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Treating Fido via FaceTime: Veterinarians adapt as coronavirus spreads

Veterinarian Samantha Globerman talks to an owner by phone at Rothman Animal Hospital in Collingswood, N.J. Many veterinary clinics around the country are taking precautions against the spread of coronavirus, including curbside pickups and telemedicine. (Rothman Animal Hospital)

In January, Jen Reeder’s Labrador retriever Rio had a life-threatening bout of colitis. He pulled through after a weekend at Wheat Ridge Animal Hospital in Colorado, but when he started having diarrhea March 16, Reeder called the veterinarian.

The coronavirus crisis already had forced restaurants and bars to close, and people were being urged to stay home. But the vet said Rio needed to come in.

Only Rio, however. When Reeder arrived at the clinic, “a nice lady in a lab coat and mask came out and handed us a clipboard and a hot pink, giant laminated card,” she said. Soon, a masked technician came to collect Rio from their car. The dog jumped out and pulled his leash taut — creating just enough social distance the tech could put a different leash on him. He was delivered back to Reeder after the visit, and within a couple days, he was outside chasing squirrels.

As the virus spreads, veterinarians across the country are creating new systems for treating animals — both to protect clients and staff and to keep their businesses open. From curbside patient pickup and telemedicine to canceled elective surgeries and rationed masks and gowns, they are implementing their own version of improvisation and adaptation, just like doctors in human hospitals.

“We’re doing everything that we can to keep ourselves open,” said veterinarian Janisse Cailles, owner of Oldwick Animal Hospital in Whitehouse Station, N.J. “Dogs don’t recognize snowstorms, holidays or, as it turns out, pandemics. The pets expect us to be available, or certainly their owners do.”

Like many veterinarians, Cailles is picking up ideas wherever she can. After buying fish at the grocery store and having to wait behind a taped line on the floor, she went back to her office and moved the credit card machines onto a table away from the main desk, for clients who absolutely need to come inside instead of doing a curbside drop-off.

“People can walk up and sign,” she said. “We put a box of tissues out if people don’t want to touch the pen, and of course we’re sanitizing it between every client.”

The team at Rothman Animal Hospital in Collingswood, N.J., started curbside service about 10 days ago; the office also is offering curbside pickups for medication and pet food and for dropping off stool samples. This week, the vet service is launching a telemedicine appointment system for clients whose pets have been seen in the office. Rothman may soon expand the technology’s use, after a decision by the Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday to temporarily suspend some telemedicine restrictions, such as allowing vets to prescribe drugs without in-person examination of animals.

“There are some instances where you still may have to bring the pet in to be physically seen,” practice administrator Kathy Esser said. “We’re only as good as what the client can tell us, so in certain cases, we will still need to see the pet.”

But she said most pet owners, especially those with their own health conditions who fear going outside, are embracing telemedicine as an option.

“A lot of times it’s things like, ‘He has this growth or this wound on his foot that’s preventing him from walking,’” Esser said. “It’s to help identify triage cases where, under normal circumstances, they’d have to come in, but now, with what’s going on in the world, the vet can look just like on FaceTime and say, ‘Based on what I see, here’s what I think we should do.’ ”

Veterinarian Elizabeth Fritzler, co-owner of Cascade Heights Veterinary Center in Seattle, had been planning to use telemedicine this summer, including for follow-up consults. Covid-19 sped up her timeline.

“We’re also using it for new problems, to try and assess if it’s something that needs to be seen or not,” Fritzler said. “We’re using this for current clients and patients. We’ve seen them, we know their general health.”

The American Veterinary Medical Association says it is encouraging these types of adaptations while working to ensure state and local governments deem veterinary clinics essential services that can remain open during shutdowns.

“It does get tricky with things like vaccinations,” said Michael San Filippo, an AVMA spokesman. “You might, by state law, need a rabies vaccination that’s due next week. Does that count as essential? If your dog is behind on rabies vaccinations this week, is it a danger from exposure? Or if he bites somebody and is behind on the vaccination, that’s a serious problem.”

One of the association’s primary goals is simply to help veterinarians keep the lights on, he said.

“Any veterinarians, especially with small animals, are also small-business owners,” he said. “They have to be able to keep paying their employees.”

Veterinarians also have to get in line for the same types of masks, gloves and gowns in short supply in America’s hospitals. Some already are rationing and reusing.

“We have not been doing elective procedures since last week, and normally, if we did do a procedure, everybody would put on a disposable cap and mask and throw them away,” Fritzler says. “Well, now we have them labeled with our names, and we have hooks on the wall.”

Veterinarians interviewed said most clients seem relieved their services are available at all — and are mostly willing to ride things out.

“If it’s just like vaccines, people are saying they can wait,” said Karen Louis, a veterinarian and owner of Metro-East Home Vet Care in Belleville, Ill. “A dog who’s 10 and needs boosters? They are fine to wait.”

One service that sometimes cannot wait is euthanasia. For critically ill pets, some veterinarians are making exceptions to new rules.

“We allow one client to come in the building,” Esser said. “We put them in an isolated room right by the exit door, and we have the technician get the pet. We put an IV catheter in, and we make the client wear a mask and gloves when the technician is bringing the pet in and out.”

Thankfully, that’s not the service Jo Baird needed for her Miniature Schnauzer, Becky, at VCA County West Animal Hospital in Kankakee, Ill. The dog had “an issue with her butt” — impacted anal glands — so Baird took Becky in, did the curbside handoff and waited in the car. Everything, she said, went just fine.

“An hour away in Chicago, you have paramedics who are testing positive. We have a police department that’s totally shut down because somebody tested positive in there,” Baird says. “I’m grateful for our vet.”

Reeder, Rio’s owner, said she felt similarly relieved get help for her pet even in the midst of a global pandemic.

“The thought of having my dog sick or dying in the middle of this, that was really stressful,” she said. “I felt so safe and so welcome. They seemed really organized.”

Read more:

Alone no more: People are turning to dogs, cats and chickens to cope with self-isolation

How to pet dogs during the coronavirus pandemic