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At Metropolitan Animal Specialty Hospital (MASH) in Los Angeles, cars pull up to the circular driveway and call reception. A technician then comes out in a gown, gloves and mask and asks the pet owner a few quick questions.
Dogs are brought inside on one of MASH’s leashes, which are used once per animal then washed in bleach. Cats enter through their own dedicated room, where they exchange their plastic carrier for a disposable cardboard one. After their exams, the veterinarian calls the pet parent waiting in the car and sends over a bill through DocuSign which is signed electronically.
But before all of that can happen, step one is usually a phone call or video chat.
Telehealth for pets has been around for years, but its use has exploded with the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Wirecutter, telehealth services like TeleVet claim sign-ups from vets increased sevenfold, while Banfield Pet Hospital’s Vet Chat tool saw a 60% increase over a recent two-week period. Other animal clinics like MASH are simply using common video chat tools like Zoom and FaceTime rather than going through a third-party provider.
In the past, though, virtual visits have largely been seen as a less-than-ideal option by veterinarians. In its policy on telemedicine, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) explicitly opposes telehealth when it’s the vet’s first time seeing a pet, calling it a tool that should only be used to “augment” in-person visits, and only with established patients. State and federal guidelines typically follow the AVMA’s lead on the issue.
On March 24, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine temporarily halted these restrictions, saying that it “generally intends not to enforce the animal examination and premises visit VCPR (veterinarian-client-patient relationship) requirements.”
Still, states are free to enforce their own policies. In California, for instance, it’s still illegal for veterinarians to see pets virtually for their first visit — something they’ve reminded clinics about over the past month.
“Our veterinary medical board is very clear. They put out two things last week that said any veterinarian discovered treating patients that they don’t have a previously established relationship with will be prosecuted,” said Dr. Adam Strom, a veterinary surgeon at MASH.
“We feel a little bit like our hands are tied because there are certainly things we can determine over the phone. I think their main concern is that you can’t do a physical exam over the phone, whereas for people, with telemedicine someone can tell you where it hurts, what hurts, what’s going on. All we get from animals is what the owners say.”
Animal clinics are relying on video conferencing more and more
No matter where you live, your veterinarian has likely incorporated video chats into their practice in some ways. According to one survey of Los Angeles area vets, over 34% have begun using telehealth tools in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have bought hospital phones now so that we can use that video conferencing more readily,” said Dr. Strom. “Since we’re not allowing clients into the hospital, we do try to set up FaceTime so that with any hospitalized pets, their owners can see them turn their head or wag their tail so that they know they’re doing okay.”
Of course — as newly remote workers are learning all across the country — relying on video conferencing presents its own challenges.
Dr. Gary Richter uses video conferencing to keep pet owners in the loop from a safe distance.
“Some of the hard parts are trying to explain certain things to owners,” said Dr. Sara Ochoa, veterinarian in Texas and consultant for doglab.com. “Many times we show clients x-rays or ultrasounds of their dogs. While I can send them pictures, some things are better explained in person.”
Most of the vets we spoke with echoed this sentiment, saying that some pet owners have struggled with the video chat software. That said, most reported that customers have been adaptable and the telehealth tools have worked just as they’re supposed to.
“Technology’s not perfect,” Dr. Strom told us. “We get cut out on Zoom and FaceTime all the time. But I would say 95% of the time, it works beautifully.”
What do you need to use Zoom?
For uninterrupted video conferencing, you’ll need a decent internet connection. Zoom recommends 1.2 Mbps download speed for 720p HD video and 1.8 Mbps for 1080p. Not sure what you’re currently getting? Use our speed test below to find out.
“The only technical issues we have had is some clients have had trouble getting onto the Zoom chat from their end,” said Dr. Gary Richter, a veterinary health expert with Rover.com. “The link works fine, but it’s more of an issue of people’s technical abilities.”
For a full walkthrough on using Zoom before setting up an appointment with your vet, you can find everything you need to know in our Zoom guide.
When should you video chat with your veterinarian?
Your veterinarian can give you specific guidance on what to do, but in many situations, video conferencing is a valuable first step, providing them with enough information to decide what to do next.
“If I need to see the patient, especially about walking, or, ‘Hey the incision looks a little bit red, what do you think?’ — things like that for sure, we’ve been using all sorts of technology,” Dr. Strom told us.
“I can deal with skin problems, most eye problems and ear infections via video calls. I can also handle mild cases of vomiting or diarrhea that do not need any work up. Things like cough, heart problems, trouble breathing and animals that just aren’t acting normally need to be seen in person.”
What should you do if your pet’s sick?
If you think your pet needs urgent care, call your local 24/7 emergency animal hospital, or just get in the car and head straight there. Most of them will probably have COVID-19 protocols in place, so be prepared to call reception when you arrive instead of taking your pet in yourself.
If you think your pet has swallowed, been stung or splashed by something harmful, you can also call the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at 888.426.4435 or chat with them online. Additionally, you can call the Pet Poison Helpline at 855.764.7661, but there is a $59-per-incident fee.
In all non-emergency situations, start by calling your vet.
“They can help you figure out if it needs to be seen,” said Dr. Ochoa. “Most of the time if it is a concern for the owner it is best to have them seen. This may be just a video call or they may actually need to go to the clinic.”
Dr. Strom gave us the same advice. “If your pet is sick, it should probably still at least get looked at. You can always start by calling your vet and saying, ‘Hey this is what’s going on. Is this something I need to worry about?’”
“When they say yes, it’s not so we can generate money. It’s definitely so we don’t have anybody getting too sick that we then get into a situation where we can’t help.”
“Just follow the protocols that your veterinarian has set up,” he said. “We are definitely not trying to make it hard for the clients. We’re trying to make it as easy as we can while still being as safe as possible.”
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