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Navigating Vet Care During the COVID-19 Pandemic: 5 Things You Should Know

Veterinarian examining a cat with his stethoscope

by Dr. Katie Hogan, DVM

The past two months have been strange for most of the people in the Cincinnati area—and the remainder of the United States. We aren’t allowed to do the things we are accustomed to doing (that we used to take for granted) like going to church or eating in a restaurant. Things have been hard for everyone as we work to move forward and adapt to the new “normal.” One area of our lives that has been affected by the new changes is how we relate to our pets. Many people are spending more time at home with their pets and this has brought many people closer to their animals than ever before. Veterinarians across the Tri-State Area have stopped performing elective procedures and have implemented protocols to limit human-to-human contact in the vet clinic to hopefully protect their clients and their staff from COVID-19. 

With all of the chaos happening around us, it can be very overwhelming if you are a pet owner that finds yourself in need of veterinary care. Here are a few tips—straight from the trenches—to help you and your pet stay safe while getting your pet the care he needs:

1. We are open and here for you but are cutting down on some “elective” procedures.

Veterinary clinics are considered “essential” businesses, which means that they are far less likely to close due to COVID-19 risk mitigation orders and procedures. However, most veterinarians have stopped performing elective surgeries. Elective surgeries are surgeries that, although most are incredibly beneficial to the health of the pet, are not time sensitive and the animal will not experience any ill effects from delaying the surgical procedure. Although many rescue organizations, veterinarians, and other animal groups argue that certain elective procedures should be considered essential for the overall health and well-being of the pet population (i.e. spaying and neutering); elective surgeries include any “cosmetic” procedures (declawing, ear cropping, tail docking); routine dental procedures such as annual cleanings; and spaying/neutering healthy pets.

2. You should carefully consider what is “essential” for your pet right now.

In the wake of the pandemic, the state governments recommend that you shelter in place and only leave your home for the necessities. This includes getting groceries/provisions, working if you are an essential employee, and caring for others (including animals). To protect your health and the health of others, you should consider if the veterinary visit you were thinking about is essential. Is your pet an adult that has had a full puppy series and annual vaccines in the past? Now may not be the time to update his shots. That growth on fluffy’s skin that has been there for three months? As long as she is doing fine and acting normally, it can probably wait just a little bit longer. Remember, if you leave the house for something that isn’t essential, you may be putting your health—and the health of others, including veterinary professionals—at risk. Not sure what is worth leaving the house for? Call your veterinarian for guidance. Here’s a post I wrote last fall that may offer some helpful guidelines on how to tell if your pet is a true emergency. 

Update: As of 4/28/20, Ohio Governor Mike Dewine has authorized veterinarians to proceed with re-opening veterinary medical services, including routine/elective procedures, starting May 1st. See the OVMA (Ohio Veterinary Medical Association) update here.

3. It is very unlikely that you will get COVID-19 from an animal.

Although there have been a few (only four or so worldwide) cases of animals testing positive for the COVID-19 virus, there is no evidence that domestic animals can be a source of infection for human beings. We are unsure at this time if pets can get the virus from infected humans, but that seems to be more likely than humans getting the virus from infected pets. Please do not surrender or neglect your pet to try to avoid the COVID-19 virus! However, if you have been exposed to COVID-19, are showing symptoms of COVID-19, or have tested positive for the virus, the CDC recommends that you limit exposure to other humans and animals to prevent transmission of the virus. If you are sick, have somebody else care for your animals. If you are the sole caretaker for the animal, consider wearing a mask when around them and practice “social distancing” with them until you are well. 

4. Respect the new protocols your veterinary clinic has put into place.

Most, if not all, veterinary hospitals have instituted new policies and workflows to help animals get timely and efficient medical care while minimizing the risk of the novel-coronavirus transmission between humans. Some veterinarians are doing curbside service, while others are allowing only a limited number of people to come into the hospital and screening clients to make sure they are not ill. 

Please respect these protocols. If you do not, you may be asked to leave or the police could even be called! If they don’t make sense to you, please remember that your veterinarian has training in public health and has been advised by the state government, the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association), and likely their state veterinary association on how to proceed. As long as these protocols are around you should follow them, be thankful that your pet is able to get veterinary care, and be kind to those implementing the protocols. 

5. Make sure your pet has up-to-date identification, a secure pet carrier, and/or a  well-fitting collar or harness. 

These items are especially important for those whose veterinarians are implementing “curbside service.” This service is when the veterinary staff comes to your car to get the pet, who is then examined by the veterinarian inside the hospital who will then call you to go over findings and recommend a treatment plan. Once the treatments are performed the animal will be brought back to you and you pay over credit card to the receptionists for the visit. 

Generally, animals don’t enjoy leaving their owners. In fact, it is not uncommon for a dog to pull out of his collar when inside the veterinary hospital or for a cat to try to hide or escape her carrier inside the veterinary clinic. Since the workflow has changed, the risk of an animal escaping in an unconstrained environment (i.e. the parking lot) has, unfortunately, increased. This risk is worth the benefit when you compare the small risk of a pet escaping to the large risk of COVID-19 being spread to the veterinary staff. In order to mitigate this risk for your personal pet you can take a few easy steps. First, make sure that collars and harnesses are secure enough that the animal can’t pull out of them. Secondly, put small dogs, cats, and other small animals inside of a sealed carrier that they cannot escape from. Lastly, in case of an emergency that results in escape, make sure your animal has identifying information (such as a collar and tag) on him. Identification can also be in the form of a microchip, which can be inserted under your pet’s skin. If your pet already has a microchip, now would be a good time to contact the microchip company and make sure the chip is registered to your name and that your contact information is up to date. 

Thanks for reading this article. I hope that you all are staying safe during these unprecedented times. If you have questions, feel free to comment on this post to start a discussion! If you know other pet owners, share this list with them so that they can work to keep their furry family safe while they #ShelterInPlace.

Dr. Katie Hogan is a full-time veterinarian at Grady Veterinary Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio. She works with dogs, cats, and exotic companion animals and is dedicated to furthering the human-animal bond. In her free time, she creates online content for her blog, KatieHoganDVM.com, which is dedicated to helping pets, pet parents, and veterinarians live the best lives imaginable.

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