The Virtual Vet Will See You Meow

Telemedicine for pets is becoming more popular, but there are still challenges that need to be addressed.

The Virtual Vet Will See You Meow

Milkshake and Pickles do not like to travel. Patience Warren was desperate to find some medication to help her take two elderly cats, Milkshake and Pickles, on a 12-hour trip in February. Pickles is a small gray tabby cat with a severe history of motion sickness.

Pickles' visit to the veterinarian usually causes the same distress that Ms. Warren hoped to avoid.

"Within a minute or so of being placed in her carrier, Ms. Warren said, she would vomit, or lose her bowels. She would also cower, be very scared and meow. I didn't think it was fair to her.

Ms. Warren became accustomed to meeting her health needs virtually over the course of this pandemic. She saw a doctor, nutritionist, and therapist online. She wondered if veterinarians could prescribe anti-anxiety or motion sickness medication over video call. She was surprised by the number of options available when she searched online.

She said, "I didn't know that virtual vets existed."

Pet owners are lagging behind in adopting veterinary telemedicine. One new survey found that 72 percent of American cat owners had used telemedicine themselves. Only 3 percent reported having used it with their cats.

"But things are rapidly changing," said Carly Moody. She is an animal welfare researcher from the University of California Davis who conducted the survey. It hasn't been published yet, but it was part of a project that's currently studying telemedicine in cats.



During the pandemic many states temporarily relaxed restrictions on veterinary Telemedicine. Many clinics and pet owners also tried remote appointments. Several states are considering expanding the use of telemedicine permanently.

Experts said that, although there are still obstacles, and telemedicine is not suitable for every pet care scenario, it could have a number of benefits. These include improving access to vet care and reducing the stress experienced by pets who dislike going to the vet, such as Pickles.

Covid-19'served a catalyst for a change that was needed', said Dr. Christina Tran. She is a veterinarian from the University of Arizona, who sits on the board of directors of Veterinary Virtual Care Association, and is a paid advisor to a veterinary telehealth firm.

Pandemic practices

Veterinarians have been answering frantic phone calls from pet owners for decades or consulting with colleagues via email.

Remote video appointments are a newer concept. Before the pandemic it wasn't common to use telemedicine this way. Dr. Lori Teller is the president of the American Veterinary Medical Association and also teaches at Texas A&M University where she developed a veterinary telehealth programme. She also works as a paid adviser for a veterinary telehealth firm.

This was partly due to restrictive state laws that required veterinarians have an existing relationship with animals, including a previous hands-on examination, before they could treat them remotely.

Initially, states relaxed their regulations when the pandemic started. Veterinarians turned to telemedicine in order to save on personal protective equipment, and to flatten the curve of coronavirus. According to a survey of American and Canadian clinicians, the share of vets who offer remote video appointments has risen to 30% from 4%.

Virtual care was suddenly the only option for pet owners who never thought of it before. Kristyn booth, a teacher who lived in Austin in Texas at the time, found that her dog’s eye was red and bulging one morning in May 2020. The eye had been damaged nearly ten years earlier. The vet would only give a virtual appointment.


Initially, Booth was nervous. How could they do that? She remembered thinking. She recalled thinking.

The veterinarian suggested Ms. Booth take Lily, her redbone coonhound to the office, and make the virtual appointment on the parking lot. They could have Lily rushed inside if the situation was serious.

Booth then sat in her car, and over a video-call showed Lily's right eye to the doctor. She then followed the instructions of the vet to gently press the eye socket of the dog and check under the eyelid. She said, 'I felt as if I were a vet on that day.' They were there just in case something went wrong.

The doctor prescribed eyedrops and sent Lily and Ms. Booth on their way.

Booth recalled that last year, as Lily's condition worsened, she used another video call. This time, after one glance, the doctor knew it was the right time to remove the damaged eye. Lily is doing well, Ms. Booth said. She is old and we try to keep her healthy and happy.

Scaredy cats

Some organizations want to see the expansion of virtual vet services.

Kevin O'Neill is the vice president of State Affairs for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The organization urges states to relax their regulations on telemedicine. We see it as an important component in allowing pet owners and patients to have access to the vet care they need.

According to The Times, a survey conducted by A.S.P.C.A. of 5,000 respondents, 26 percent of American owners of pets reported they were unable to get veterinary care at times in the past two years. Two thirds said their pets would be seen by a vet more often if they were able to use telemedicine.

Experts said that while not all medical care is possible through a screen or computer, routine appointments such as post-surgical consultations or behavioral counseling can be done from a distance.

Experts said that telemedicine could be particularly useful for rural pet owners who live a long way from an animal clinic or who lack transportation. Virtual triage services can help determine if a pet's symptoms need in-person treatment or if they can be monitored from home.

Dr. Tran explained, 'We then open those appointments to the brick-and-mortar so that people can actually see what needs to be seen personally.



Dr. Moody stated that virtual care could be beneficial for cats who are often stressed out by vet visits. A small, unpublished study was funded by the A.S.P.C.A. In a small, unpublished study funded by the A.S.P.C.A.

If given clear instructions, even cat owners can perform some basic physiological tests that are usually done by vets. Grace Boone, the researcher who conducted the study, said that she only knew of one cat whose owner was unable to measure the respiration rate. The cat in question was very wiggly.

She loves to be on camera when I work Zoom so she jumped up on Ms. Warren's lap as soon as it was turned on.

The veterinarian prescribed medications for motion sickness, anxiety and stress. These were sent directly to Ms. Warren. She said, 'Overall it was great'. I've told everyone.


Telemedicine has its limitations. Some pet owners and vets have experienced this.

Alisa's cat, Alisa Crane, 16, developed an infection in his ears and on his face last November. The only appointment that she could get was a virtual consultation. She said that the appointment was brief, lasting only'maybe six minute'.

The virtual vet prescribed painkillers, antibiotics and the infection cleared up, but Ms. Crane from Sudbury, Ontario still does not know what caused it, or if it was an indication of a more serious health problem. She said that if she was in the same situation, she would probably choose to go in person to an expensive emergency veterinarian. She said, 'I do not think they were properly able to diagnose him via the video call.

Some veterinarians found that telemedicine appointments at Friendship Hospital for Animals in Washington, D.C., which began in April 2020, were more trouble than it was worth. 'Because they can't describe their symptoms as well as a human can, I rely on the pet owners to interpret them,' explained Dr. Christine Klippen. "And sometimes that can be very, very incorrect."


Dr. Klippen explained that a pet owner might mistakenly book an appointment online for constipation - a condition which is usually minor. However, the cat could have a urinary obstruction, a situation that can be life-threatening.

She added, "We'd get a lot people who couldn't find the animal on time." You'd be scheduled for an appointment and they would try to record pets in the closet. The veterinarian didn't find it to be a good use of his time.

She said that the hospital stopped the appointments in less than six month, but they still do remote consultations occasionally. Virtual care is "a great idea," she said, but vets, pet owners, and other professionals need to be given clear guidelines on how and when they can use it.

Legally, the landscape is also confusing with its patchwork of federal and state laws. Telemedicine is being embraced by some states. New Jersey allows vets, for example, to treat patients virtually, without the need for a physical examination. Arizona lawmakers are also considering legislation similar to this.

The American Veterinary Medical Association prefers a stricter approach. It limits telemedicine to veterinarians and pet owners who already have a relationship. There are some exceptions, such as for emergencies or specialists. Dr. Teller, however, said she expects a growing number practices to offer virtual services.

She said that now that the pandemic madness is easing, it will be easier for veterinarians to breathe and better integrate telemedicine.