Animal Health Matters: Veterinary medicine and the art of motorcycle repair
That wasn’t the sound I was expecting when I pressed the starter button on my motorcycle.
Just “click.” No whirring of the starter motor and rumble of the engine. In fact, no lights or anything were working. I was dead in the water.
Saturday morning was spent getting the disabled machine back to my garage, where my first step was to check the battery. Battery is fine. This wasn’t going to be that simple. I needed someone smarter about motorcycles than me to figure this out. I needed a professional.
Procuring the services of a motorcycle professional proved difficult. There’s a good shop in the next town over, but when I described my machine to them, they politely deferred. Turns out my motorcycle (a 1980 Suzuki purchased for $900 3 years ago from a student) was much too “vintage” for them to want to work on.
A few more calls and a consult with my Harley-owning neighbor (who was quick to admit he was “no wrench-turner”) proved fruitless. I was on my own.
Armed with an old shop manual and some YouTube videos, I set about to examine and diagnose. It sucked to have a dead motorcycle during such nice riding weather, but I liked the task in front of me. It brought me back to something I enjoyed about veterinary practice: using my observational skills and knowledge to solve a problem. Now it was a dead Suzuki in front of me; in practice, it was a sick cow. examined
As I tore into the electrical system, I compared and contrasted the Suzuki and the cow. The diagnostic process I was undertaking was remarkably similar to what I did with a sick cow. I was making observations about the wires, fuses, and starter (anatomy) and assessing the functions: where is current flowing? Does the starter relay work? In the cow, I’d be looking for abnormalities, too. Are there ketones on her breath? A discharge coming from the nose or eyes? Is she pregnant? I’d assess the functions too: how are the lungs and heart working? Like the motorcycle, the cow isn’t talking – so observations are everything.
But the differences are so much more pronounced. As complicated as a motorcycle can be, it’s rudimentary compared to a biological system like a cow. Her cellular functions are driven by respiration: the transfer of oxygen from the lungs to the blood to the cells. This is affected by the cardiovascular system, which is affected by nerves and the brain. Just that by itself is exquisitely complex.
With animals, though, throw in a whole other set of factors. Behavior, for example. Some cows are bullies at the feed bunk, others are submissive; this affects nutrition, which affects everything else. Stress comes into play: overcrowding or social stress dampens the immune system. Exposure to the elements through excessive cold or heat affects their systems, too. And don’t even get me started on the constant exposure to germs in their environments.
I think the biggest difference between a mechanical and a biological system, however, is predictability. Replacing a bad starter relay on a motorcycle will give you clearly predictable results (quite successful results for my Suzuki, as it turned out), as will filling up the gas tank or adjusting a carburetor. Do the same for another motorcycle and you get the same results. But you treat a cow with an intravenous bottle of dextrose, and you just don’t know. Is her problem too far along? How will her mild case of mastitis affect her recovery? Is it too hot out for her body to respond? A quote I like to repeat is, “There are no absolutes with a biological system.” What works for one cow might not work for another. What works on one day might not work the next. Therefore, veterinarians really are doctors, not “cow mechanics.”
Another point is that when your animals have health problems, you don’t need to go it alone like I did with my motorcycle. Old books and YouTube videos are not useful tools for nursing a sick animal back to health! No matter where you’re at, or what kind of critter you have, there are plenty of veterinarians around ready to help you help your animal back to health!