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An embarrassment of cats

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LEGEND has it that, when a well known pen company attempted to break into the Mexican market with a new ballpoint, they went for a direct translation of their tried and tested American slogan: ‘It won't leak in your pocket and embarrass you.’ The new tagline read: ‘No te embarazará chorreándose en tu bolsillo.’ The only problem was that ‘embarazar’ doesn't mean ‘to embarrass’; instead they were trying to sell a pen by reassuring people that it wouldn't leak into their pockets and make them pregnant. Embarrassing.

Embarrassment is a state of intense self-consciousness, usually caused by a socially unacceptable act. As vets, we will often meet owners whose pets, knowing nothing of social acceptability, cause them acute embarrassment. I'm sure we've all desperately struggled to maintain professional solemnity with some unfortunate clients: the elderly lady horrified by her puppy's rampant coprophagia, the muscular tattooed lad frustrated when his male rottweiler is humped by every passing canid, or the young woman who worries that her dog's ‘fishy breath’ is caused by his penchant for stealing underwear.

Recently, I was perturbed to see ‘Kitty – prolapse’ on the practice list on a busy Saturday morning. The owner, a young woman of about my own age, informed me that Kitty's damage had occurred weeks previously, after she had managed to escape from the house and roam the neighbourhood. The cat was returned after the owner had put posters up around the neighbourhood but had obviously been fighting: Kitty was covered in scratches and was sporting an ‘obvious prolapse.’ Most likely stressed by her ordeal, she had since been fighting with her sister and had become more affectionate towards her owner.

Feeling some haste to examine this ‘obvious prolapse,’ I took the battered white cat out of the basket and turned her around.

‘Is this the prolapse?’ I asked.

The owner nodded, looking concerned.

To which I replied, ‘I'm afraid those are testicles.’

With a look of surprise, then shock, and then horror, she insisted that her cat was a girl.

‘Then this can't be your cat,’ I concluded.

The owner looked at me, then back at the cat, and went scarlet. She tried to apologise for wasting my time and I gently warned of a possible impending litter of white kittens from her other cat. Together we decided that she should continue to ask around the neighbourhood. I stressed that there was no need to feel guilty, that it could honestly have happened to anyone, and that all white cats do look very similar.

Embarrassment, even our own, can be hilarious to look back on. But, without a conscious effort to move past it at the time, the emotion can lead to rushed communication, poor compliance and poorer welfare for both pet and owner. As vets, we're in a position to make sure our clients know that social norms don't apply to pets, that we're not judging them, and that (true or otherwise) they're not the first person to make that mistake. Being aware that embarrassment can be a problem for our clients is half the battle won.

By the way, the verb meaning ‘to embarrass’ in Spanish, no doubt now known by many an advertising executive, is ‘avergonzar.’ Just so you know.

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