What is Veterinary Critical Care?

Veterinary Critical Care Medicine or Veterinary Intensive Care Medicine is a branch of veterinary medicine concerned with the provision of life support to critically ill animals who typically require intensive monitoring. Such care is usually only offered to animals whose condition is potentially reversible and who have a good chance of surviving with adequate support. Since critically ill animals may be close to death, their outcome is difficult to predict. Sadly, some patients may die despite intensive care.

Many patients are admitted to intensive care with a serious medical condition but some are admitted following major surgery when they are too unstable to be cared for elsewhere. Some patients are in the ICU for shorter periods of time than others, depending on the extent of their illness or injury. They may be admitted either as a planned admission after major surgery or as an emergency admission following an acute illness.

Intensive care units (ICU) are sections within a hospital that look after patients whose conditions are life-threatening and need constant, close monitoring and support from equipment and medication to keep normal body functions going. They have higher levels of staffing, specialist monitoring and treatment equipment only available in these areas and the staff are highly trained in caring for the most severely ill patients. The work of critical care staff makes a crucial difference to the chances patients have of survival. To this end, severe and invasive steps may be required to save the patient’s life.

ICUs offer a large number of treatments that cannot be given on normal wards, including:

  • Continuous invasive monitoring via plastic tubes placed into veins and arteries to enable blood pressure and flow to be measured
  • Drainage tubes may be put into the bladder (urinary catheters) or stomach
  • Support of breathing following insertion of a breathing tube in the windpipe (ventilation)
  • Support of the circulation when the blood pressure is low using fluid replacement and drugs that increase blood pressure (inotropes and vasopressors)
  • Nutritional support through feeding tubes or if the digestive system is not working, directly into veins

Once an animal is admitted to ICU it is a time of great stress and worry for owners. ICUs vary in size from one hospital to the next. You should expect a high level of activity round the clock. Noise levels are likely to be higher than in other areas of the hospital largely because of the operation of the equipment and the constant presence of staff providing care and undertaking procedures. Visiting in intensive care is usually possible but there may be times when you will be asked to wait because of interventions being carried out or to safeguard other patients.

Infection control is very important in intensive care because patients who are very unwell are susceptible to infection. Visitors will be required to comply with local hygiene policies.