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Their Pet Cause

September 13, 1998|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For months, Nikki had been coughing, at times coughing so hard and for so long that it seemed she would never catch her breath. At 12--even in dog years, not a terribly advanced age--the fluffy, sweet-faced spaniel looked robust enough to give her owner every reason to believe that whatever was wrong with Nikki, it probably wasn't going to kill her.

And so, week after week, they returned to the Vanderhoof Veterinary Hospital in Altadena in search of a diagnosis and, they hoped, a cure.

But after chest X-rays, repeated courses of powerful antibiotics, a tracheal wash and a frightening bout with pneumonia, the cause of Nikki's cough remained a mystery. The only option now was surgery. Did the owner want to go that far, spend that much, to find out what was wrong?

After a period of hand-wringing, the owner decided yes. She was not ready to give up and, she believed, neither was Nikki.

Waiting Room Is Thick With Tension and Fur

There is a belief, particularly among those who practice veterinary medicine, that the way we treat our animals is a reflection of the value we place on human life. At the Vanderhoof hospital, located in a brick-faced strip mall in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, that belief is tested daily.

On a typical weekday morning an hour or so before the hospital opens, passersby are greeted by an orange chow chow dog by the name of Ciao pulling his paralyzed, diaper-clad lower half along the sidewalk on a big-wheeled cart. The silver-spoked wheels are strapped to the dog's ample middle, and, although his tail has not wagged since his back was broken by a hit-and-run driver, Ciao is clearly ebullient.

Although movement to his deadened hind legs could not be restored, veterinarians Daniel Vanderhoof and Scott Sloan gave Ciao his life. The injured dog was brought to the hospital by a passing motorist and taken in by the vets who fixed what they could and kept him at the hospital until they could find him a home. Three days a week, Ciao comes in early for therapy, baths, and to boost staff morale.

By 9 a.m., the sparsely furnished waiting room is already full. There are dogs and cats scheduled for vaccinations, a potbellied pig with an appointment to be neutered, a tiny terrier with tremors, a pug with glaucoma, and half a dozen other patients who need to see the doctor.

There is tension--and fur--in the air, but nothing the staff of 11 can't handle. Hanging on the wall is a roster with the staff's names and titles. At the end of the list is Wobbles, whose job is described only as "security." The brain-damaged tabby (named for his tendency to walk in circles) isn't always nice, but his rude behavior distracts the sick animals from their fears.

The first patient to be called is Calvin, a pug with bulging, cloudy blue eyes.

"We see Calvin quite a bit," says veterinary technician and hospital manager Roberta Tipton. "He punctured his eye on a table running for a golf ball, and that required three or four surgeries. Now, he's here to get a growth removed, a histiocytoma. He is a cool guy. We're always happy to see him."

Kitty Waddell, Vanderhoof's longtime receptionist, comes out from behind her desk to tickle Calvin beneath his flabby chin.

"Such a good little boy," she coos.

The second patient is an outgoing striped tomcat who arrives in the arms of a woman who has been feeding him since he showed up on her doorstep two weeks ago. In the examining room, the stray she calls Tommy nuzzles against Dr. Vanderhoof's gray polyester trousers and purrs.

"He was somebody's pet, that's for sure. He's very friendly," says Vanderhoof, tugging gently on the points of Tommy's triangle ears. "Right off, we recommend doing a leukemia test on any stray because it's a fatal virus and is highly contagious to your other cats."

In examining Room 3, a shy Siamese-calico mix named Samantha is waiting with her head buried in the crook of her owner's arm. She is one of many descendants of some Seal Point interlopers that settled a few years ago in the Altadena hills. She has come directly from the emergency clinic, where she spent the night in an oxygen tent.

Vanderhoof, 45, is a lanky man with a thick mustache and an easy smile. He holds his stethoscope to Samantha's chest and listens.

"We're not as congested today as we were last night, are we? Let's hope our temperature is down. Oh, now, nobody likes the thermometer back there, do they, Samantha? 102.3. Not bad. We consider 100 to 102 normal."

Vanderhoof, known around the office as Dr. V, tries to palpate the cat's abdomen, but Samantha has flattened herself on the examining table.

"It's hard to diagnose cats sometimes," says Vanderhoof, who grew up with dogs but has only a pair of cats at home now. "The problem is cats just don't do a lot, even when they're healthy. Mostly, they lie around and sleep. . . . And when they're sick and they're still just lying around, how do you know? Well, let's give her some antibiotics and see how she does."

A Full Schedule for the Surgeon

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