Telehealth for pets: How to get virtual veterinary care for your pet

Telehealth for pets
Maggie Davies

Telehealth and telemedicine aren’t just for humans. Your dog, cat, fish, or bird can get remote advice and care, too.

Even in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, pet owners who want to talk with their veterinarian at a safe distance have options: telemedicine or telehealth. And yes, there’s a difference. Just as medical appointments for humans have moved into the virtual realm since the beginning of the pandemic – with healthcare consultations being done by phone or online, using platforms like Zoom – so, too, have many of the services offered by veterinary clinics across the country.

“We’re doing all our client consultations remotely now,” says Angela Hildenbrand, DVM, a veterinarian at West Village Veterinary Hospital in New York City. “And we may continue to offer that service when or if the pandemic ends, just because it’s convenient for a lot of people.”

While telemedicine and telehealth both allow pet-care providers to take a thorough medical history of your furry friends – and birds and fish, too – and answer any questions you may have, they may not be the best options for you or your companion animal. That’s because there are many things a vet can’t do by phone or online video conference, such as diagnosing and monitoring chronic health problems or treating a major health emergency, Dr. Hildenbrand notes. “You still should have a relationship with a traditional vet, particularly if you have an older pet or one with health problems,” she says.

Where virtual vets come in handy, though, is in providing 24/7 access to pet-care professionals in the comfort of your home, and at fees that are a fraction of those charged by traditional brick-and-mortar clinics. So, what are veterinary telemedicine and telehealth and what should you expect from these services?

Telehealth for pets: popular, but not brand-new

First, it’s important to note that many telehealth vet services have been around a lot longer than COVID-19, and they aren’t offering their services only for those affected by the pandemic.

Several have been providing virtual advice for pets and their owners since the advent of online video conferencing technology and apps like FaceTime, Skype, and WhatsApp.

“Yes, our volume tripled within the first two weeks of March” – or the start of the pandemic in the United States – “and has been growing steadily,” says Laura Berg, the vice president of business development at Ask.Vet, which was founded in 2014, “but we think pet virtual care is going to be a permanent part of pet parents’ veterinary interactions even after the pandemic is gone.

“Our goal is to support pet parents through whichever technology they are most comfortable with, but most of our users prefer to chat via the web, text, or mobile app, as they often contact us in the middle of the night and don’t want to be on a video call,” she adds, laughing.

How to choose a telehealth provider for your pet

If you’re considering telehealth for your pet, there are dozens of providers out there. Experts say you should select one staffed with licensed veterinary professionals, including doctors and technicians, and a clear fee structure. Your virtual vet also shouldn’t promise care they can’t deliver, and they should have relationships with traditional vets in your local area – including, in particular, 24/7 emergency vet hospitals – if you need them. “By law, we can’t diagnose or treat any condition, or prescribe medication, but we can advise, educate, and guide,” Berg notes.

Where telehealth can help is by offering advice – quickly – when you need it. For example, Berg recalls an Ask.Vet “pet parent” who reached out to the company because her dog was having a seizure. A company veterinarian asked her to film the dog and upload the video to the company’s website. After viewing the video, the vet asked the woman to check the roof of her dog’s mouth for a stick or twig. The client found a stick and removed it. “It wasn’t a seizure at all; it just looked like one, but our vet could tell it was a mouth issue,” Berg explains.

Very often, this kind of advice and reassurance are all a pet owner needs; in fact, 70 percent of the company’s clients don’t bring their pet in to a local clinic after a virtual consultation, Berg says. Should the pet’s needs go beyond what can be done remotely, the company offers “pet parents without a vet a referral to the three closest locations to their home,” she says. “And, when our vets talk to a pet parent who needs to see a vet in person, we always prepare them with what to expect at the visit so that they’re not surprised if a blood draw, ultrasound, or X-ray is needed,” she adds.

At telehealth services like Ask.Vet, fees are much lower than at physical veterinary clinics. While fees for regular, in person vet appointments range from $50 to $200, depending on where you live – and emergency visits can cost as much as $2,000 – a virtual consult with Ask.Vet is $19.99, according to Berg.

Again, you’re paying for a consultation – remote vets can only answer questions and offer advice; they can’t diagnose a health condition or prescribe treatment. Still, for many pet owners, stuck inside due to COVID-19, having an expert on call may be a lifesaver. “Our doctors use their medical training to ask differential questions that help them to guide the pet owner to determine if an issue is an emergency, can wait until the next day for a vet, or is something that can be handled by the pet owner from home,” Berg says. “Sometimes a pet parent doesn’t know when they need to go to a vet, and that’s where our 24/7 virtual care can help.”

How telemedicine with a traditional vet works

Conversely, many brick-and-mortar vet clinics have moved some of their services to the virtual realm since the start of the pandemic to keep pet owners, pets, and staff safe from COVID19, Hildenbrand says. This practice is called telemedicine, according to the American Veterinary Medicine Association (AVMA). The AVMA says that even if you decide to consult with your own local vet remotely, your appointment will be like an in-person visit – at least to start.

According to Hildenbrand, the vet will take a medical history of your pet and review any health questions or concerns you may have. Ideally, they’ll also want to see your pet “live” on a video conference or video call, typically on Zoom.

In all, the online consultations last about 15 minutes. But they’re usually only offered to existing clients and their pets, as the clinic’s vets are more familiar with long-time patients’ medical histories and overall health.

“In most cases, even seeing video of your pet can’t replace what we can do in an exam room, with your pet on the table or floor in front of us,” says Hildenbrand, whose practice has been offering telemedicine since the COVID-19 outbreak began in New York City in early March. Indeed, virtual visits might be okay for “minor” ailments – like diarrhoea or a rash – in an otherwise healthy pet.

But for animals with chronic health issues or potentially more severe problems, it’s hardly ideal. That’s why West Village and many other clinics, after consulting with clients remotely, instruct them to drop their pets off at the front door of their facilities – the handoff is usually done by a technician wearing a face covering and gloves – for an on-site exam.

If needed, the vets will consult again with the clients by phone to discuss any issues and make treatment recommendations. “That way, we can diagnose anything we see, and discuss a treatment plan with the client by phone,” Hildenbrand says. If blood work, X-rays, or ultrasounds are needed, the clinics can perform them with the pet on-site, and then call the client to go over results. If necessary, medications can be prescribed and mailed to the client.

West Village has implemented a new fee structure for its telemedicine services, charging about 65 percent of the standard exam fee for remote consultation. If pets require an in-person visit because the vet determines a physical exam is needed or the pet doesn’t get better after initial treatment, clients pay only the balance – or the remaining 35 percent – of the full exam fee. “There are really no downsides,” Hildenbrand says. “Telemedicine allows us to provide vital care for animals and advice for clients, without exposing them to risk. Given all that’s going on in the world, it just makes sense.”

(Article source: Everyday Health)

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