Guest Column with Dr Dez Hughes

November 11 / 76

Dr Dez Hughes has just joined the Faculty of Veterinary Science as Associate Professor and Head of the Emergency and Critical Care Service. He is based at the University of Melbourne Veterinary Hospital at the Werribee campus.

Emergency and Critical Care for animals? What’s that? It’s a question I hear all the time. But veterinarians, like doctors, can undertake further training to specialise in just about any aspect of veterinary medicine and surgery. A regular, local veterinarian is exactly like your GP, skilled in all aspects of care; but if a pet is seriously ill then specialist care may be required. To become a certified expert, a veterinarian has to complete a residency training program followed by a rigorous examination as well as having published articles in scientific journals related to their field of study.

In veterinary emergency and critical care, we focus on treating animals with acute and potentially life threatening problems and also those that are so severely ill they require intensive care. Australia was one of the first countries in the world to develop veterinary practices focussed on emergency care for pets. This is not really surprising, given that as well as all the usual emergencies (like being hit by a car), Australia is blessed with more poisonous creatures than most other developed countries and a climate where heat induced illness is a constant risk.  To allow us to provide excellent emergency care, we use most of the equipment typically found in human hospitals.

The warmer months of the year are high season for snakebites, and the Werribee area has a lot of snakes! Unfortunately for inquisitive but unlucky dogs and cats, a severe snake bite can mean muscle paralysis, which can stop them being able to breathe. In this instance they will die quickly unless they are put on artificial ventilation: on the so called ‘life-support machine.’ Fortunately many of these patients ultimately survive and do very well after antivenin and several days in intensive care.

Thankfully the majority of emergencies we deal with are not as severe as snakebites. One we see all the time is the young dog that is vomiting because it has eaten something it shouldn’t have. And, believe me, they can have a surprisingly imaginative appetite! We find all manner of items ranging from corn cobs, socks and balls to children’s toys, pieces of furniture or even delicate undergarments...

Dealing with seriously ill pets can be challenging and stressful, but we are very lucky to have a great team of very experienced veterinarians and nurses who are all career professionals who deal only with emergency and intensive care patients. It is the challenging and fast-paced nature of the job that attracts many of us to emergency medicine, as well as being able to help animals and their owners overcome their emergency problems.

 But we don’t just help the animals and their owners: we are teaching final-year veterinary students all day and most of the night. A busy emergency service is quite rare  in universities across the world and we are very lucky to have one. It is the perfect environment in which to teach our University’s veterinary students how to deal with the common emergencies seen in general practice. And as our veterinary patients get many of the same conditions as people there is a great opportunity to explore research that will benefit both animals and people alike.

The emergency and critical care section is open and fully staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year with backup from all of our specialists in other areas if we need them. We are nearing 20 years of delivering emergency and critical care service to the community and our students and are looking forward to many more.

For more information on the University Veterinary Hospital visit:

Editorial Enquiries

Got a story?

Staff are encouraged to submit stories. There are some important steps in preparing a media-ready story.  Email