Some call him Tobito. Tobilongo. Tobikins. Others call him Jineperro, El Mimao or Señor Tobes. On any given day, we might call him The Cutie Patootie, Coo-Coo-Coo-Choo (since The Stones played Havana), What You Say?, Labios Negros or, when we’re feeling regal: Don José Juan Quinconio Sedonio de la Mancha, often shorted to Juan Quin Quin.
Many of these nicknames won’t make sense if you’re new to Cuba and having a dozen monikers for a mutt definitely doesn’t make sense if you don’t have a dog. Believe me: it just happens.
It’s a tad embarrassing how dog crazy I‘ve become since rescuing Toby. I’m a cat person by nature and childless by choice (I’m anti-dependents), but when this mongrel wandered into my life over seven years ago, he won my heart. He’s tough and scrappy, a hardy mix of some kind of terrier and what Cubans call ‘perro chino.’ That’s just our assumption by looking at him—doggie DNA testing isn’t a thing in Cuba…yet.
Except for the occasional asthma attack, he’s never been sick. (Dog asthma. Who knew?!)
So when his entire back erupted in open, oozing sores, accompanied by violent scratching and a stink so pungent we considered moving his bed out of our room, I kind of freaked out. Although he was eating and pooping well and exhibited the same happy, manic energy for which he’s famous, itchy, bloody sores and the nasty smell, combined with sleep deprivation sent me to a pretty dark place.
In my defense, Toby’s ill health was the ‘tapa de pomo’ (straw that broke the camel’s back). The past year, for those who haven’t been paying attention, was a complete shit show—everywhere, I’m aware, but especially in Cuba. Severe shortages of everything; four-hour (if you’re lucky) lines to buy cooking oil, soap, coffee or toothpaste; triple/quadruple/quintuple inflation; all beaches and pools closed for the second consecutive year; no remittances or visas and few family visits; protests; MLC stores; such expensive rum and cigarettes people are forced to go cold turkey…The physical and psychic toll this is taking on the populace is hard to overstate. It’s an incredibly fragile situation.
We tried all the home/natural remedies for which Cubans are known and admired. Pino macho, añil cimarron, silver sulphate. None of it worked and Toby was only getting worse. Several Cubans—including Toby’s dad—swore by burnt motor oil. But we’d already lost a lot of time. I put my foot down and insisted on better living through chemistry.
Because I’m a foreigner and have some savings (AKA privileged like few are here), I took mom’s advice and threw money at the problem, rolling up at the ‘Cira García for pets’; this is generally considered the top pet hospital in town. After three hours waiting alongside skittish purebreds (ratty Pekingese mostly, with a couple of cute pittbulls), we were seen by the vet.
Without asking his name, about his diet, clinical history, living conditions or anything else, she wrote down an address. ‘Go here at 7:30 tomorrow morning for a skin sample and lab tests. Come back next week. That will be 100 pesos. NEXT!’
I was disappointed. I’ve had better vet visits here, but most of the top animal docs have left the country or discontinued practicing for lack of meds and materials. Still, I was ecstatic that we had movement and an actual lab would analyze his results. Tobikins was on his way to health! Or so I thought…
The next morning, we bundled up Señor Tobes before jumping on the motorcycle for the nerve-wracking trip across town. Oh, did I not mention our transportation is a 1946 Harley Davidson? Toby adores riding with us, two back paws on dad’s legs, two on the handle bars, doing a lively four step to keep his balance as we cruise along. He barks and wags with joy, a huge grin on his labios negros, softening even the most curmudgeonly Cuban. That day crossing chaotic, pothole-pocked Marianao during morning rush hour with sick Toby at the wheel, barking madly? Cue 19th nervous breakdown.
We arrived at Dorca’s house as workers sipped espresso hurriedly at the cafeteria next door. Dorca and her partner, dressed in lab coats and gloves, were doing a brisk urine/blood/skin sample business for dogs and cats. I now understood the early appointment time: they worked in a hospital lab somewhere and saw four-legged patients before their day job started; this was their side hustle. Everyone has one—has to have one—and while some are seriously sketchy, Dorca’s hustle is 100% Conner endorsed.
They pet and cooed at Toby, called him by name and spent more time with him than the vet. The full lab screening and tender care cost 250 pesos.
Fast forward a week. Lab results in hand (dipylidium caninum; staphylococcus; streptococcus) we were back at the top vet hospital a full hour before they opened to mark our place in line. Already waiting were a ‘salchicha,’ a grumpy old cat in a stroller, a mini-pinscher and a mutt named Mollie. We were fourth in line! I wouldn’t arrive too late at Cuba Libro, I figured. And I was right: the vet never showed up.
Another few days passed, Toby and my state of mind continued to worsen and we were scrambling to find food for us and him (kibble is for Cuba’s 1%, the rest of us cook for our dogs, something that has become very difficult, leading to many dogs being put on the street—or worse). We returned to the vet bright and early and marked our place in line. A neighbor I ran into while waiting gave me the name of his vet. She was far across town and I already had over six or more vet contacts in my phone but another couldn’t hurt.
My anxiety was off the charts at this point. We still had no proper diagnosis or treatment and it was going to be very difficult and expensive to get the medications once prescribed. My last nerve held on to the fact that we were closing in on a professional opinion with a plan of action. And we were almost there, just a few pets in front of us. Next thing I knew, a fashion victim of the type you see often in Cuba (a kind of Kardashian-Mustang Ranch mash up) stepped from a car with a venomous corgie of questionable pedigree who went straight for Toby. She yanked her dog back on his fake Gucci leash, but too late. Mr Tobes lunged so forcefully towards the corgi, his harness broke in two. Chaos ensued, but tragedy avoided since I’m famous for inserting myself into a full-on dog fight when Toby might be in danger.
