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THERE'S a common misconception that a veterinary surgeon must be able to easily recall all knowledge of all species that they may encounter, gliding effortlessly from case to case like an all-knowing swan. This, in reality, is not often the case. Instead, we attempt to appear serene and unruffled while paddling frantically under the waterline.
Another similarity between vets and swans is that we both have to deal with ducks.
‘Know anything about ducks?’ my receptionist inquired one morning. ‘I've got an owner on the phone. A fox has got at her ducks and she can't find a vet who will see them.’ I smiled, knowledgeably. ‘That's fine, tell her to come straight down. I'm sure we can work it out.’
Preparing for battle, I employed my trusty stalwarts: the omniscient exotics manual, the omnipotent formulary and my faithful Google.
The distraught client arrived with a box containing a sad and bloodied mother duck with an uninjured half-grown duckling – the sole survivors of the vulpine massacre. On examination, the wounds were superficial, the duck's physiological status was good and I had every hope for a swift recovery.
I bathed the wounds and smiled reassuringly at the owner. ‘I think we're going to be able to help her. I'm just going to go and sort out the medications.’
Once out of sight, I paddled frantically. I grabbed my formulary. Drugs licensed for ducks? I skimmed through for a recommended antibiotic.
‘Chickens: give 0.1 ml orally/kg bodyweight. Ducks: give 0.1 ml/l in drinking water.’⇓
How ridiculous! That couldn't be efficient. I only wanted to treat one duck. That dose was surely for the flock situation. ‘That must be it,’ I decided. ‘The formulary just isn't prepared for the individual fox-chewed backyard duck that I have here.’
I re-entered the room bearing the nostrums, administered the analgesic injection and then described the antibiotic protocol. ‘I need you to give her this volume, orally, once a day,’ I said.
The owner looked slightly concerned. ‘Would you like me to give the first dose so you can see how to do it?’ I offered, blithely.
I gently held the acquiescent duck, opened her bill and started to trickle in the medication.
Rapidly, I became aware of a problem. For those not in the know (including myself at that point), the duck's bill, when opened, closes off the throat. Bilateral streams of antibiotic were flowing out of each beak commissure. I tried surreptitiously adjusting bill opening, bill angle, syringe position. To no avail.
Never had so small a volume seemed so large. The sticky, viscous liquid poured from the beak, liberally irrigating the breast and running between my fingers. I considered my options. To stop would be to admit a mistake. To continue risked a sub-duck puddle. My thoughts could not keep pace with the inexorable depression of the plunger.
Finally, the stream was finished, and I looked from the paddling duck to the wide-eyed client.
‘I'm really not sure I'm going to be able to do that at home,’ she confessed anxiously.
‘Don't worry at all!’, I said, serene and unruffled. ‘It is a bit complicated – there is definitely a knack to it. However, there is also another option.’
‘You can just mix it with the drinking water . . .’
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