D. E. Larsen, DVM
“Doc, I know it is late, but I have three dogs who just tangled with a cougar,” Lon said. “They all have large gashes on the top of their heads. The worse one has three slashes that are really deep and long. The other two are not as bad. My wife, she’s a nurse, you know, she thinks we need to sew them up tonight.”
“How do you know it was a cougar, Lon?” I asked.
“I was pretty obvious,” Lon said. “They were making a hell of a racket. They were down by the road in a group of trees, right across the street from the school.”
“My hound clients say that cougar behavior has changed since they are no longer hunted with dogs,” I said. “They have dogs that get torn up by the big cats all the time. Those dogs run across a cougar a lot when they are hunting bobcats. The top of the head is a common target for the cats.”
“Can I bring them in tonight?” Lon asked.
“Yes, I can meet you at the clinic in about thirty minutes,” I said.
Lon’s three dogs, all grey pit bulls, came through the door with tails wagging and tongues handing out of their mouths, still excited from their encounter. They were utterly oblivious to their injuries.
Samson, the dog who took the brunt of the assault, had three long slashes that covered the length of the top of his skull. These slashes were deep and into the muscles. They were evenly spaced and perfectly aligned, about one and a half inches apart.
As I looked at these slashes, I remembered Dr. Adams told me about sewing up a horse in Africa that had been attacked by a lion. He had said those wounds all fell apart, heavily injected by the cat claws. His advice would be to treat these wounds as open wounds. Closure may be futile.
“Lon, these are definitely wounds from a large cat,” I said. “I had a professor who told a story of closing wounds like this on a horse in Africa. Those wounds were from an attack by a lion, and they all fell apart after he sutured them. We might be ahead to treat these as open wounds.”
“I don’t think you want to have that discussion with my wife,” Lon said.
“I know, but you just remember what I said when these things fall apart,” I said. “And Lon, just between you and me, medical doctors and nurses, make the worse veterinarians I know.”
Large dogs were always so easy to work with. They had enough self-confidence that you could usually do things with them that you could never accomplish on a small dog.
I injected these slashes with lidocaine, and Samson never fletched once. After shaving and prepping the wounds, I applied an antibiotic ointment to the exposed tissues and then wiped most of it out.
“The experts will tell you that I should never put anything into a wound like that,” I said to Lon, who was holding Samson and trying not to watch too closely.
“Why is that?” Lon asked.
“They think they have seen wounds in this situation, but in reality, they live in a different world,” I said. “They probably allow for system antibiotics for these wounds, but they do approve of locally applied antibiotics. But I say the truth is in the pudding. If I close contaminated wounds, I apply antibiotics to the exposed tissues.”
I sutured the fascia covering the muscles to close the deep tissues and then closed the skin of each slash with a two-layer closure. We put Samson down on the floor and chuckled at the three neat rows of sutures on the top of his head.
The other two dogs were a snap compared to Samson. One short slash on the top of one head, and on the other, a longer slash came close to his left ear and then just a nick closer to the middle of his skull. There was no muscle involvement in any of these wounds. I closed both of these with local anesthesia.
“I am apprehensive about this cat,” Lon said.
“My guess, Lon, is that three pit bulls got their licks in during the battle,” I said. “That cat probably made his exit as soon as you got the dogs into the house.”
“Those trees are directly across the road from the elementary school playground,” Lon said. “Do you think I should call the sheriff or someone?”
“I will call Fish and Wildlife in the morning,” I said. “I doubt that they are going to be very responsive, but I will give them a call.”
In the morning, I called the regional office of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. I was shuffled through a couple of different phones until one of the ladies on the line offered to connect me to the biologist.
“Hello, this is Doctor Larsen. I am a veterinarian in Sweet Home. I was calling to let you guys know that I sewed up three dogs last night,” I said. “They were in an altercation with a cougar on their property. That property is located across the street from the elementary school here.”
“How do you know it was a cougar?” the lady biologist asked.
“For one thing, the owner heard the commotion and was sure it was a cougar,” I said. “The second thing is I have been in this business for a few years. I have worked on several hounds with similar injuries from hunters who encounter the cougars by accident while chasing bobcats. All these wounds look the same, and most of them are on the top of the dog’s head, just like the wounds last night.”
“Well, I guess we are all going to have to do a better job at convincing owners to keep their pets in the house,” the esteemed biologist said.
“You’re not worried about the proximity to the school?” I asked.
“That cat is long gone. There is no danger to the school,” she said.
When Lon brought the dogs in for suture removal, the wounds had healed well.
“I guess you were right about the antibiotic in the wound,” Lon said after I removed the sutures.
“When they regrow their hair, you won’t be able to see a scar,” I said. “By the way, I did call ODFW. They weren’t very concerned, just like I suspected.”
“Well, I’m concerned,” Lon said. “Those cats belong up in the hills, not down here around houses and schools.
“I agree,” I said. “When I came to Sweet Home, I would hear a cat story once or maybe twice a year. Then they stopped hunting them with dogs, and the Forest Service quit harvesting timber in the National Forest. Now, most of the logging is done on private land. Clear cuts are the major source of browse for the deer and elk. And private land is close to town. The cats follow their food source, and that puts them close to people. And they start doing a lot of hunting in towns after they learn that cats and dogs are easy prey. Now I hear cat stories every couple of weeks. It is just a matter of time before some kid goes around a corner and runs into one of them.”
“Well, in town or not, if I see one in the future, I am going shoot it,” Lon said.
“It is a problem that needs a solution,” I said. “I am not sure what is going to have to happen for that solution to be found.”
Photo by John Borrelli on Unsplash.