(If you’re not an animal person, bail out here.)
In the 70s PBS had that show All Creatures Great & Small and I loved it. English countryside, small village life, vets in tweed. I went on to read many of the books placing those beloved actors neatly into their roles all through the 90s. I had lots of connections to animals then too, the kids were small and I did a jaunt as a humane educator. We’re a little further down the timeline and the kids are grown. I still have a small menagerie. A dopey Golden retriever named Luke (named because he was intended to be a healer), and two intense calico sisters, Maggie and Millie.
Moving to Belgium I suffered under a lot of delusions about what life here was going to be like. We are now at the six-month point. Many of the rough patches have been smoothed over, expectations lowered to ground level. On Saturday, it was time to have the two cats looked at and get their shots taken care of.
Belgium has a very different standard of veterinary care than what is typical in the US. Vets come to the house to provide basic care. There is the option of taking your pet to the vet at his/her practice at his/her home office during surgery hours (open once or twice a week). Think 1950s. Think All Creatures Great & Small.
Believing the hardest part of this visit would be locating and catching Maggie and Millie, my husband and I restrained the two patients in an inescapable, internationally-certified flight container a full half hour before our Belgian Mr. Herriot’s arrival. And waited. Maggie was very good in the cage, but her nervous sister was stressed. Two cat fights and twenty minutes late, the vet arrived. Pleasantries exchanged, we got down to business. I reached in for Millie and was soon dripping blood as the cat flew up my chest, down my back, and behind the sofa. Millie is four and a high-strung cat, but I’ve taken her to the vet at least twice a year and never had that happen. Both cats received a feline leukemia shot and (I found out later) a rabies shot. Neither got the physical exam they should have. Granted, conditions were not good, but the vet did nothing to slow the process down or get to know the cats. Some pet owners may be aware that in the US we are moving away from yearly rabies shots because vets have seen concerning instances of cancer at injection sites hence the three-year rabies shot which my cats have. Belgium is behind the times and still requires annual rabies. The vet did not ask me if I wanted this, the cats’ three-year inoculation was still active, he just did it. So, I’m not happy with the experience with the cats for multiple reasons.
Now, with regard to the dog. Luke has an on-going medical mystery since we’ve arrived in Belgium. It started one day when I watched him get down from a chair. It looked very much like a collapse incident I had seen with a previous Golden Retriever we had. In that instance, the dog had a vessel cancer and bled from the heart. Luke hit the ground, couldn’t get his legs under him, and fell to the floor. Because of the history with the other dog, I went and made him stay down. After a few minutes, he got up and was fine.
I talked myself out of it being anything more than maybe his legs were asleep and he hit the floor funny. Until. That weekend, a pet sitter observed an incident where Luke couldn’t get off the floor coupled with shaking, and general panic. The pet sitter was so concerned she contacted us in Amsterdam and we came home. In the US, I would have had the option of going to a 24- hour emergency veterinary facility (multiple ones in the Colorado Springs). Here- not so much. There is a mobile veterinary service that can come to your house and do x-rays, trauma surgery, etc. but my situation was going to require multiple specialties so it didn’t seem like a good option. An internet search revealed, a veterinary teaching hospital in Ghent (yay! – the only one on the country, maybe). Complying with their requirements, he had a full workup to the extent of their abilities and they found…nothing. Which could be good or which could require additional heart monitoring or it could always be a rare form of epilepsy or neurological problem. We were sent home with no answers except that making a video the next time it happens would be great. Anyway, we crossed our fingers hoping it was nothing serious and we’d never see Ghent University again. A couple of months passed and another pet sitter reported another incident. Now, I’m wondering if what we might be seeing isn’t a rear leg problem. Luke had a knee surgery about 18 months ago which healed fine. He has no lameness issue, but there are these incidents of him getting up or getting down on hard surfaces. Is it something quirky connected to the surgery?
I need an orthopedic surgeon to take a look. Back to our Belgian Mr. Herriot. I ask him to recommend a specialist. He doesn’t know any, but he knows a guy who can do an x-ray. WTF??? (Shouldn’t any vet be able to do an x-ray? Not so fast, this is Belgium. I must lower my standards.) I press on thinking an internet search might be a better option than this vet. Since coming to Belgium getting Luke on a good grade dog food he will eat has been a challenge and he’s gained some weight. Luke is pudgy. I ask the vet for options. He says decrease the dog food 20% from what the package says. We have already done this to which he responds, “ah, then there is no solution.” I am underwhelmed by his problem- solving skills. Given Luke is seven and from a breed known for hypothyroidism, I expected him to offer a blood test if dietary changes weren’t working. Silly, silly me.
Vet visit concluded. 100 Euro cash given (almost all interactions in Belgium are cash, including restaurants, hair appointments, etc.), no receipt, and the vet leaves. No jaunty smile, no tweedy jackets, no good- humored advice. I miss you Mr. Herriot, in more ways than one.
A later internet search reveals that there really aren’t any veterinary specialists in the country. It is illegal for vets to use any distinguishing titles or designations that might presumably mislead the public. I take this to mean that the profession has not reached a level where governing bodies have been established to self-police themselves. In the US, we have the American Veterinary Medical Association but here there is nothing comparable that I can find. At the EU level, there is a board of surgeons and there are three vets in Belgium who are listed as doing orthopedic work.
Be grateful for the veterinary care you can easily access if you are in the US (or the UK- it looks similar). Don’t take it for granted. I did. I thought all of Europe would have comparable service. It does not. Hug your pet today knowing you can get an array of pet specialists to help keep your special family member healthy! Heck, hug your vet too!