Back in December 2019, before anyone had ever heard the term “social distancing,” telemedicine remained largely at the margins of veterinary care. The concept of providing medical services to a pet without an in-person visit was out there, to be sure. The American Veterinary Medical Association even had guidelines for the use of technology such as video-conferencing to insure that dogs seen on a screen rather than at the vet’s office received the best care possible. But most veterinary visits for dogs took place at the doctor’s office. A survey published in the journal BMC Veterinary Research late last year even showed that many veterinarians did not know the definitions of some of the basic terms associated with virtual veterinary care.
How times have changed. Veterinary consultations from afar have jumped 170 percent by one measure. And VCA Animal Hospitals, in 46 states and five Canadian provinces, launched video consultations in the spring, while use of its mobile app on-call service overseen by a team of veterinarians more than doubled.
Even the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has become involved, relaxing the requirements of virtual care “in order to allow veterinarians to better utilize telemedicine to address animal health needs during the pandemic.” For example, a vet can prescribe drugs that she wouldn’t have been able to prescribe previously without seeing a dog in person.
The ASPCA has weighed in, too. “Veterinarians should fully leverage…expansive opportunities to employ telemedicine to help animals and limit the risk to public health during the pandemic,” the organization says.
But how well do virtual vet visits actually work? Are they here to stay?
The benefits and limitations of veterinary visits from afar
One plus of virtual visits for dogs is that it might get some of them “seen” by veterinarians more often. Why? “For the owner, it can be less stressful,” says Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, head of the Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic, who has begun seeing some clients and their dogs virtually. “They don’t have to bring the pet, and for the pet, it can be less stressful, too.”
Dr. Borns-Weil points out that telemedicine is a bit like a house call. “What I like is that I gain insight into the animal’s home life because the client can walk me through the home—I get to appreciate the environment, see the window, the door, and the walkway” where the problematic behavior occurs, says the doctor.
Virtual veterinary visits can also be quite useful for recheck examinations, say, to assess how a dog is doing after an illness or operation, and also for consultations on nutrition and care of new puppies. In addition, a client can move aside a dog’s hair to show the doctor an unusual bump or lump and see to what degree the vet can make heads or tails of it without actually palpating (feeling) it.
Of course, Dr. Borns-Weil says, “nothing can fully replace the hands-on experience of an office visit, which can bring to light unnoticed issues that a client might not know to mention.” Nor can a veterinarian deliver vaccinations virtually or perform a number of other procedures without being physically together with a dog. These include aspirating cells to check for cancer, dental work, and a host of other things.
But the positives are significant enough for Dr. Borns-Weil to feel that she would like telemedicine to continue and even grow as an augmentation to office visits.