Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Inside the Animal ICU


Pet Column for the week of March 6, 2006

Related information:

Services - Veterinary Profession

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Kim Marie Labak
Information Specialist

When a pet is critically ill, a veterinary intensive care unit (ICU) can provide around-the-clock veterinary monitoring and care, 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week.

Alyssa Galligan, certified veterinary technician (CVT) and head critical care technician at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, explains that pets with a variety of medical conditions may require constant monitoring. "For example, pets with neurological issues that can lead to seizures or respiratory problems need close monitoring and may stay in the ICU. There are also some patients we see regularly, such as kidney or diabetic patients that may need fluid therapy."

The ICU sees a variety of cases and works with different departments of specialization. "Many cases come from the emergency room. They may include anything from a trauma patient to a patient with respiratory issues. A good percentage of patients we see are recovering from surgery and need close monitoring and pain medication." The ICU staff also work with departments such as radiology to perform diagnostic tests.

Some patients may come into the clinic for intensive care, but may receive a diagnosis that sends them to a different department. For example, a patient may come into the ICU because it has problems urinating, and if an ultrasound reveals a prostate tumor, the patient may be sent to surgery or oncology.

The ICU at the veterinary teaching hospital is arranged to allow the veterinarians and veterinary technicians to see virtually all patients from anywhere in the ward. The ward also has specialized equipment to monitor critical patients. "We have a cordless ECG (electrocardiogram) to monitor heart electrical activity, which is specifically useful for monitoring patients with cardiac arrhythmias, or abnormal heartbeats. We also have oxygen cages for those patients that may require oxygen therapy," says Galligan.

There are also special machines that can measure the amount of oxygen, acid, and glucose in the blood, which is useful for monitoring patients suffering a respiratory, toxic, or diabetic crisis.

Patients may also need specific therapies that need to be closely monitored, such as intravenous fluid therapy for kidney disease or oxygen therapy in the form of an enclosed oxygen cage for patients in respiratory distress.

Galligan, who manages the day-to-day operations of the ICU, such as ordering supplies and scheduling staff to supervising and training veterinary students, technicians and new veterinary interns or residents, explains that behind the scenes, many people make the ICU function smoothly.

"Here in the university setting, each patient has an assigned faculty veterinarian, an intern, or resident veterinarian and a fourth year veterinary student. After examining the patient, veterinarians write orders for what type of monitoring, diagnostics tests, and treatments they want performed." Veterinary technicians and fourth-year veterinary students can then monitor the patient closely and perform the needed tests and medical treatments.

Written records of a patient's vital signs such as heart rate, temperature, blood pressure, and respiratory rate are updated every hour, and each patient has a detailed chart of tests and treatments that need to be performed throughout the day.

"One of my favorite things about the job is seeing how certain tests and treatments can really help a patient. We see a wide variety of patients here, and were constantly learning something new."

Galligan points out owners may not always know how many people take care of their pet in the ICU. "I remember a Doberman, a heart failure patient--I took care of him here for a week and got to know him very well. One day I saw him walking down the street, and it was a little strange that I recognized the pet but not his owners, since I had never met them. He recognized me and got very excited, and I walked over and finally got to introduce myself to his owners."

For more information about emergencies and conditions that may require intensive veterinary care, consult your veterinarian.