Visiting Vet: Matted fur

Who knows what lurks beneath that tangled mess?

Under matted fur, what looks like a little cut can actually be a huge gash. - Courtesy Wikipedia

Duchess, the big German shepherd, was not happy to see me. I was grateful her owner handled her well, muzzling her gently so I could examine her ears as she eyed me suspiciously. “Just a routine infection,” I reported, applying some ointment. “Can you look at her elbow too?” her owner asked. “She has a big cut on it.” I took a peek. An odd, dark, scabby strip, three inches long and half an inch wide. It’s not unusual for fur around an injury to get matted with blood, pus, and/or dirt, obscuring the exact nature and extent of the wound. “I’m going to clean this up,” I said, grabbing my clippers. Now, every veterinarian has had the experience of deciding to shave a wound, laceration, or scrape, and suddenly finding themselves facing a much larger lesion than expected. What looked like a little cut is actually a huge gash. That small hot spot turns out to be a sprawling infection. A scab comes off, or some dead skin sloughs, and what initially appeared to be a minor problem is far worse than anticipated.

When I was a college student, I spent a semester working as an assistant at a veterinary clinic in Denver, Colo. I had a bit of a crush on Dr. Shumaker, one of the young veterinarians employed there, and often volunteered to help with his cases. One day he admitted a middle-aged female dog — one of those pups with long, disheveled, curly locks like a big mop. The dog smelled terrible. Her belly fur was tangled and matted into a solid mass, caked with discharge oozing from underneath, mixed with blood and dirt. “This is going to be a mess to clean up,” Dr. Shumaker said. I laid Mopsy on her side on the table, her back toward me, her belly toward the doc. I gazed besottedly at Dr. Shumaker as he wielded the clippers. “Looks like some nasty mammary tumors,” he said … then, “uh oh …” as a few maggots fell, wriggling, onto the stainless steel surface.

I had never seen fly strike before. Technically called myiasis, this condition occurs when fly larvae infest damaged tissues. Elderly, debilitated, and outdoor pets are at higher risk, especially those with fecal or urine-stained fur, or any kind of external wound or infection. The larvae can be very destructive, tunneling under the skin, leaving a maze of little holes. Treatment involves removing all maggots, debriding the wounds, giving antibiotics for secondary bacterial infections, and preventing reinfestation. Nowadays there are oral products we can give fly strike patients that help kill maggots, but back then we relied completely on manually flushing the wounds and literally picking the maggots off. It could take hours, and was a stomach-turning process.

Dr. Shumaker continued shaving while we wondered if the owners had ever patted the dog and, if so, why they hadn’t noticed the stench. Suddenly Doc’s face turned pale, then greenish. He looked up, making eye contact for a second, then abruptly closed his eyes and put his head down, as though he might faint. What was wrong? I looked down at the table and then I, too, closed my eyes. Trying not to see what I had seen. Later, when it was all over, Doc explained to me that Mopsy had been suffering from advanced mammary cancer, but her neglectful owners hadn’t noticed. The extensive tumors became necrotic, then infected, then flies had come. The damage to her abdominal wall from all these factors combined had been catastrophic, leaving nothing but a fragile web of attenuated skin and muscle remnants, tenuously glued in place by the matted fur. Once Doc shaved that away, well, there was nothing left to hold Mopsy’s innards in … and nothing to be done but euthanize the poor dog.

Forty-five years later, I picked up my clippers. Of course Duchess’ situation was nothing like Mopsy’s, but who knew what lurked under that swath of crusted elbow fur? A gaping laceration waiting to be revealed? Duchess wasn’t my easiest patient. If the wound needed suturing, she would need anesthesia … which wasn’t a big deal, except I was supposed to be on the 4 pm ferry. I was planning to take a baby squirrel to a wildlife rehab center to be raised with other squirrels, and then go on to Connecticut for my daughter’s high school graduation the following day. Well, there was nothing to be done but get clipping and hope for the best.

I tugged the oddly textured scab. It was a deep purplish-black, and closely adhered to the skin. Knowing the owner had an agricultural background, I wondered if he had applied something to the wound. In my younger days, I did a lot of work with cows. Most farmers had a tub of Ichthammol, a.k.a. black ointment or black drawing salve, to use for skin and hoof problems. Derived from shale oil, this black, gooey product has been around for a century. People still use it for things like drawing out splinters. You can even buy it at CVS. “Did you put anything on this?” I asked. Yes, the owner had applied not Ichthammol but an old-timey blue antiseptic. That explained the discoloration. I tried to peel away the crust without hurting the underlying tissue. I tried to clip closer, but didn’t want to cause razor burn. Drat. It looked really pink. Was I shaving too close? Wait. This is too pink. Artificially pink.

The owner and I simultaneously came to the same realization. Gum. Duchess didn’t have a cut. She had gum. Duchess had lain down on a gooey wad left behind by children. The gum then smooshed into her fur, creating the appearance of a wound, which her owner carefully treated with antiseptic, and the whole thing dried into a big, ugly crust. With a sigh of relief, I shaved it off, caught the ferry, introduced the baby squirrel to his new siblings, and made it to graduation. Some stories have happy endings.