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Veterinary epidemiologist Anne Kimmerlein on what to expect if you need to take your pet to the vet during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Kelli Bender
April 22, 2020 04:13 PM
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Credit: Getty

The changes caused by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic are vast and seem to touch every aspect of our lives, including the treatment of our pets.

A silver lining to all the chaos and loss caused by the virus is the increase in pet adoptions and pet fostering many shelters across the country are seeing, as animal lovers reach out to help rescues and to find an adorable self-isolation companion for themselves.

New pets mean new responsibilities, and it is important that pet parents are prepared to care for their furry friends, even in the midst of a pandemic.

Best Friends Animal Society, the nation’s largest no-kill rescue organization, has assembled a Pet Preparedness Plan, available in English and Spanish, to help pet parents ensure that they have the resources, supplies, and plans in place to care for their pets whether they’re unable to leave the house, too sick to function at home, or become hospitalized.

“We know from past experience in emergencies that people don’t want to leave their pets behind,” said Julie Castle, chief executive officer for Best Friends Animal Society. “We want to give them every opportunity to feel confident that if they have to go to the hospital, their pets are in good hands. This is part of a community fabric that we’re trying to build now where people know they can rely on their neighbors and friends. With everything shut down, oftentimes the only people you can turn to are those close by. That community structure is going to be what gets us through this crisis. Please spread the word, as this can save human and animal lives.”

The plan includes a list of what supplies to have prepared for your pet for any type of emergency, and information on how to care for your pet if you are diagnosed or have symptoms of COVID-19, how to make a plan if you need an alternate caregiver for pets and an emergency pet care authorization form in case you are hospitalized.

For those who want to contact a vet with a pet health question, but don’t feel it is necessary to visit a vet in-person — or don’t feel comfortable visiting a vet’s office — Best Friends also offers the Best Friends Vet Access app, which immediately connects users with a licensed veterinarian via phone or video call, powered by Vets Plus More. Thanks to Maddie’s Fund, this service is now available for free to fosters working with any animal shelter or rescue group in the country (while licenses last). The app can be downloaded from the Apple or Android store using code BFHELPS.  For non-fosters, the app is free for 30 days with a credit card number.

Of course, there still may be circumstances where pet owners need to have their pets examined in-person by a veterinarian. To understand the best way to seek medical help for your pet, while keeping you, your vet, and your pet safe, PEOPLE spoke with Anne Kimmerlein, DVM, MPVM, DACVPM, a veterinary epidemiologist with VCA Animal Hospitals.

Read on to see how VCA Animal Hospitals are handling the unique problems presented by COVID-19 and to get Dr. Kimmerlein’s advice on how to keep your pets happy and healthy during these uncertain times.

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Credit: Getty

Are vet offices and animal hospitals open during the pandemic?

Veterinary care is deemed an essential service by states across the country. Veterinary services not only provide essential care for individual animals but also support and protect public health in our communities. VCA is dedicated to providing continued veterinary care to pets while at the same time, protecting the safety of our associates and clients alike. However, in an effort to further protect our associates and clients, there have been some changes to how we are providing care, including curbside check-ins and checkouts, increased use of text communications and video consultations, and home delivery of medications and food.

Should pet owners still be taking their pets to non-emergency exams for shot updates, physicals, etc?

Preventive care such as wellness check-ups, dental cleanings, and vaccinations are important to keeping our pets healthy and living long, happy lives. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, there may be instances where it is appropriate to postpone or reschedule services or procedures. The decision about what care your pet needs and when is best discussed with your personal veterinarian, who can help you understand what is right for your individual pet.

When should you be taking your pet to the vet/animal hospital during a pandemic?

If your pet needs urgent or emergency care, do not hesitate to go to the veterinarian! However, please call your veterinarian on your way in to let them know you are coming so that they can be prepared for you and your pet.

What are some options for pet care for those who don’t feel comfortable visiting a vet’s office?

At VCA, we have various remote ways to care for your pets and help you determine whether a trip to the hospital is necessary.

1. Text Messaging: You can send and receive texts and photos with us. Texting is only available during operating hours, response times vary, but we will do our best to respond quickly.

2. Video Consults: Meet with your veterinarian from the comfort of your own home. Call your VCA hospital to schedule a video call and you will receive an email invite with a few simple steps to join your virtual appointment. Please note that by their nature video consultations are limited and certain conditions may require a physical exam and/or additional testing for an accurate diagnosis or treatment.

3. MyVCA Live Chat: VCA CareClub® members can chat with a veterinarian anytime, day or night via our telehealth Live Chat service on the myVCA app.

4. Home Delivery: Pet food and medications for deliviery, including prescriptions and refills, can be ordered through our myVCA Online Store or myVCA app. Visit: shopmyVCA.com.