Having successfully separated the two machos, I smoked a cigarette and waited. And waited. And waited. Over the next two hours, the doctor only saw a sick Husky, prioritizing instead all the later-arriving pets there for travel documents. After four full hours had passed, she had attended only two sick pets, while whipping through a dozen animals emigrating abroad. I get it. Emigrating, and with a pet, is fraught. And stressful. And time sensitive. But. We were here at 8am marking our place in line. Where were you? If taking your pet abroad is a priority, act like it.
And the “Doctor.” Her side hustle is certifying animals for travel. It pays well and is low hanging fruit so she opted to see those animals—all of which arrived after us—before the sick ones. The lack of ethics and her bald-faced ‘sucks to be you with your sick pet’ manner got my panties all up in a bunch and I said something. I called her out. Others grumbled ascent. She looked a little panicked and told me to see the vet upstairs.
When he came out of his exam room, he explained that he is a surgeon; I have to wait downstairs for the vet (his card clearly states that he is a surgeon and clinician). ‘She’s the one who sent me up here,’ I said, further explaining what was going on downstairs. I cited the lack of ethics. I asked if we could make a proper appointment to avoid all this, making it easier for us and them in the process. ‘It’s first come, first served,’ he told me. ‘In theory, you mean,’ I responded. He finally agreed to see Toby, lifted him on to the exam table, glanced at the lab results and prescribed a 10-day cycle of cipro accompanied by topical treatment with ozone oil (smells like ass—not the good kind. Keeps the sores clean and helps healing). I’m not sure if it was me pointing up the questionable ethics or that he didn’t want his practice vilified on the socials, but he didn’t charge us for the visit.
I breathed easier. Toby was diagnosed and undergoing treatment. A friend gave us the ozone oil and we procured the antibiotics, by tactfully not mentioning they were for a dog. My relief didn’t last long: we followed the doctor’s orders to the letter, never missed a dose, but Toby wasn’t improving. The three of us weren’t sleeping well, he still gave off that rank odor and was scratching just as badly as before. The sores continued to ooze.
By now it was Christmas. Even in good years, the two weeks between Christmas, New Year’s and the recovery period are lost here, nothing gets done, work is an idea, not a reality. Every Cuban knows you don’t get sick during this time if you can help it because none of the good doctors are seeing patients. We called every vet I had registered in my phone. Over the next few days, only one answered, feigning that he wasn’t a vet (dude, you’re lying like a rug!) once he learned that Toby was a mutt rescue and saw the photos of his sores. As a last resort, I called the vet my friend recommended while I was standing on line that day.
Dr G, agreed to see us that afternoon. The trip was difficult and long. The motorcycle was giving us trouble, it was cold, and people were still in full revel, weaving in the street. Toby was antsy and shaking. My partner was uncharacteristically curt. We rode the elevator to the 9th floor in silence, making sure El Juan Quinquín didn’t pee in the corner, leaving his macho mark.
The elevator opened right into Dr. G’s home, as they do in Havana floor-through apartments. We were asked to wait on the balcony while she finished up with a Shih Tzu mix. Her elderly father was parked in front of the TV and we heard beans under pressure on the stove. We killed time looking at the family photos: a daughter in El Norte posed beside her car, graduation, the obligatory quince portrait, larger-than-life, that anchors every Cuban living room. In-home vet services like this one are the norm here. Kitchens second as surgical theaters, balconies and maid quarters are converted into exam rooms, and your pet is attended while the family talks about the price of bananas or Cuca’s bunyons. You get used to it.
Dr G. called us into her office crammed with papers, animal pictures like you might see at a child psychologist’s and old-fashioned metal boxes for the meds and needles. She asked to see Toby’s lab results and clinical history. She called him by name as my partner lifted him onto the stainless steel examination table, quizzing us about his diet, previous treatment and past ailments. She warned that these types of skin infections are notoriously difficult to cure. He didn’t flinch during the triple injection of antibiotics, vitamins and anti-parasites. But when she sprayed a neon pink substance on his sores, he whelped and cringed. ‘This burns,’ she said, expertly spritzing the remaining sores before he could wiggle away. ‘At home, you should apply mercurochrome once a day.’
She filled a vial with 6 antibiotic doses and gave us the syringes with which to administer them (almost all Cubans can give an injection—to pets and people). ‘You’ll need to get 10 tablets of prednisone to control the itching. I’d like to see him for follow up after he finishes treatment.’ We paid her 400 pesos and prepared for the long ride home, more relaxed and relieved than when we set out.
Thanks (again) to friends and family, we procured the mercurochrome and prednisone within a day and buckled down to nurse Labios Negros back to health. We changed his feeding schedule as Dr G suggested and my partner injected him every night at 6pm (even after 20 years here, I don’t give injections and I can’t make a decent congris). We went for the follow up last week and I’m happy to report that aside from the hot pink stains left by the doc’s topical and daily doses of mercurochrome, Toby is his old self again and ready to reclaim his garden territory at Cuba Libro.
Morals of the story:
- Always get a second opinion;
- Always keep several vet contacts and gather more, even if you think it’s overkill;
- Never underestimate the solidarity of friends and family during a health crisis;
- Everyone should know how to properly and safely give an injection;
- Work hard not to have health issues over the holidays (especially in Cuba);
- Home/natural remedies are worth a try, but modern medicine should always have a place in your health toolbox; and
- If your pet falls ill during one of Cuba’s inevitable crises, it’s OK to not come clean that the medication you need is for your fur baby.
PS – Thanks to everyone who has come to Cuba Libro, called and written to ask after Toby’s health. If you’re interested in supporting organizations working to rescue and heal Cuba’s street animals, check out the following (medicine, materials and financial support accepted):