On the Pandemic Frontlines, the Family Veterinarian Soldiers On


Dogs and cats still see the veterinarian these days, but pet parents? Not so much. Under the new guidelines designed to protect staff and clients from possible exposure to COVID-19, pet owners stay in the car or outside while a veterinary technician comes out to bring in the patient. Then the veterinarian calls them on the phone to discuss the pet.

“Everything we do at the clinic has changed, and it’s harder,” says Dr. Gary Marshall, president of the Washington State Veterinary Medical Association. Like many veterinarians across the planet, Marshall is working long hours not just to continue to provide care to pets, but to stay ahead of and on top of the many new ways that veterinary care is now delivered to keep everyone—pets and people—safe.

The New Normal

Veterinarians, technicians, and reception staff now wear masks all day, every day. Exam room consultations with pet parents are a thing of the past, replaced by multiple phone conversations. In many clinics, visiting specialists conducting ultrasound or cardiology exams see pets in a separate exam room and talk with the resident vets by video or phone.

“A vet working 40 hours a week before is now working 60 hours a week, just to try to keep up,” Marshall says.

That’s now that things are up and running again. At the beginning of the pandemic this spring, many clinics—including Marshall’s Island Cats Veterinary Hospital on Mercer Island near Seattle—drastically reduced services because they’d donated all their masks and surgical gloves to help area hospitals grappling with COVID-19.

“A shortage of PPE was a reason why vets had to stop doing surgeries and anesthetic procedures for a while,” Marshall says.

Mobile services like radiology and cardiology that go from clinic to clinic had to shut down their services because they didn’t want to become vectors spreading COVID-19. The mobile practices have since resumed, Marshall says, but with new procedures and additional protection.

An adjunct professor at Washington State University’s college of veterinary medicine, Marshall is concerned about training new veterinarians during the pandemic. He usually has student interns shadowing him at his practice, but that isn’t possible with social distancing requirements. This year a fourth-year student at the WSU veterinary program was able to do her rotation at the clinic using online platforms. “It takes time more time,” Marshall says, “But it’s safer.”

veterinary intern online, with Dr. Gary Marshall and kitten

Washington State University student Marisa Carrera works online with Dr. Gary Marshall at Island Cats Veterinary Hospital.

With Complexity, More Stress

Veterinary work in the time of pandemic is not only more technically complicated, but it’s also more stressful. With many people—and clinics—delaying routine pet care to minimize interactions, the crowded schedule is now filled with dogs and cats who are seriously ill. Instead of simple vaccinations for healthy pets, there are tests, surgeries, and worried pet parents.

“It used to be perhaps 30 percent sick pets in a day,” Marshall says. “Now it’s 90 percent sick pets that we’re seeing. It’s become draining work.”

Times are difficult not just for Marshall and his team, but for the pet parents who are his clients.

“Like many clinics, we vastly limited our hours in March and April, and our hours are still limited,” he said. “And, yes, people are upset that they might have to wait longer for an appointment when they are concerned about their pet.”

Some pet parents are afraid to leave their homes because they have conditions that put them at high risk for severe illness from COVID-19. For others, loss of jobs and income has them worrying about the costs of veterinary care. Anxiety about these and other issues spills over into their phone calls to veterinary clinics, and that takes a toll on front-line staff. Some people demand to be allowed in with their pets, and receptionists have to gently explain the new procedures.

Currently, Island Cats allows pet parents to enter the clinic with their cats only when the visit is for end-of-life care. Other clinics across the nation have adopted this sole exception, too. “We couldn’t imagine not having them inside for that,” Marshall says.

veterinary technician with pet carrier at car

A veterinary tech at Aurora Veterinary Hospital with patient in tow.

Going Above and Beyond

“Behind the scenes, we’re pretty haggard,” he says. “The burnout factor has increased, but there is no way to take a vacation and get away from it.”

But some days there’s a chance to do something a little extra for a pet or pet parents, and that feels good.

Marshall said his staff was startled and then worried when they realized that an ailing cat had arrived at the clinic parking lot, not by car, but by walker. Because of the pandemic, the cat’s owner, a man in his 90s, did not have access to his usual ride to the clinic. On the day of the appointment, he’d put the cat’s carrier on his walker and trundled the kitty a few blocks to the clinic.

As soon as they realized the situation, the staff did not make him wait outside while the exam and tests were done, but sent him home. “We later brought the cat back to him in the lobby of his senior living community,” Marshall said, adding. “It was an exceptional situation.” (The cat, diagnosed with a hyperthyroid condition, is now receiving treatment.)

“We keep in mind that everyone is under a lot of stress,” Marshall says. “Pet owners, and staff, and veterinarians are still trying to figure out how to do it best.”

Thank You, Veterinarians, for Working to Keep Our Pets Safe and Healthy During This Crisis!

If you want to know more about what your veterinarian is doing during COVID-19 and how services at your family veterinarian‘s office have changed, start with your clinic’s website. Then check the Centers for Disease Control’s latest guidelines for vets.

The Veterinary Medicine Program at the University of California Davis has created this FAQ for pet parents who want to help streamline the new processes for their pets and vets alike; there are also tips and information about coronavirus testing and transmission.

More About COVID-19 and Pets

Further Reading

Find out more about the pet professionals (and volunteers) working on the frontlines to protect animals:

Featured image by David Mark from Pixabay

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