For animals that need care, the doctors are always in

URBANA — It was late on a summer afternoon when Mansfield farmer Brian Anderson was getting ready to head out in his utility vehicle and little Sheldon Cooper ran out, eager to come along for the ride.

Sheldon suffered a traumatic brain injury that day when he fell out an open side of the moving Gator and smacked the gravel road.

His chances of surviving the accident were about 50 percent, but two things saved this American bulldog puppy: Owners who wouldn't give up on him, and the University of Illinois' veterinary teaching hospital, where he was a patient for nearly two weeks.

One of thousands of animals treated at that hospital last year, Sheldon was carried in wrapped in a blanket and comatose, and went home beginning to walk again.

When they first arrived with their dog, Anderson recalls, "It was just like you were walking into a human medical emergency room."

Actually, the whole hospital at the southeast corner of the UI's main campus functions pretty much like a human health system.

In addition to 24-hour emergency and critical care, it has diagnostics such as ultrasound, MRI and CT scans, a rehab department, cancer treatments, surgeries and a medical staff that offers primary care and specialties.

They even allow visiting when your animal loved one is an overnight patient.

The demand for all this veterinary care can be high. The College of Veterinary Medicine says the hospital's small animal clinic, which sees dogs, cats and exotic pets, handles about 17,000 patient visits a year, about two-thirds of them dogs.

More than 3,000 horses and farm animals are brought for care through the large animal clinic each year, not including the horses and farm animals seen and treated off-site.

On-site, horses have access to two climate-controlled equine wards, two surgery rooms with padded recovery rooms and such procedures as video endoscopy and high-speed treadmill exams.

"We function pretty much as a human hospital," said Dr. Scott Austin, an equine veterinarian who makes field calls.

That medical services common in the human health world are needed and wanted for animals reinforces what Austin says he's seen during his 30 years in the veterinary field. Animals often become members of the family.

"The human-animal bond is an amazing thing," Austin said.

And the bond can go beyond people and the animals you think are pets.

"We have cows that come in here with names — a lot," he said.

Wild kingdom

The vast majority of patients at the UI veterinary hospital are dogs, cats, horses and farm animals, but a penguin who was dropping weight was recently in for a CT scan recently, and a lethargic wallaby was in for an MRI.

"I don't know if you could say it was narcoleptic, but it was acting that way," said Dr. Julia Whittington, a veterinarian who treats exotic animals.

The UI veterinary teaching hospital also provides care for the zoos in Decatur and Bloomington. The vets go there and the animals come to Urbana, depending on what's needed, Whittington said.

More critters — among them orphaned bobcat kittens, an injured snowy owl and a golden eagle — have come in for care through the veterinary college's non-profit Wildlife Medical Clinic, operated primarily by volunteer vet students. Wild animals found and brought in by the public are treated for free, with a goal of getting them ready to be released back into the wild, said Whittington, the clinic's medical director.

The Exotic Feline Rescue Center at Center Point, Ind., sent a tiger named Jenny to the UI teaching hospital for a diagnostic work-up in 2012.

The UI hospital once provided all the medical care for the center's big cats, and while it has its own veterinary care on-site now, the center still sends its more complicated medical cases to Urbana, said director Joe Taft.

"Anything we don't feel comfortable handling, we send there," he said.

The UI vet hospital can provide care for about any exotic animal that can be legally owned as pets, said Whittington. To name just two, it's treated some kinkajous (they are rain forest mammals) and last month, it had among its patients a Patagonian cavy, a large-ish rodent.

An ailing turkey vulture was brought in last month, said Dr. Maureen McMichael, a veterinarian who heads emergency and critical care for small animals.

"We see everything, you name it," she said.

Anderson's observation about the emergency department was correct: It functions pretty much like the people version, with the most urgent cases seen first, McMichael said.

"If it's critical, the animal is rushed right back," she said.

McMichael brought in her own dog recently to provide a blood transfusion for another dog that came into emergency with a near-fatal case of liver failure.

The hospital has blood banks for dogs and cats to which the pet dogs and cats of staff and students at the veterinary school donate blood.

Anyone can bring an animal to the UI veterinary hospital, though many cases are referred by other veterinarians, said UI veterinary ophthalmologist Dr. Ralph Hamor.

"Your appointment will take longer because we are taking the time to train students," he said. "But it broadens your care."

Saving Sheldon

Anderson and his girlfriend, Dessa Waldo, transported their injured dog on a cookie sheet and went first to the Animal Emergency Clinic of Champaign County after the accident this past summer. There, Sheldon (named for "The Big Bang Theory" character on TV) was examined and referred right to the UI, Anderson said.

Sheldon was "basically in a vegetative state," and was put on fluids and given medications by his UI caregivers to reduce the swelling in his brain and help prevent seizures. But he remained unresponsive for the first few days.

"They said: All we can do is keep trying, 'cause they don't do that stuff for nothing, and we said, 'We want to keep trying,'" Anderson said.

Dr. Virginie Wurlod, a UI veterinary critical care resident, remembers the concern was Sheldon might not survive his first night. "But he survived the first 24 hours, which was really critical."

In addition to medication, Sheldon was placed in an oxygen cage for the first few days to help his lungs and brain, she said.

Within a few days, they were able to hand-feed him by placing small pieces of food in his mouth.

"Very slowly, his condition, day by day, improved a little bit," she said.

At first, Sheldon had no coordination or balance, but after a week he could stand with help, and by the time he left, Wurlod said, the dog was almost ready to walk on his own.

"She got him up and moving again," Anderson recalled of Wurlod. "She basically held him up and got him to take little steps at a time."

Anderson and Waldo took Sheldon home and continued nursing him in a playpen with padded sides. Now eight months old now, Sheldon has been left with vision in just one eye. But he can walk and play again, and when you consider where he was after the accident, he's come a long way, Anderson said.

"He is such a cute little guy," he said.

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