Telemedicine for pets: How COVID-19 is disrupting animal health care

Veterinarians are adapting to the pandemic in new ways.

August 30, 2020, 3:04 PM

Jenny Hu fans the kitten peering out from its carrier with a large manila envelope, offering the tiny feline whatever relief she can on a typically hot and humid August day in New York City.

Hu and her pet are waiting outside of a veterinarian's office in midtown Manhattan for a staff member to meet them. Waiting outside the vet's office for an appointment is yet another part of the coronavirus pandemic's "new normal." Because of COVID-19 social distancing rules, vet offices in New York City, and many across the country, no longer allow pet owners and their animals inside the facilities to wait.

As a further precaution, most vets now have staff escort the animal inside the facility for its appointment, leaving sometimes-anxious owners outside waiting.

"It's the second time we've had to bring her to the vet" since the pandemic, Hu said. While it's a "little inconvenient that you can't be in there with your pet," she said, overall, visits have run smoothly.

Though many vet exams and procedures require the physical presence of the pet -- Hu's kitten needed a booster shot, for instance -- more pet owners and vets are turning to telehealth services for animal health care in the COVID-19 landscape.

"Our telemedicine volume is up 25%" since the pandemic, Josh Guttman, founder and CEO of Small Door Veterinary, told ABC News.

Guttman co-founded Small Door in 2009. He calls the service the "veterinarian reimagined." The company has offered telemedicine vet visits as part of its core platform -- a tech-powered and on-premises vet service -- since launching. With the coronavirus, "telemedicine has taken on a new role for us," he said.

PHOTO: Home veterinarian Wendy Jane McCulloch examines cat as she makes client home visits, which have additional safety protocols in recent weeks during the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in New York City, March 31, 2020.
Home veterinarian Wendy Jane McCulloch examines cat 8-year-old Ivy at the closed Botanica Inc. office as she makes client home visits, which have additional safety protocols in recent weeks during the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in New York City, March 31, 2020.
Caitlin Ochs/Reuters

Telehealth for pets is a fairly niche section of the total pet-care business -- worth $97.5 billion in sales in the U.S. in 2019.

However, there are several major players in pet telehealth and some report an uptick in business since the pandemic's onset.

"Since the pandemic began, the activity on our platform has increased by over 10x and it continues to grow," Allison Boerum, CEO and co-founder of Virtuwoof, said in a statement to ABC News. "Telemedicine in the veterinary space has been an emerging trend over the last few years, but until the pandemic hit, it was more of a 'nice to have' than a necessity," Boerum said.

Veterinarians are also seeking telehealth solutions to continue providing care for their patients during COVID-19. In fact, the American Veterinary Medical Association urged vets to consider telehealth, calling it "an important way to protect and monitor the health of veterinary patients and veterinary teams."

"[Animal] clinics have had to turn on a dime and change the way they do business, essentially overnight," Boerum said.

Veterinarian Dr. Barbara Kalvig calls telehealth services a "good starting point" for pet health care.

With telehealth, vets can "interview the owners ... we can visualize the patients to see how they're acting. Pet owners can show us a lesion or some other problem the pet is having," Kalvig said. With a virtual exam, she said, vets can often notice issues with a pet, but "obviously a physical exam gives us so much more."

Yet, there may be another reason for the increase in telemedicine services for pets: We're around them more.

"People are spending more time with their pets and they are noticing things that may have always been there, but they're just home or they're spending more time with their dogs or cats. And so that's leading to questions and concerns. The most common concerns we get are upset stomach, vomiting, diarrhea," said Guttman.

Besides being a tool for adhering to COVID-19 mandates, telemedicine for pets offers the same convenience, and the almost instant access to a health care provider, for pet owners as it does for human patients.

Yet, there are those times when having the pet, owner and vet all in the same physical space is not only medically necessary but psychologically and emotionally necessary -- for both pet and human.

James Ellis arrived at the same vet as Hu, but for a very different purpose. He's come to collect the ashes of his and his wife's beloved cat, Janaver.

"I was sad I couldn't be in there with my pet as he died," he said, gesturing toward the vet's entrance. As a medical resident, Ellis said he sees the benefit of telehealth for pet care, and said the technology is "appropriate for some things" in medical care.

But the one thing he said that couldn't be provided by any virtual service, and was ultimately denied him by COVID-19, was the closure he wanted in being there to say goodbye before Janaver's death.

"It was all sort of hidden behind closed doors," Ellis said.