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Rick Fenny reflects on career as a Desert Vet in Outback Australia

71-year-old 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 + Vets clinics. We recently spoke to Dr Rick Fenny about his experience as a vet working in some of the remote parts of Australia over the past 40 years.


“Stop the car! Turn around!” she ordered. 
“There’s a creature on the side of the road back there!”
He did as he was told. She leapt out.
“Oh, it’s a kitten! But it’s very sick. And look at its tail sticking straight up like that!”

It was the tail she’d seen poking straight up like a flagpole in the scant dead grass on the side of the busy road between Karratha and Dampier in West Australia’s harsh Pilbara region.

The tiny kitten was near death. Immobile and emaciated, just a tiny scrap clinging to life.

At Karratha Veterinary Hospital, vet Dr Louisa Fenny gave it little hope: “I think it’s too far gone but we’ll give it a chance. I don’t even know what’s wrong with it except it’s badly dehydrated, so we’ll start with some intravenous fluids.”

Cameraman Tim Small, filming for the TV series Desert Vet, didn’t let the opportunity pass to record this dramatic case, which will air as part of the show.

The little creature responded to the fluids, but was still seriously ill and Louisa was puzzled. “It’s paralysed and its third eyelids are right over its eyes, and why is the tail so rigid?” she wondered.

Even though the kitten was a stray and the kind people who’d brought it in had disappeared, the team threw all the hospital’s resources at the case. Full body X-rays showed no fractures and laboratory profile of its blood and urine gave no clues apart from the obvious dehydration.

Senior vet, the big, bearded genial Irishman Austin Donnelly, had an inspired suggestion.
“Perhaps it’s tetanus? Fits all the signs. And look, there’s a nasty wound on its back leg here behind its hock,” he pointed out.

Louisa now had a tentative diagnosis and a treatment plan.

Irrigating the wound to cleanse it of infected debris and placing the kitten on penicillin antibiotics and valium for muscle relaxation were immediate tasks. But to combat the toxin produced by the organism Clostridium Tetani she needed tetanus antitoxin. 


The Karratha Vet Hospital had just run out of antitoxin, but some was available at its sister vet hospital in South Hedland, so Louisa, kitten and cameraman made the 250 km trip to Hedland for the lifesaving serum. At this stage, the little animal was also receiving plasma through the drip and, once the antitoxin was included, it was on the way to recovery.

It took a further three days before he could move his limbs. By five days, he was able to eat, weakly gulping Hills A/D convalescent diet as he regained the use of his jaws and eventually made a full recovery.

Tetanus is rare in cats and I cannot recall ever seeing an affected cat during some 47 years in practice, but tetanus in dogs is more common, especially in the country, with some two or three cases every year at Karratha. The causative bacterium – usually in a closed wound – produces a toxin that results in paralysed muscles, especially around the face, and eventual death, if not treated. 


Dr Rick Fenny with Buzz in Carnarvon (WA)
Credit: @triplebaussieadventures
About one in five animals seen at our Karratha practice are cats. I believe this proportion has declined since I founded the practice in the 1970’s, possibly due to ‘bad press’ about feral cats, concerns that are unwarranted for domestic cats.
I encourage people to keep cats as they make a great companion and play a role in teaching children about responsible pet ownership.

Many of the clinical conditions we see in cats in the Pilbara are similar to cats in city practices with ‘lifestyle issues’ creating problems such as obesity and joint disease.

Cats also seem to be living much longer and it’s been shown that 90 percent of cats over the age of 12 suffer from degenerative joint disease (arthritis)


These older cats often also develop kidney disease, which is the main cause of death in very old cats.

The good news is that there are many good prescription diets available which mitigate against these conditions. These diet foods are now a big part of a vet’s treatment regimes, with products such as Hill’s K/D and Mobility simultaneously treating kidney disease and arthritis and Metabolic and Mobility treating obesity and joint disease. Dental conditions and urinary disease also have prescription diets available for treatment and prevention.

The other good news, in my observation, is that the serious viral diseases in cats appear to be declining.

In the early days of practicing in the Pilbara where I was a sole vet travelling around the towns of Karratha, Tom Price, Newman, Paraburdoo, Pannawonica and Exmouth, I would see many cases of the often fatal Feline enteritis and the less fatal but distressing Feline rhino-tracheitis (cat flu).

Nowadays we seldom see either of these, which may be due to good client compliance in following our vaccination recommendations combined with a rising general immunity.

Feline enteritis (F/E) is particularly nasty and is also known as “cat parvo.” Our recommendation is for all kittens to be vaccinated at 7, 12 and 16 weeks of age with at least a F3 vaccine but may also be vaccinated against Feline Leukemia and Feline immunodeficiency virus.


Annual booster vaccinations should always be given, which is always a good time for your vet to conduct a general health check and see what else could be going on with your cat’s teeth and diet.

If you follow this recommendation, your cat will be well protected.

I’m sure we’re not seeing as many cat-bite abscesses as in the past, possibly due to the fact that people are more assiduous in getting tom cats neutered and also because owners are keeping their cats inside the house much more. But, if you think your cat has been in a fight or has some tender spots, make an early visit to the vet who’ll treat the bite before it develops into an abscess.

Talking about fights, people who saw the movie Red Dog often ask me if there really was a ‘Red Cat’, referring to the famous altercation and eventual reconciliation between the two.

The answer is ‘yes’. His name was ‘Herbie’, a big ginger tomcat who lived with his owner Nancy Gillespie and her husband in the Karratha Caravan Park.

One day he ambushed Red Dog when he came snooping past, leaping from a roof onto his back, digging in his claws and being taken for a wild ride! And, as in the movie, they eventually became good friends.

Dr Rick Fenny with the statue of Red Dog in Dampier, Western Australia
Red Dog, like most dogs, loved to chase cats but Herbie stood up to him and didn’t run away like cats generally do. 

Herbie was brought to the Vet Hospital to be castrated one day, arriving in the boot of Nancy’s car, but in the process of removing him, she accidentally closed the boot with her keys and Herbie locked inside! After I reassured her that he’d be fine in there for a while she had to find a spare set of keys to release him and meet his destiny on the surgery table.

Alas poor Herbie was one day shot by a neighbour with a dislike of cats.

Castration (or neutering) of male cats is recommended from around 6 months of age. It must be done by a veterinary surgeon at registered premises and involves a general anesthetic and removal of the testes.

A castrated male cat makes a good pet whereas, if he’s not castrated, he’ll be inclined to roam and fight and only come home when he wants to rest and be fed.
Sterilisation of female cats is also recommended at about the same age, unless it is to be bred from.

Another trend I’ve noticed is that there aren’t as many breeders or variety of breeds of cats in our practices, which is of concern as most new cats seem to come from the semi wild population.

I still travel around to various Pilbara and Gascoyne towns ranging down to Shark Bay but we now employ some 10 vets in five centres who provide a high quality of care. I’m happy doing the simple stuff in the smaller towns with no resident vet and working at race meetings and on stations.

You can catch me doing just that in the Desert Vet series and also see more of what my marine scientist son, Ed, gets up to at Ocean Park Aquarium in Shark Bay.

And if you tune in, you’ll find out where the tetanus cat ended up and what his new name is!


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.

written by Dr Rick Fenny, November 2019 for Australian Cat Lover (all rights reserved)

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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