Having a hard time getting an appointment to see the vet these days? You’re not alone.
But when the pandemic spurred an epidemic of welcome mats for pets, we didn’t do a very good job asking who was going to take care of those pets’ health. Nowadays, getting into a vet clinic takes luck.
The shortage of veterinarians is close to a mind-boggling deficit of 20,000 plus, but there may be an answer: “virtual” vet services.
Yes, the same “telehealth” services that humans are starting to warm up to are making it easier for pet parents to get quicker answers – and possibly less expensive vet bills. And there are lots of companies that are gearing up to serve the market. More than $250 million in equity investments have been made for companies like AirVet and TeleVet to prove their worth.
What do pet owners need to know to join the pet telehealth revolution? ConsumerAffairs is ready with those basics.
How do you know if your situation would benefit from virtual care?
Pet telehealth isn’t a one-size-fits-all type thing. The ASPCA suggests that before you start searching for a vet who does telehealth, you ask yourself these questions:
Have you ever had a pet become ill in the middle of the night or during the weekend when most general veterinary clinics are closed?
Is your pet afraid of the vet’s office? Is transportation to the vet clinic stressful for your pet? Does your pet become anxious or potentially aggressive at a clinic?
Do you have a pet who is tricky to transport, such as a horse or a large dog?
Do you face other barriers to accessing veterinary care for your pet, like mobility issues, scheduling challenges, or transportation difficulties?
Do you live in an area where veterinary care is difficult to obtain?
Has it been hard to get an appointment to see a vet?
Do you struggle to afford the cost of veterinary care for your pet?
Would it be helpful for you or your pet to have online access to your veterinarian to get prescriptions for your pet’s routine medications—like flea and tick prevention—without having to visit the clinic each time?
If you have a senior or terminally ill pet, do you wish you could connect with a veterinarian online who specializes in end-of-life/hospice care—one who could help prevent or ease your pet’s suffering or help you determine when it’s time to say goodbye?
Answering yes to any of these questions is a sign that virtual vet visits could benefit both you and your pet. However, it’s also important to note that answering “yes” doesn’t mean you should always seek out virtual vet services for your pet.
What does pet telehealth cost?
Pet owners know that any trip to the vet doesn’t come without a fairly large price tag. So, what does it cost to have your pet evaluated virtually?
The short answer: it depends on what kind of service and provider you choose.
Certain companies provide free telehealth services, like Chewy. Any pet owner can log onto Chewy and access the Chat feature for free; for Autoship Chewy customers, video calls are also free, and they run non-Autoship customers $20.
Similarly, Blue Buffalo Buddies has an app that pet owners can download and use for free. They don’t connect with virtual vets – only other pet owners who you can chat with and ask questions about your pets.
Many virtual vet providers have monthly or yearly subscription programs. Some of these options include:
Pawp: $99/year + $19/month for the emergency fund
Dutch: $132/year or $35/month with no commitment
Whisker Docs: $130/year or $17/month; $40 for an instant call or $5 for email support
How do you find a reputable telehealth vet?
Considering many of the legalities surrounding virtual vet care, pet owners may first want to consult the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).
In order to receive any kind of formal diagnosis or even a prescription for your pet, the virtual provider you’re seeing must have a veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR) with your pet. In many states, this is only possible if that vet has seen and examined your pet in person prior to their virtual meeting.
The AVMA says that the one exception to this rule would be if a virtual vet provided guidance to a pet owner on bringing their pet in for emergency care.
For pet owners who may be considering different telehealth options for their pet, this is an important point to keep in mind. Any virtual provider trying to bypass these requirements isn’t a reputable option for your pet.
What kinds of things can a virtual vet examine for?
Dr. Amanda Flanagan, the owner and medical director of GoodVets clinic in the Chicago area, told ConsumerAffairs what is – and what isn’t – possible by telehealth.
Possible via telehealth: “Veterinarians can conduct remote consultations for various issues, including behavioral concerns, discussing minor or externally visible symptoms, and reviewing previous medical history and treatment, or following up after recent surgery or treatment,” she said. “Telehealth is also a convenient way to discuss lab results and recommendations for further care without sacrificing face-to-face interaction.”
Require in-person visit: Flanagan said that just like a human doctor, any consultation for a new pet patient, whether wellness or sick, requires an in-person examination with a doctor in order to utilize telehealth in the future. “Establishing the doctor-patient-client relationship in person is as important in veterinary medicine as it is in any field of human medicine. For established patients, procedures such as vaccines and routine labs, or cases where we know a diagnostic will need to be done to get the information necessary to identify and treat the condition, like ear infections or UTIs, are not appropriate for telehealth consultation,” she said.
“My personal preference is to recommend an in-person exam for any condition with more than one symptom, or if the symptoms could be due to a worsening previously diagnosed chronic disease, such as heart disease, diabetes, or kidney disease,” Flanagan said.