Often a phone video can be a big help.

My mother’s elderly cat, Sabrina, got sick recently — weak, trembling, urinating inappropriately. Being 200 miles away, it’s always a dilemma when my mom has a veterinary concern. I want to help, but, as I often tell clients who call, “It’s hard to know exactly what’s wrong over the telephone.” Although my mother could describe Sabrina’s symptoms to me, I couldn’t palpate the cat’s abdomen, listen to her heart, or take her temperature by phone. I couldn’t run tests or administer treatments. “Take her to the vet, Mom,” I said, wracked with Jewish guilt that I wasn’t rushing to get on standby and head for my childhood home. Sadly, Sabrina soon passed away from liver failure, in my mother’s arms.

Later that day, my daughter texts me from the barn where she rides. Attached is a photo of a gash on the leg of one of the horses there. “Does this need stitches, Mom?” she writes. Gratified that she spelled “stitches” correctly, I text back. “I can’t tell how big the cut is. Or where it is. Send more photos. Include something for scale.” After a few back-and-forth text communiqués, I conclude, yes, stitches are indicated. And since no, I don’t do equine work any more — haven’t for 20 years — I suggest they call a horse vet who can suture the wound. At this point, I am worrying that my family is thinking I’m pretty useless.

When I first started practice here on the Vineyard, there was no such thing as a cell phone, much less a smartphone. I carried a beeper. My first beeper literally did nothing but beep. Then I would go to an actual telephone and call the answering service to find out what the “emergency” was. One summer Sunday afternoon, I went to Lambert’s Cove Beach, hiking out with my chair, my umbrella, my book. I set everything up and sat down to read when … beep, beep, beep.

  1. I closed my book, took down the umbrella, folded the chair, hiked out, got in my car, and drove to the pay phone at Cronig’s. What was the emergency? A dog sprayed by a skunk. I gave “deskunking” advice, and returned to the beach. Same routine. Hike. Umbrella. Chair. Book. Beep, beep, beep. Book. Chair. Umbrella. Hike. Pay phone. This time it was a summer person wanting an emergency tick bath. I declined, and somewhat rebelliously decided to go back yet again to the beach. The third time the beeper beeped, I gave up and went home to make the call.

This third emergency was one of those tragic times when there is nothing a veterinarian can do, but an owner just needs to call. If you are terribly tenderhearted, skip to the next paragraph now. The owner had left her dog outside, tied on a long rope to the porch. The pup had gotten tangled in the rope, then fell off the porch and hung himself. There was no question of treatment. The dog had died. She didn’t want to bring him in to me. The family would bury him at home. She just needed to cry and to talk … I was too sad to go back to the beach.

Later we got alphanumeric pagers, which could send short text messages on a screen, at least identifying who had called and why, but they didn’t eliminate the need to go find a telephone to respond. So when cell phones finally hit the market, I bought one immediately. Mine had a huge battery pack. (I was about to say “bigger than a breadbox,” but does anyone under 50 still know what a breadbox is?) The phone was heavy and awkward and had miserable reception, but at least it freed me somewhat from having to be constantly near a landline.

Now that almost everyone has not just a cell phone, but a smartphone (or at least they have a kid with a smartphone), this technology can be a far greater help to us veterinarians — not to replace bringing your pet to the vet, but to deal with that classic situation of the limping dog that doesn’t limp at the doctor’s office, or the coughing cat that refuses to cough. Jacob, the Labrador pup, came in time and time again, his owner reporting intermittent severe lameness. But at my place, Jacob never limped, nor could I localize any area that was painful. Initially thinking the owner was overreacting to typical puppyhood growing pains, I suggested she video him with her phone. (Do we still say video? Can you video a breadbox?) But then I saw the film. (Oh dear, do we still say film?) Jacob’s owner was clearly not overreacting. This poor pup was virtually dragging one hind leg when he first started to get up and get going. I sent them off to the orthopedic specialist, who eventually diagnosed a developmental joint abnormality called osteochondritis dissecans, which responded well to surgery.

Then there was Oops, the sneezing, coughing cat, who never sneezed or coughed in the office. Despite repeated examinations, we couldn’t determine for sure whether Oops was coughing, sneezing, gagging, trying to vomit, or all of the above. Here in my office she did virtually nothing at all. But once the owner sent me a video, I felt confident that Oops was not coughing like she would if the problem was in her lungs, but actually making a motion similar to what is called a “reverse sneeze,” which was consistent with our original presumptive diagnosis of a possible mass or foreign body in her nose and/or nasopharynx.

So don’t expect your veterinarian to diagnose Fido or Fluffy over the phone. It’s almost always best to let the doctor actually see your pet, but you can use that phone to take video of any elusive symptoms exhibited only at home. And just so you know, my mother got a handsome new cat named Taylor, and Sunday afternoon, my cell phone and I are going to the beach.