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What does “isolation” mean on a vets website, and is it important?


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Veterinary practices come in all different shapes and sizes, from practices that are run by one vet and two nurses on a small scale, to large hospitals with 15 vets and 20 nurses. It is important to do your research when looking for a veterinary practice for your animals. Look at the reviews, check their social media and have a look on their website to see what facilities they have. You may notice that the veterinary practice mentions an isolation ward. What does this mean and when might an isolation ward be used?

What is an isolation ward?

To put it simply, an isolation ward allows the veterinary practice to isolate infectious patients. This reduces the risk of cross-contamination with other animals, or even the spread of some diseases onto humans. An isolation ward is usually a completely separate room with a few kennels and a food preparation area. In an ideal world, the isolation ward would also have its own facilities such as a sink, washing machine, dryer and outdoor toileting area for dogs. In reality, this is often hard to come by unless a practice has been purpose-built. If an isolation ward is not self-contained then extra care should be taken by the veterinary team whilst handling soiled bedding, or walking the patient to the communal toileting area to avoid the spread of disease. 

Why is an isolation ward important?

Isolation wards are extremely important within the veterinary practice. It allows infectious or potentially infected animals to be separated from the rest of the patients that are in the veterinary practice. Often, dog and cat wards can sometimes house in excess of 20 animals. If an infectious patient was to be housed within the same vicinity, there is the potential for all of the other patients to become infected. Some animals may be carrying a zoonotic disease.

What is a zoonotic disease?

A zoonotic disease is an infectious disease that can be passed from animal to human, or from human to animal. Examples of zoonotic diseases include rabies, ringworm and leptospirosis. Rabies is exceptionally rare within the UK and a case has not been recorded since the beginning of the 20th century, but other zoonoses such as ringworm or leptospirosis are quite common. 

If a zoonotic or potentially zoonotic patient is admitted to isolation, there is usually a protocol put in place to minimise the chance of exposure to the disease. Personal protective equipment is usually worn by staff such as gloves, gowns, visors and hair nets. The flow of traffic to the isolation ward is usually minimised to one or two staff members who purely deal with the infected patient and no others. All waste from the patient is placed into specific disposal bags ready for incineration. A foot bath may be placed outside the isolation unit, allowing footwear to be disinfected upon leaving the isolation ward.

When might a sick animal be placed in isolation?

Animals may be placed in isolation as a precaution if they are showing similar symptoms to an infectious disease. In other instances, confirmed infectious patients will be placed straight into isolation. Common diseases that require isolation include:

Kennel cough 

Kennel cough is an infectious disease that causes a dry hacking cough in dogs. This is easily spread to other dogs through direct coughing and the release of mucus water droplets. The disease affects their respiratory symptoms, hence the symptom of coughing. Kennel cough is not usually dangerous to general health unless the animal is immunocompromised. In severe cases, kennel cough has the potential to develop into pneumonia. Kennel cough can be easily prevented by an annual vaccine that is usually given intra-nasally. 

Parvovirus 

Parvovirus is an extremely contagious disease that can sometimes be fatal to dogs. It usually presents in puppies from around 6 weeks to 6 months old, or in unvaccinated adult dogs. The disease relates to their gastrointestinal tract, causing severe diarrhoea, vomiting, depression and dehydration. Dogs and puppies should be vaccinated against parvovirus to prevent catching the disease. Parvovirus should be treated as soon as possible. If you are suspicious of parvovirus symptoms, speak to your veterinary practice immediately. 

Cat Flu 

Cat flu has similar symptoms to human flu and can affect a cat’s eyes and nose as well as causing fever-like symptoms. It is not usually fatal unless the patient is young, old or immunocompromised. Symptoms include runny eyes and nose, sneezing, excess mucus and mouth ulcers. The risk of cat flu can be significantly decreased by cats receiving an annual vaccination.

Reverse use of isolation

In some instances, isolation may not be used to house infectious patients, but used to house patients that are vulnerable or immunocompromised. For example, if a puppy is admitted to the practice for treatment and is unvaccinated, the veterinary team may decide to house the puppy in the isolation ward to reduce the risk of the patient coming into contact with other animals. This may reduce the risk of the puppy catching a contagious disease. Similarly, a patient receiving chemotherapy may be housed in isolation. As chemotherapy suppresses the immune system, patients may be more prone to catching diseases. Therefore, isolation may be used to make their stay at the veterinary practice safer.

Isolation units are vital for a veterinary practice

Isolation wards are an important part of veterinary care. In some practices, the isolation ward facilities may be limited due to design or space. In others, isolation may be large, self-contained rooms. No matter the size of the practice, an isolation ward is imperative in order to protect infectious patients, healthy patients and veterinary staff.

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