Before the COVID-19 pandemic, veterinary facilities offering the option of having a pet diagnosed via cell phone or tablet were few and far between. But veterinarian telehealth has surged dramatically, including in Pennsylvania, since the coronavirus lockdown — though pets are not being tested for the virus.
Kate Harrish, president of the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association, said the use of telehealth has picked up dramatically during the pandemic, in part thanks to a change in regulations.
On March 24, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced it would temporarily suspend a requirement for veterinarians to examine animals in person in order to “limit human-to-human interaction and potential spread of COVID-19.”
“In Pennsylvania, in order to prescribe medications or diagnose, you’d have to have seen the pet in person until now,” Harrish told Delaware Valley Journal. “But because some of those restrictions have been lifted… there a lot of veterinarians turning to telehealth — and it’s on the upswing.”
Harrish also noted that she uses telehealth in her own practice and has deemed it “very successful.” She said in doing her research to find companies that could provide telehealth services for veterinarians, there were “six or seven” that were actively doing so.
Should animals be tested for coronavirus? Harrish said currently she doesn’t think so, despite at least two confirmed cases of house cats contracting the virus in New York last week, and a dog belonging to an infected family in North Carolina testing positive on Monday. Five tigers and three lions have also tested positive in NYC’s Bronx Zoo.
Officials believe the exotic animals were infected by a zookeeper who had the virus. The pet cats and dog were also infected by human contact, New York and North Carolina officials said.
Still, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports animals do not “play a significant role in spreading the virus that causes COVID-19,” and routine testing of household pets is not recommended.
“Based on the limited information available to date, the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people is considered to be low,” the CDC says on its website. “We are still learning about this virus, but it appears that it can spread from people to animals in some situations.”
Meanwhile, CNBC reports that pet telehealth consultations for different ailments have increased 170 percent nationwide month-over-month.
VCA Animal Hospitals — one of the nation’s largest operator of veterinary hospitals — has launched video consultations at many of its facilities across the country. VCA operates more than 1,000 hospitals nationwide, including 33 in Pennsylvania.
According to Dr. Melissa Goldberg, medical director for VCA Delaware Valley, her practice conducts several telehealth sessions a week.
“It’s a platform where we can use our phones or iPads and we’re able to see the pet, we’re able to see the owner,” Goldberg told Delaware Valley Journal. “We’re able to talk live and actually visualize the pet and have the owner show us different things about the pet.”
Mobile telehealth apps serve as a platform for vets to diagnose a pet and determine whether in-person treatment is required. Veterinarians can conduct video calls, examine photos and videos uploaded by pet owners and even provide electronic prescriptions.
If a provider determines that a pet requires emergency medical services, the owner can bring it to an animal-care facility — many of which are implementing new social distancing efforts.
“We have asked that patients are handed off to our staff from the hospital parking lot or at the front door whenever possible,” Goldberg said. “Retrieval of pets from the outside of the building presents an additional area of risk to control so that pets do not get loose and are properly identified.”
VCA had foreseen that veterinarians and clients would take to telehealth.
“As with any new technology some practitioners will be more willing to adapt to the new possibilities than others,” a company spokesman said, “but we believe the industry is ready to embrace more widespread use of telehealth.”
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recommends people sick with the virus limit contact with pets and other animals, although the group says there is “no reason at this time” to believe pets could be a source of infection.
“Until more is known about this virus, if you are ill with COVID-19 you should restrict contact with pets and other animals, just as you would restrict your contact with other people,” the AVMA says on its website.
“When possible, have another member of your household or business care for any animals, including pets while you are sick.”