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Critical Care

What is a veterinary Intensive Care Unit?

An Intensive Care Unit (ICU) is a specialized unit in a hospital where critically ill patients are cared for by an expertly trained medical team. 

Why are patients admitted to an ICU?

Patients are admitted to the ICU for a variety of reasons. Some patients need close monitoring following a major surgical operation. Others may have problems with their lungs that require ventilator support with breathing. Some patients may have heart and blood vessel problems while others may have bloodwork abnormalities that require close monitoring as these levels are corrected. Patients may have a serious infection in their bodies that requires specialized care in the ICU.

Some pets that routinely benefit from care in an ICU are:

  • Trauma patients, including those hit by cars; and bite, bullet, knife, or burn injuries
  • Any pet that needs help breathing due to an underlying disease process
  • Pets that need a blood transfusion
  • Pets that are not producing urine or are unable to urinate
  • Dogs and cats that need specialized nutritional support because they are unwilling or unable to eat on their own
  • Pets in which an abnormal heart rhythm is causing problems
  • Pets with life-threatening neurologic disease such as coma or severe seizures that are not responding to medications
  • Patients that have had surgery and are not recovering well from anesthesia or are having trouble in the first few post-operative days

What happens in an ICU?

Seriously ill patients require close observation and monitoring around the clock. Specially trained nurses care for only a few patients at a time during each shift. Patients in the ICU are often connected to various machines to monitor their heart, blood pressure, and ability to oxygenate their body tissues. Some patients even require breathing machines called ventilators to help them breathe until they are able to do so on their own.  

Sounds in an ICU

The various machines in an ICU have alarms that are uniquely set depending on each patient’s condition. You might hear various alarm sounds when you are visiting your pet. Most alarms do not signal an emergency. These new sounds can be frightening, but they are important to help the medical team care for your pet. 

When are patients transferred out of an ICU?

An ICU is designed to care only for seriously and critically ill patients. So, when patients are improving and moving toward recovery, the veterinarian will transfer the patients to the next level of care that meets their respective medical needs.

What is a Critical Care Specialist?

Some veterinarians are board certified specialists in critical care. Specialists in veterinary critical care, called criticalists, are specially trained veterinarians dedicated to treating life-threatening conditions. They must first be a graduate of a recognized veterinary school, and then receive a minimum (or equivalent) of three additional years of residency training in emergency medicine, surgery, and critical care. This intensive program focuses on the most up-to-date techniques for diagnosis and treatment of life-threatening diseases. Once a veterinarian has completed these years of specialty training, the individual must pass a rigorous board certification examination. Upon successful completion of the training and passing of the examination, the veterinarian is a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care, and is board certified in veterinary emergency and critical care.


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