At Fonthill Animal Hospital, staffer Taylor lugs out a bag of dog food for a waiting customer. VOICE

Veterinarians modify services, but continue to provide care, supplies

This is a stressful time for pet owners, and equally difficult for the professionals who look after their cherished dogs and cats.

With the most resent update of government-directed business closures due to COVID-19, some people are under the impression that veterinarian offices are no longer open. Services rendered must fall under the umbrella of treatment for illness or injury requiring prompt care. Preventative care is also allowed, in situations that could have long-term animal and public health impacts, such as certain vaccinations.

Dr. Bob Perry, of the Dunnville Veterinary Clinic, is relieved to be deemed an “essential service,” but daunted by the monumental challenge of trying to continue to meet the needs of clients and their pets, while simultaneously keeping his staff safe from COVID-19.

 

In this September 2019 file photo, Dr. Bob Perry examines one alert kitty, assisted by RVT Nicole Esliger. DAVE BURKET

Vaccinations for the most part are not an emergency, said Perry, although there are some time-sensitive shots for puppies. Booster shots for certain diseases such as Lyme and Leptospirosis may be required if the pandemic does not abate over the next couple months. He encourages pet owners to practice social and location distancing.

“If you keep your dogs away from places that other dogs frequent, they will be at quite a low risk, since most vaccine protection does not suddenly disappear based on the date that a booster shot is recommended.”

The one exception is if an animal is exposed to rabies, said Perry, with the highest risk for most dogs being a bat that gets into the house.

Last week the US CDC cautioned that pets should also practice physical distancing.

“Treat pets as you would other human family members— do not let pets interact with people or animals outside the household,” read a CDC statement. “If a person inside the household becomes sick, isolate that person from everyone else, including pets.”

Perry said that vets are doing their best in uncharted territory. His staff has scrubs to wear, but can’t get additional lab coats or gowns. His supply of latex gloves and medical-grade masks is dwindling, and he has no access to additional hand sanitizer.

“Our hands are raw from scrubbing with soap,” he said. “When our current limited supply of hand sanitizer runs out, we will be using medical isopropyl alcohol, and antiviral hospital cleaning solution.”

When our current limited supply of hand sanitizer runs out, we will be using medical isopropyl alcohol, and antiviral hospital cleaning solution

Veterinary hospitals have been approached by provincial and Regional governments, requesting donation of any medical supplies they can spare for doctors, nurses, and other front-line workers in hospitals.

“I honestly have no idea how to make the decision of what part of my meager supplies I should retain for my staff, and what I should release to our truly heroic health care providers who are in direct contact with sick patients,” lamented Perry.

Telemedicine is a recently added service at the Dunnville clinic in an effort to maintain physical distancing. Clients can book a one-on-one appointment with a veterinarian via phone call, video platform, or text message. A 15-minute session costs $45.

Claire Todd, veterinarian at Fonthill Animal Hospital, has amended her service model, and now collects pets in the parking lot and takes them into the hospital while the pet owners wait in their cars. While this minimizes contact, there is no way to transfer a pet and also maintain two-metre distance.

“Staff swap leashes so as not to handle the pet owner’s leash, but the risk of a pet running away during this transfer is terribly stressful to staff,” said Todd, whose practice fronts Highway 20.

In those heart-breaking circumstances when a pet must be euthanized, how can an owner be told that they are not welcome to be by their companion’s side?

“I’m not sure I can do that, but I am responsible for my staff as well,” said Todd. “However, the people who are dying of COVID-19 are dying alone, in isolation. When I swore my Veterinarian’s Oath 20 years ago, I never imagined I would be facing these moral dilemmas.”

When I swore my Veterinarian’s Oath 20 years ago, I never imagined I would be facing these moral dilemmas

Todd has a small practice, with three staff. One is currently in self-isolation after returning from Florida. Meanwhile, the communications demand for her clients has skyrocketed. Todd has tried to reduce patient-care hours by two hours at the end of each day in order to catch up on all the remaining duties, but most days she has failed to achieve this.

“I cannot tell first-responders, who are working long shifts for all the rest of us, that I will not stay open to see their pets at the end of our business day,” said Todd.

Animals that have long-term health conditions which require monitoring, injections, and medications should be brought to her office, said Todd. In some cases, treatment will commence in the parking lot. Any animal in obvious pain qualifies for treatment. Ancillary services such as dental scaling, general grooming, nail trimming, and anal gland draining have been postponed, with exceptions made if the animal is in pain due to an aggravated condition.

Todd insists that clients with family members who are isolating at home, or who are symptomatic with a cough and/or fever, inform her staff prior to bringing a pet to the office.

The pandemic is overloading the telephone lines at times, and Todd’s staff have noticed that “dropped” calls are becoming more frequent. She encourages clients to use email or leave phone messages if they have difficulty speaking with staff by phone.

The Niagara Veterinary Emergency Clinic, in Thorold, is equally swamped with high demand and sees a constantly diminishing staff, as some workers are required to self-isolate for various reasons. Accordingly, most general vet practices are attempting to refer as few patients their way as possible.

“My staff are tirelessly working 12-hour days without a break and without complaint,” said Todd. “My respect for their dedication has become bottomless over the last couple weeks. However, I have never seen exhaustion on their faces like this before. I have even brought my 11-year -old daughter in to work every day to help us.”

Todd attempts telemedicine when possible, but this is a difficult scenario for pets, as they are unable to describe their own feelings and symptoms. “They don’t tell us they have abdominal pain. We feel it when we palpate. Unravelling a health concern in an animal is a very hands-on exercise,” said Todd. “An x-ray of a mass is helpful, but palpating the mass to assess what it is attached to, if it is hard or fluid filled, are critical components of appropriate evaluation.”

The greatest concern for Todd, as COVID-19 travels through the community, is that pets being presented to her staff have been recently coughed or sneezed on by a symptomatic family member.

“Our pets love to snuggle with us when we are feeling unwell. I can’t ‘disinfect’ a dog or cat. And often treating a pet requires that we get in close contact with the animal, just to keep them still. So we disinfect our spaces and ourselves constantly and then hope for the best.”

She acknowledges that these challenges are not unique to veterinarians, since most of the same applies to grocery and pharmacy staff, and certainly all front-line medical personnel.

“I work hard to maintain humour with my staff and clients, as this is paramount to mental health,” she said. “And whenever I start to feel overwhelmed, I remind myself that I am certainly not facing the same risks that our human medical professionals are, nor is my family under threat of war like many of our parents or grandparents were. Those thoughts make me pull up my bootstraps and keep going until the work is done, and try to do so with a smile.”

I work hard to maintain humour with my staff and clients, as this is paramount to mental health

Contacted by the Voice, Balfour Animal Hospital, in Fenwick, and Pelham Animal Hospital, in Fonthill, noted that they have reduced their hours slightly, and no longer allow customers to enter the office. Pets are met at the door and taken inside. Payment should be made by telephone, and only emergency issues and priority inoculations (for rabies, puppy booster shots, and the like) are being managed. Staff are wearing masks and gloves for personal protection. Additional office cleaning with bleach is now the norm.