Pinning a baby hamster’s leg

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Photo by Frenjamin Benklin on Unsplash

You will never know what you can achieve unless you try it. It is all too easy to say “It can’t be done”, and settle back into the established rut of your life. It may be a comfortable rut, but there is much more excitement to be found if you refuse to admit to the familiar way of living your life.

This was brought home to me by the case of the baby hamster. Some thirty years ago, I was conducting a routine surgery in our veterinary practice when an anxious school teacher came into the consulting room. She was carrying a shoe box.

On enquiring how I could help, she explained that the nursery school’s baby hamster had been dropped by “little Johnny” and she thought it may have broken its leg.

She lifted the lid of the shoe box to reveal a white ocean of cotton wool within which an injured hamster was nursing a sore leg. These charming small pets do not take kindly to large human fingers trying to extract them from the safety of their nest — and have very sharp teeth.

Following careful exploration of the blanket of cotton wool, I managed to capture the tiny animal without further injury. Gentle examination proved the teacher to be right. The right femur, or thigh bone, was broken.

“Can you mend it?” she asked. “Little Johnny is so upset. He is a sensitive boy at the best of times and, if the hamster has to be put down, it will take months for him to get over his guilt.”

I had plenty of experience of repairing broken limbs in dogs and cats of all sizes but this seemed to a challenge too far. The hamster was only three inches long from nose to stubby tail which meant that the thigh bone would be minuscule. I could not imagine a solution and offered my regrets to the teacher.

“Oh, please,” she cried. “Will you please try to mend it?”

I wilted in the face of such heartfelt pleading and suggested that I took the patient in and I would have a long think about the problem.

The teacher left, holding back her tears and without much hope.

I put the shoe box in a cage, finished morning surgery, settled down to a mug of coffee and began to have a conversation with myself.

What would you do if it was a cat?
“I’d pin it but I haven’t got a pin that small.”
Yes, you have. Use a hypodermic needle.
“All my instruments are too big.”
“You have got a small collection of ophthalmic instruments that you use to repair eyelids and corneas.”
“ The tissues are far too small. I wouldn’t be able to identify the muscles.”
“You’ve got a jeweller’s eyeglass at home, use that.”
“What about the anaesthetic? I have no experience of anaesthetising such a small animal.”
“Your partner is a clever anaesthetist, leave it to him.”

I was not totally convinced by my inner voice, but drove back home to get the eyeglass. Once we had completed the three operations on the morning’s list, we took the tiny ball of fur into the theatre. It looked ridiculously small lying on the stainless steel surface of the operating table.

My partner soon had it fast asleep by playing the hose of the anaesthetic machine over its face and I set about clipping the fur from the operating site. Once the area was dressed in Hibitane antiseptic — a violent deep brown colour — and covered in a sterile drape, I took a deep breath and picked up the tiny scalpel making the first incision down the outside of the thigh. I went in deeper with the Castroviejo ophthalmic scissors and eyelid forceps.

The anatomy of most of our small animal patients is remarkably similar and with the aid of the eyeglass, I could identify the various muscle groups. From then on, it became a routine orthopaedic pinning of a cat’s bone — only in miniature. The standard techniques worked in exactly the same way.

We both let out a sigh of satisfied relief once the last tiny suture had been tied off and helped ourselves to another mug of coffee.

The teacher returned that evening with a beaming smile on her face. Our bill for the treatment was 17/6d (87p today) but remember, this was over 30 years ago when a cat spay would have cost about £5.00. We got our reward from the satisfaction of a job well done and the joy of the children of the nursery class.

The final payment came two weeks later when a large manila envelope dropped, with a thud,through the letter book. Inside were 14 letters of thanks from members of the class.

“Dear Mr Vetman, Thank you for mending Snowy’s leg … Dear Mt Vet, Snowy’s leg is mending very well. He is walking fine now ” and finally, from Johnny, “dear Mr Vet, thank you for making Snowy’s leg better. I promise I won’t drop him again.”

There are times when the financial value of a piece of work pales into insignificance beside the satisfaction of a job well done.

You will find more ‘teaching’ cases from veterinary practice here.

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Adrian Arnold

Retired veterinary surgeon now a collector of trivia. Married to a wonderful wife, four children and four grandchildren. Author of A Veterinary Life on Amazon.