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Desert Vet Dr Rick Fenny Reflects on Career

71-year-old Dr Rick Fenny is best known as Red Dog Vet and is now also recognised as the star of TV series Desert Vet, airing nationally on Nine in December 2019

Rick is also the founder of WA’s network of Pets and Vets clinics. He reflects on his long career as a vet working in the most remote parts of Western Australia.

Rick Fenny at his Shark Bay clinic with Wallace
Credit: The West Australian, Iain Gillespie
The door of my little clinic in Shark Bay crashed open and a distraught Lisa Francis burst in unannounced, startling me, my client and the pet I was examining.
“Sorry to interrupt but it’s Nut – she’s been bitten by a Gwardar snake and she’s in a bad way,” gasped Lisa.

One glance at the little Jack Russell clutched to her bosom confirmed her fears; Nut was gasping for breath, her gums were turning blue, she had fixed enlarged pupils, and her little body racked with tremors.

I had seen enough snakebites in my 47- year career as a vet to make an instant diagnosis. This dog was dying, and I had to work swiftly. I told my client I’d call them back later and sent them on their way then told Lisa to leave Nut with me and go too, promising to do what I could.

Before the door had closed, I was on the mobile to my next-door neighbour. “Phil, can you get here fast? Got a snakebite and I need help. Please run!” I said. Within seconds I could hear Phil galloping up my driveway.

“Thanks mate, hold her head with your left hand and hold up her vein with your right thumb. That’s it,” I instructed, not even clipping or disinfecting the leg as time was of the essence.

I slipped a 22-gauge catheter into the vein and quickly taped it in while Phil released the pressure on the vein. There was no time for the usual bag of intravenous fluids to mix the antivenom in. This dog was on the point of death and not breathing, its gums now a ghastly purple and its body rigid.

As I slowly injected the vial of life-saving Brown Snake antivenom directly into the vein, my thumb was the only movement in the room. Two men and a dog were holding their breath.

Then there was a gasp and then another two, in quick succession. Nut was breathing again! And then, so were we.

Gradually her gums went from purple to blue to red and finally they returned to a healthy pink. Nut was alive but I knew it would be a long night before she was fully recovered.

With time on my side now, I connected Nut to a 1-litre bag of Hartmans saline fluid, administered antibiotics and steroids and mixed another vial of antivenom in the bag to neutralise any remaining venom.

It was a sleepless night for me but by next morning Nut was up and weakly wagging her tail.

I gave her another bag of fluids to wash damaged tissue from her system and before long she was going home, happily reunited with a grateful Lisa.

It wasn’t a textbook treatment for a suspected snakebite

If time permits, at a veterinary hospital, the vets would normally take blood from the dog and check its clotting time to make a definitive diagnosis, identify the snake, catheterise the animal and start to administer the drip containing the appropriate diluted antivenom.

But this was Shark Bay, a little town of some 800 residents where my monthly visits are the only veterinary service and I have only basic facilities on hand. Nut was incredibly lucky that her encounter with the deadly snake happened while I was in town and that her owner rushed her in.

At our fully equipped vet hospitals in Karratha and Port Hedland, teams of vets and vet nurses are on hand to save animals like Nut and treat some 30 snakebite cases in either town every year

One recent snakebite case in Karratha – when adorable miniature French Bulldog, Rainbow, was bitten by a Brown snake – happened during the filming of the Desert Vet TV series, while my vet daughter Louisa was working at the clinic. 
A King Brown is actually a Black Snake and requires a different antivenom to what I used on Nut. 

In WA’s northwest, snakebites in dogs are far more prevalent compared to the city and happen all year round. Brown and King Brown are the most common snakes encountered in the region, though we do see occasional whip snake and – rarely – death adder bites. 

If you even think your dog might have been bitten by a snake, it’s best to ring the vet hospital immediately so we can prepare for treatment and, if possible, bring in the DEAD snake for identification

Heatstroke is another medical emergency our vets deal with more regularly in the north, with some 20 heatstroke cases being seen every year. These are particularly distressing as pets often do not recover from heatstroke.

Parvo virus infection is also prevalent in WA’s northwest towns, probably due to a large population of unvaccinated dogs, which maintain a constant source of infection to spread the virus. Puppies should be vaccinated by a vet at 8, 12 and 16 weeks and, thereafter annually.

If this regime is strictly followed, I can confidently state that your dog will be protected for its lifetime. In fact, the manufacturer of our vaccine is also so confident in this regime, they’ll pay for the treatment if a dog vaccinated in this way contracts the disease. And treatments can be very expensive, in the region of $2,000 to $3,000 with no guarantee of success.

A typical Parvo case is usually seen in a 3-6 month old unvaccinated puppy. The puppy will be very listless, vomiting and unwell with a profuse dark, watery diarrhoea. The first thing we do is conduct a simple test with a fecal swab taken in the car park before the dog sets foot in our hospital and potentially causes contamination. The test detects Parvo virus antigen which, if present, suggests infection; we have an answer in a matter of minutes.

