The Risky Business of Bugs (or the Tiniest Hazards of the Veterinary Job)

Tick on finger

I awoke one morning last year to a tickle on the inside of my wrist. By lunchtime, I’d reflexively rubbed it so raw that by then half my arm was covered with a coalescing mass of tiny red welts.

Turns out I’d gotten mange — again. One of any number of cute-but-mangy kittens I’d seen earlier in the week had doubtless passed along a bevy of its microscopic friends, wreaking much dermatologic havoc along the way.

The Itchy-Scratchy Part of the Job

Mange on my person had never presented in this particular pattern. Yes, I have plenty of experience in this arena, but this time was different. The crazy-itchy bumps had no mercy, apparently taking pity only by electing to confine themselves to my extremities. (I shudder to think of the damage they would have done if they had encroached upon my torso.)

By week’s end I’d seen two dermatologists and still hadn’t gotten much satisfaction. After two kinds of mite-killing topicals, a course of corticosteroids was eventually deemed the only option, and I suffered its wrath like the crybaby I am — with lots of hand-wringing over my waistline and a freezer full of guava ice cream to tempt me. (Prednisone makes me hungry!)

So you know, I’m by no means alone in this uncomfortable experience. Though not every vet worker ends up in tears on her dermatologist’s doorstep, this particular foray into personal parasitology was by no means my first, and it’s unlikely to be my last, either. Bugs (including insects, mites, ticks, fungi and bacteria) are that much a part of normal veterinary life.

A Badge of Honor

In fact, bugs like mites are so much a daily reality for vets and vet staff that plenty of us consider ourselves immune — from the ick factor, anyway. Gone are our past prejudices (based on the stigma of childhood lice?). At work, perhaps, is the strangely compelling notion that to be bug-ridden is to be part of the animal worker in-crowd.

After all, everyone knows a little mange never killed anyone. Ear mites and lice don’t even like human flesh! Nor does ringworm typically do much more than render you romantically undesirable. (One foul year, a lesion on my cheek saw me dateless all the way from Thanksgiving straight through Valentine’s Day.)

And fleas? Bah! They’re gone as soon as they bite. They want nothing to do with humans as long as there’s plenty of dog and cat skin to be had. But ticks — now there’s a reason to take a shower after work. (Finding them fast is what keeps them from giving you nasty diseases.)

Some Serious Consequences

But as my most recent feline mange experience demonstrates, even the simplest, most ubiquitous bugs can still get vicious: I’ve scrutinized mangy bumps as they covered one co-worker’s entire torso (when she was pregnant, no less!). I’ve observed ringworm lesions leave artful scars on another’s chest. I’ve even witnessed a seemingly inoffensive flea bite morph into a full-blown abscess that made the term “flesh-eating bacteria” sound like a Happy Meal.

No, even if I didn’t have my own appalling experiences to remind me, I’d feel well justified in counting creepy-crawlies among my profession’s least respected perils. As if the teeth and claws weren’t enough.


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