Visiting Vet: Fish hooks

Do your pup a favor; keep your tackle box closed.

Treble hook for fishing, not for pets. — Wikimedia Commons

The last time I went fishing was probably 1979, camping with my vet school boyfriend, who liked to trout fish in the Pennsylvania rivers. I was squeamish about baiting hooks with live shiners, and completely hopeless at fly-fishing. When I moved to the Vineyard (sans boyfriend), I kept saying I was going to learn to surfcast, but never did. What I did learn about was fishhooks.

My first fishhook case this season was a 5-month-old Great Pyrenees puppy. Let’s call him Jedi. As often happens when a dog sticks his curious snout into an open tackle box, Jedi had gotten a large hook embedded in his nose. When his owners called me, I began my usual fishhook spiel, which goes something like this: “Taking care not to impale yourself, examine thoroughly to see exactly where the hook is.”

I once got a late-night call from a frantic woman reporting her border collie, Wookiee, had a large treble fishhook stuck in his neck and the end of his tail. If you don’t know about trebles, they are scary, three-pronged hooks. Not surprisingly, the dog was nearly as agitated as his owner, as he was stuck in a half-circle bend, unable to straighten out. “Come right down,” I sighed, dragging myself out of bed.

Those were the good ol’ days, pre-pandemic, when we often had owners help hold their pets on after-hours emergencies. Once I calmed the woman down and showed her how to safely restrain Wookiee, I began my exam. This was a very shaggy border collie. Starting with his tail, I gently teased away the fur. “Good news,” I said. “This part of the hook is not actually embedded. It’s just tangled in his tail feathers.” Snip, snip, with a scissor. Wookiee gratefully straightened out and started bouncing happily up and down. Not yet, Wookiee! The fish hook was still attached at his neck.

Once again I began fishing through his bushy coat, this time along his neck. Once again I discovered the prongs were not actually embedded in Wookiee’s body, but simply lodged in a dense mat of hair behind his ear. No flesh involved. Snip, snip with my scissor. “That will be $200,” I said, smiling, as I lifted Wookiee off the table. The price of making me get out of bed this late at night. Although I was happy to have helped, had Wookiee’s owner assessed the situation more thoroughly at home, she might have been able to snip, snip the fur herself and saved some money … and I could have gotten a good night’s sleep.

Jedi’s owners were sure the hook was piercing the puppy’s nose, but hadn’t yet gotten a good look. I gave them the second part of my fishhook spiel. It goes something like this: “If the point has come all the way through the skin, try numbing the area with an ice cube, then see if you can safely maneuver the hook far enough out to expose the barb. Then you can cut off the barb and back the hook out.” Now before you try this at home, be advised it only works in very specific situations. The dog has to be relatively calm. The owners too. We don’t want anyone to get bitten. The hook has to be almost all the way through the skin and at an easily accessible location.

I rarely expect part two of my fishhook spiel to work, but it did for another fishhook call this week — an Australian Shepherd with a hook stuck in his leg. The wife initially called me from her car. She was en route to meet her husband and the dog. I gave the spiel. She said they would give it a try and call back soon. Fifteen minutes later they called again. Success! They had followed my advice, numbing with an ice cube, poking the hook through, and cutting the barb. They had cleaned the wound thoroughly and would watch for signs of infection. Thanks so much. See ya later.

Not poor Jedi. His owners soon determined the hook was too deeply lodged in the pup’s nose for them to deal with it. There had been fishing line attached to the hook initially. Jedi had panicked, running around in such a way that the line had caused the hook to twist and turn, seating it firmly in his nose. They dropped Jedi at my office using our “no contact, curbside” pandemic protocol. I was relieved to see it was a single prong hook, but it was one of the worst I have ever seen in terms of location. The hook had gone in through the side of his lip, then through the side of his nose, transversed the nostril, then back into the flesh of the lower part of his nose. It was in there deep. Luckily, the point was palpable just under the surface of the philtrum of his nose. I tried using a local anesthetic, but it was quickly apparent we would need sedation. He was a very sweet boy, but this was just too painful. I gave him an injection of a short-acting, reversible general anesthetic.

Once he was asleep, I made a small incision over the point, gradually forcing the hook forward until the whole barb was exposed. My old hook cutters were not strong enough to cut it, so I pulled out my huge bolt cutters. My assistant, Ashleigh, monitored anesthesia. I manipulated Jedi’s lip out of the way and positioned the blades so my husband, Max, could cut the hook without cutting the dog. Snip, snip. Well, actually it took a lot more force than snip, snip, but you get the idea. I removed the hook, woke Jedi up, and sent him home with antibiotics and pain medication. Hey, folks, close up those tackle boxes tight! And if someone wants to teach me to surfcast (while socially distancing), I’m almost ready.