts Junior around his plump middle, and Junior promptly pees -- he often does that -- and drops a couple Raisinet-size fecal pellets. Gloves on, Donnelly pulls Junior's jaws open. Junior complains. Squeak-squeak-squeak. The bottom teeth are splayed in a V. There's a small patch of pink gum poking through.

"We could remove that gum with a laser," Dr. Donnelly says. "The teeth won't be separated as much."

"Interesting," Miss Cintron says in agreement.

"I'll speak to the dentist," says Dr. Donnelly.

Dr. Donnelly wants to check Junior's heart. He reaches for his stethoscope but discovers it's not around his neck, its usual spot. He's forgotten his stethoscope, and runs off to fetch it, his eyes watering from allergies.

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