When Covid began to spread in 2020 veterinary clinics were closed to walk-in traffic across the country. On one occasion we took our dog Clementine to the vet and waited in the car while they examined her inside. On another occasion we pulled into the parking lot and talked to the vet on a cellphone, who sent out a vet tech to examine Clementine who was in our backseat.
Clementine is an anxious dog. She hates being separated from us, especially when she’s away from her familiar territory at home. Besides our regular vet, we also see a veterinary behaviorist who treats Clementine’s anxious behavior. She too was closed to walk-in traffic during Covid. She conducted Clementine’s annual visit over Zoom in the spring of 2020. After that first Zoom annual, she now always meets with Clementine on Zoom. I suspect the vet does that with many of her patients. Everyone is happier with the arrangement, including Clementine.
Apparently, Clementine isn’t the only dog who dislikes going to the vet. The New York Times ran an article about how veterinary telemedicine allows pet owners to access care without the anxiety that comes with a trip to the vet. Since Covid veterinary telemedicine has taken off.
While many people have embraced virtual visits with their own doctors, use of veterinary telemedicine by pet owners has lagged. In one new survey of more than 1,200 American cat owners, 72 percent reported using telemedicine for themselves, compared to just 3 percent who had used it for their felines.
During the pandemic, numerous states temporarily loosened restrictions on veterinary telemedicine and many clinics as well as pet owners tried remote appointments for the first time. Some states are now considering permanently expanding their use.
Although hurdles remain, and it’s not appropriate for all pet care scenarios, scaling up telemedicine could bring a variety of benefits, experts said, like improving access to veterinary care and reducing stress for vet-averse pets like Pickles.
Before Covid veterinarian offices were unlikely to offer telemedicine, possibly because Fluffy and Fido can’t talk. Or maybe it just wasn’t the way things were done because nobody thought of it. Or maybe it was somewhat due to state laws designed to protect brick & mortar vet practices from competition. Covid initiated a lot of new business interactions over video.
“Before the pandemic, it was not very common to utilize telemedicine in that way,” said Dr. Lori Teller, the president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, who is also on the faculty at Texas A&M University, where she has developed a veterinary telehealth program.
Prior to Covid and probably still in many states, state laws dictated whether veterinarians could talk to pet owners on the phone.
In part, that stemmed from restrictive state laws, many of which required veterinarians to have a pre-existing relationship with an animal — including having given a prior hands-on exam — before treating them remotely.
But when the pandemic began, some states temporarily eased their requirements. Veterinary practices turned to telemedicine to conserve personal protective equipment and flatten the coronavirus curve. The share of vets offering remote video appointments rose to 30 percent from 4 percent, according to one survey of American and Canadian clinicians.
Texas is an example of a state with restrictive state laws. A disabled veterinarian living in Brownsville, Texas began providing advice to pet owners over the Internet in 2002. He had a disclaimer on his website that he would not prescribe drugs, nor was he a pet’s primary veterinarian. He gave a lot of advice for free and charged some patients $58. He provided advice on pet health for 10 years before the Texas veterinary board tried to shut him down.
Dr. Hines gave online advice to pet owners all across the world from 2002 to 2012, until the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners said his advice was illegal—not because it harmed an animal or was inaccurate, but because Texas prohibits veterinarians from sharing their expertise with pet owners without first examining their pets in person.
The Texas law was written rather strangely. Dr. Hines right to discuss pet health was only limited because he was a veterinarian. I could have done the same thing legally and I’m not even a veterinarian. This is from the CATO Institute:
Moreover, someone who wasn’t a licensed veterinarian could have provided the same advice as Dr. Hines without a problem; the law prohibits good information from qualified individuals while allowing unqualified individuals to give bad advice. The regulation just ends up hurting the poor, who can’t afford to travel to Dr. Hines, and practically creates geographic limitations on speech.
It took years but Dr. Hines won his case affirming his right to free speech even if it was regulated occupational speech. Dr. Hines (and Covid) have likely ushered in a new era when more pet owners will be able to talk to their veterinarians on the phone and receive care for their pets remotely. Clementine sure likes it better.