If the test is positive for parvo and the owner elects for treatment, we take the animal straight to our isolation ward where we use an intravenous drip of electrolyte solution to help combat the life-threatening dehydration which can rapidly occur. In some cases, plasma, which is the fluid component of blood, needs to be given. 

Then the patient will require constant treatment with fluids and anti-nausea drugs until recovery, which can take several days, if successful. 

However, many pups succumb to this terrible disease, despite the veterinary team’s intensive care and best efforts. 

A relatively new disease, Parvo emerged spontaneously worldwide in the late 1970’s and it’s believed the virus regularly mutates to different and more virulent strains so it’s important to be vigilant in giving puppies the recommended 3-stage vaccination course and to have annual C5 vaccinations which protect against Distemper, Hepatitis, Parvovirus and Kennel cough /Bordatella.

Heartworm disease doesn’t appear to be as prevalent as it was when I was first practising in the north in the early 1970’s, when I would diagnose cases every week. This decline in prevalence is, I believe, due to good client compliance in administering preventative measures, as well as improved medications.

Heartworm Life Cycle
Heartworm is a parasite spread by mosquitoes – which get a meal of blood containing microfilariae (or immature heartworms) from an infected dog – and then inject them into an uninfected dog after they’ve developed to an infective stage.

The diagnosis and treatment for dogs with heartworm has also evolved and is now much safer and simpler. I diagnosed the famous Kelpie Red Dog with heartworm many years ago. 

The accepted method back then was to take a fresh blood sample, concentrating it in a filter and examining it under a microscope for presence of microfilariae

Today, we conduct a test on a drop of blood, which can detect antigens to the heartworm. Various treatment regimes have been used over the years, but the most effective method appears to be an intravenous injection to kill the adult worms.

At our Pets and Vets practices, we advocate an annual injection of Proheart SR 12 heartworm preventative, which slowly releases over the following 12 months to effectively kill any infective microfilaria. This injection is usually given at the same time as the annual C5 vaccination and is convenient and highly effective.

Having worked in the north of WA for most of my 47 years since graduating as a vet, I’ve seen many changes and advances in veterinary medicine and faced plenty of challenges. 

Being able to employ trained veterinary nurses was a luxury not available when I first started and now the nurses play a key role in the practices. Prescription diets for dogs and cats are now available to complement medical treatments and with the Hills range of diets we can combat pet obesity, arthritis and kidney disease to name a few.

Specialisation is now a part of vet practice and we’re proud to be able to offer clients the services of specialist surgeons, dermatologists, ophthalmologists and equine vets who visit our northwest practices regularly.

This region of WA has been very good to me and I would thoroughly recommend it as a destination for young vets to quickly learn their trade as we see so many more interesting cases never seen in the city.

I’m once again working out of Roebourne, conducting an intermittent clinic and doing home visits to Karratha, Dampier and Wickham, as well as regular runs to the little towns of Pannawonica, Onslow, Carnarvon, Shark Bay, Meekatharra and Cue. I also look after many clients on stations in the region and work as the vet at some 20 horse race meetings throughout the area.

Dr Louisa Fenny (Rick's daughter) also appears in the Desert Vet TV series
The advent of Desert Vet celebrates the work I do alongside the vets in our bigger practices. It’s been especially gratifying to be able to work with Louisa and also my son, Ed, a Marine Scientist, in making the show, which also helps showcase the beauty of outback WA.

I am doing what I love and will keep doing this for as long as I can.

written by Dr Rick FennyOctober 2019 for Australian Dog Lover (all rights reserved)

Desert Vet will air on Channel 9 on Wednesday Dec 4 8.30pm; Wednesday Dec 11 8.30pm; Wednesday Dec 18 8.30pm; Wednesday Dec 25 7.30pm.

About Dr Rick Fenny

One of Australia’s most successful career vets – who laid to rest movie canine Red Dog in WA’s outback – and a finalist in the 2018 & 2019 Western Australian of the Year Awards, Rick Fenny has gone from dusting up the Kimberley to building a growing business empire while ensuring WA’s outback residents have access to quality veterinary services for their pets and livestock. 

On top of establishing WA’s only network of metropolitan and regional vet clinics, Dr Fenny is a passionate advocate for West Australian tourism, owning a suite of ventures from Shark Bay to Albany, including Maitraya Private Retreat (where Lady Gaga vacationed) and the award-winning Ocean Park Aquarium in the World Heritage listed Shark Bay area, which both attract Australian and international visitors.

At 71, and with more than a dozen grandchildren and a new TV career in Desert Vet, the head of the Rick Fenny Group shows no signs of slowing down.

Desert Vet has already aired in Europe as Outback Vet and will also air across the UK and Australia (December 2019).

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