For Jerry Bennett, it was enough to make him want to dial 911. Olga had jumped on her sister, Aggie, and Aggie had started to cough.
"What's wrong?" Bennett had asked Aggie. Aggie coughed again.
In no time Bennett had hailed a taxi and was hauling his cat through the doors of the Georgetown Veterinary Hospital, where Dr. Wesley B. Bayles specialized in pet talk, too.
"Howyadoin' today, kitty," Bayles asked while taking Aggie's temperature. "Yeeoow," cried the cat.
Call Bayles a veterinarian, but with clients who treat their pets like people, sometimes dressing them in designer clothes and feeding them gourmet foods, he's more like a pediatrician who treats four-legged children.
And, like any good baby doctor, he must be as concerned about the well-being of the patient's "parent" as he is about the health of the pet.
"Look, Doc, Aggie's pupils are dilated," Bennett said. "That's a sign of heroin, isn't it?"
"Stress," Bayles said calmly.
"And that cough," Bennett continued. "At first I thought it was just hairballs, but it could be cat asthma, couldn't it?"
Bayles cuddled Aggie, a stethoscope in his hand as he checked her breathing and heart rate. "I can't really hear a lot of air movement," Bayles said. "I'd better keep her for some chest films."
Bennett sighed -- and waited for the results.
Throughout yesterday morning, pet owners filed into the waiting room of the hospital at 2916 M St. NW. It was an ordinary day in the life of a man who cares for odd little critters as well as the people who hold them extremely dear. Sometimes the problems are great, and sometimes small, but in the minds of the pet owners, Bayles gives caring attention to all. He treats pets as important members of the family.
"I just brought him for some shots," Pam Morrell said of her "mutt," Gatsby. Cuddling the cat and staring at it as if it were a baby, she said with concern, "I think something's wrong with his ears, too."
"This is Edgar, the Siamese," said Madeline Curtin. "He's 23 years old and full of vinegar. He's very articulate, too. If I say something to him, he says something to me. I may be getting dotty, but there's going to be a big void in my life when he's gone."
Bayles has been a veterinarian since 1973, but it's still difficult for him to discuss the death of a pet.
"We're talking about a very intimate part of the family," Bayles said. A few minutes earlier, a man had quietly entered the hospital and picked up an empty pet-carrying box that Bayles had left out for him. The man was too sad to talk.
"He told me that he had only seen his son cry twice," Bayles recalled. "Once was Sunday, when I had to put his cat to sleep."
Now Bayles was working himself up to tell an elderly man, whose wife was ill, that his dog of many years was dying of cancer.
"It's going to hurt bad," Bayles said. "The man who just left. He was crushed."
When Moe, the huge hospital alley cat and outdoor rat patrol chief, appeared on a windowsill, Bayles let him in and lifted Moe to his neck, which the cat hugged like a child before climbing on the vet's shoulders.
"With so many people living alone, pets have become companions in a very special way," Bayles said.
"But they are not just replacements for children," added his wife Kathy, who works as the hospital receptionist. "We have five cats, a dog and two kids. Pets are just a part of life."
"My four cats are the love of my life," Bennett said. "They have human names because I talk to them like people. I wouldn't trust them with anybody but Dr. Bayles."
Bayles blushed and called Bennett into his laboratory, where X-rays of Aggie's ribs were hanging on the wall. Bayles explained that he would have to drain some fluid from Aggie's chest, but that the cat would be fine.
"That's all we have to do and Aggie will be fine, eh, Doc," Bennett smiled.
"You gonna be fine, baby," Bennett said to Aggie.
"Meow," said the cat.