Urban Jungle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 November, 2008, 12:00am

This week: venereal disease

One of the banes of being a veterinarian is the unsavoury dinner conversations we are often forced to engage in to entertain friends and family: 'unsavoury' meaning taboo, distasteful, inappropriate or downright gross, especially over dessert. I am glossing over the other types of dinner topic that forever plague vets - often when people find out you are a vet they exclaim, 'Wow, that is a coincidence, I have a [fill in animal species here] and it's got [such-and-such a problem].' It is fortunate that most of the time I am fully armed with countless unsavoury anecdotes.

Yesterday I was at a fancy European-style restaurant where you pay more for the environment than the food. There were many new faces and everyone was dressed up a little and the atmosphere was quiet and sedate. I was intentionally trying my best to redirect the conversation away from my vocation, to happy topics like the possible coming recession, investment opportunities, interesting holiday spots and the like. Ultimately, my deterrents failed and someone brought up the fact that here sat a veterinarian that also writes for a newspaper. I put on a brave face for the inevitable response.

One of the more boisterous patrons, who had had more than enough to drink, raised his glass of wine in salute to how much he loved his basset hound. It seemed to be a reasonable and kind-hearted toast, so I drank to his dog's health. He began to ramble on about how great his dog was and how well behaved, masculine and healthy. I concurred, saying that most people think that way of their pets, patiently waiting for him to get to his point.

He was a Chinese-American who had lived much of his life in Los Angeles. He had been talking about the LA riots and how he was there and what happened to his business. In his less-than-eloquent LA way, he told me: 'I want to pimp my dog because he is the best. Maybe I will make a few dollars out of it. He gets the girls and I get the money, a win-win situation in this bad economy. I just want to know if dogs get venereal diseases like people do.' An oddball and humorous question but a valid question nevertheless.

I told him: definitely yes. Just like humans, the range and severity of venereal diseases can be extreme, from simple things like genital herpes to horrible diseases like leishmaniasis, which is a protozoan disease that is endemic in many parts of the world but is very rare in Hong Kong. The real HIV-equivalent of the dog world is a bacterial disease called canine brucellosis. If the reproductive tract is infected, the male dog can become inflamed and sterile, and in females it can cause spontaneous abortion. In the responsible breeding world (possibly an oxymoron there) dogs are tested for brucellosis before mating to prevent its spread, and dogs are routinely put down overseas if a breeding dog tests positive.

But the real star of venereal disease in the dog world is the spectacular transmissible venereal tumour, or TVT, as it is known in the industry. It is quite common in Hong Kong and is often found in our stray populations, especially on the outlying islands. This disease is amazing. It is the only commonly occurring instance of a directly transmissible tumour between domesticated animals. TVT is transmitted directly by the tumour cells themselves.

The poor animal is usually presented with a bleeding mass on the prepuce or dangling out of its vulva. It is usually spectacular because of its size - often the size of an orange, and I have seen ones the size of grapefruit. Fortunately, it is easy to treat with chemotherapy agents and rarely causes fatalities.

Thank some higher power that there is no such transmissible cancer in humans. There have only been two other occurrences of such a transmissible tumour found in nature. One is threatening the Tasmanian devil in Australia. It's called the devil face tumour and is transmitted via bites between devils, and it grows on the face until it affects the animal's ability to eat. The other occurred in a laboratory hamster in the '60s. It is called a reticulum cell tumour and is transmitted via contact, mosquitoes and cannibalism. This tumour grows in the back of the hamster's mouth, eventually suffocating it. Not a good way to die.

While these terrible diseases exist, they are pretty rare, so you are safe to breed your dog if you want. The real issue is: should you, when there are so many strays and unwanted dogs about? The money you make from breeding your basset is not going to be worth all the hassle and certainly is never going to be much.

So I say: forget the pimping and stick with just admiring him for its uniqueness and unsurpassed personality.