If you think your pet is ill, what’s the best course of action for seeking out care?

If you think your pet is ill, don’t wait to see the veterinarian. In many cases, waiting until a pet’s symptoms are severe can make it more difficult to treat his or her illness. Call your veterinary hospital to find out their current policies and discuss the best way for your pet to receive care.

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Credit: VCA Animal Hospitals

What changes can you expect at the vet’s office due to the coronavirus pandemic?

While at VCA we have implemented some new policies in order to keep you and our associates safe, you can rest assured that we will continue to provide top-notch veterinary care. While there may be some slight variation between hospitals, here is what you can expect from your VCA veterinary visit at this time:

1. When you arrive at the hospital, stay in your car. Our waiting rooms and reception areas are closed.

2. Call the hospital or posted phone number in order to be checked-in.

3. An associate will come to your car to take your pet. Please have a mask or face covering on for protection of all. It is also very important that you have a leash for your dog and a secure carrier for your cat or other small pet.

4. Once your pet is inside the hospital, he/she will receive a thorough examination by the doctor.

5. Keep your phone handy! The doctor will call to discuss their findings and may ask you additional questions at this time.

6. Once you and your doctor have decided on the best plan, your pet will receive any needed diagnostic tests or treatments.

7. You will be checked-out and pay for your visit over the phone.

8. Your pet and any take-home items or prescriptions will be brought to your car. Please have your mask or face covering on during this brief interaction.

How are vets keeping pets and their owners safe during vet visits?

COVID-19 is a human disease and the greatest risk of spread is from person to person. Like VCA, many veterinarians are employing curbside check-in and check-out to allow for social distancing between clients and the veterinary healthcare team. Our waiting and reception areas are closed in order to maintain appropriate social distancing and clients are not allowed into our hospitals unless authorized under special circumstances. Veterinary hospitals have rigorous cleaning and disinfection protocols. However, we have increased our high infection and prevention control practices to focus on preventing person-to-person transmission of COVID-19.

What precautions are vets and their assistants taking to protect themselves from COVID-19?

VCA has implemented revised team member workflows inside the hospital to allow for social distancing practices. We have also developed new and additional Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) policies that allow us to provide adequate protection to associates while also responsibly preserving PPE for critical services as well as increased sanitation and cleaning/disinfection procedures during the pandemic. VCA has also increased benefits to enable our associates to take the time they need away from work during the pandemic and are providing employee mental health and wellbeing information and resources during this challenging time.

What should you do if your pet needs help but you think you might have COVID-19?

If you are experiencing flu-like symptoms or are quarantined due to potential coronavirus exposure, stay home and call your medical provider for advice on next steps.

If your pet does not require immediate veterinary care, keep them at home and avoid contact with other people and animals; we are happy to help you reschedule any appointments for your pet until you’re well.

If your pet needs to be seen urgently due to a life-threatening situation or illness:

1. Call to confirm your veterinary clinic is equipped to treat patients that could have been exposed to COVID-19 virus and has adequate isolation facilities and staffing to care for your pet. While there is limited evidence that pets can be infected and no evidence that domestic dogs and cats pose a risk to others, this is purely a precaution because the virus is not well-understood.

2. If your veterinary clinic is unable to provide full isolation and associated care for your pet, ask for a referral to the nearest veterinary clinic with ICU or isolation capacity.

3. Arrange for an unexposed/non-quarantined friend or family member to transport your pet to and from the veterinary clinic to limit potential exposure.

Are vets still able to treat most medical conditions in pets? Are there restrictions and/or supply shortages?

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) reports that, as of April 12, 2020, “no current shortages are reported by any of the 32 animal drug companies that make finished drugs or source active pharmaceutical ingredients in China for the U.S. market, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).” VCA continues to provide veterinary care for our patients and is following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidelines in order to protect our associates while also responsibly preserving PPE for critical services.

Are there any pet health issues you have seen on the rise due to them spending so much time indoors with their owners?

Our pets don’t know that COVID-19 is happening. In general, they are just happy to have their people around more. However, we have received many questions from clients about their pets’ behavior in light of working from home, sheltering in place, and just spending more time in each other’s presence. We have some great resources on COVID-19 and pet behavior on our AskVCA Youtube channel and the VCA Animal Hospitals Facebook page.

Is there anything else you would like pet owners to know, based on questions and concerns you are seeing at this time?

COVID-19 is a newly emerging disease, and the situation is still evolving. We are learning more about the disease COVID-19 and the SARS-CoV-2 virus every day and we are constantly assessing and evolving our practices in order to provide continued care for pets while at the same time, protecting our associates and clients alike.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a GoFundMe.org fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.