In light of COVID-19 and the associated restrictions on public activity, many people are looking for ways to safely go about their daily lives indoors and online. Luckily, telemedicine supports this goal and allows individuals to ensure their health and the health of their pets, digitally.
Dr. Lori Teller, a clinical associate professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, speaks to pet owners about the basics of veterinary telemedicine and how this tool can be especially useful in the midst of a pandemic.
“Telemedicine is the exchange of medical information from one location to another using electronic communications to diagnose, treat, or improve a patient’s health status,” Teller said. “In most cases, all that an animal owner needs to connect is a smartphone with a working camera, microphone, and chat feature.”
A computer or tablet may also be used, provided that it is capable of two-way communication and has internet access. In many cases, a telemedicine appointment will be a real-time, live video and audio exchange.
“A veterinarian can evaluate many things via telemedicine,” Teller said. “The first thing will be to obtain a patient’s history and determine what the current problem is. If the problem is something that can be visualized, such as a skin lesion or limping, then pictures or videos will be helpful. Behavioral and nutritional problems can often be handled via telemedicine as well.”
Telemedicine appointments are most effective when there is an established veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR), as the veterinarian may be able to more accurately make a diagnosis and create a treatment plan. If there is no established VCPR, a veterinarian will still be able to provide general advice. Rules on what the outcome of a telemedicine appointment can be, including the prescription of medications, vary by state.
“It is important to note that telemedicine does not replace a physical exam, so there will be times when the veterinarian will tell the client that the patient needs to be seen,” Teller said. “Telemedicine can play a huge role, especially in times of disaster, such as a pandemic or hurricane, in helping a client determine if a trip to the veterinarian is needed and, if so, when is it needed.”
If a pet has a life-threatening emergency, difficulty breathing, pale or bluish gums, has ingested a toxic substance or something large enough to cause an obstruction, is unable to urinate or to stand, has increased seizures, is non-responsive, is experiencing difficulty during labor, has vomiting and diarrhea and lethargy, or is experiencing other serious veterinary conditions, they should be brought to a veterinary clinic.
Teller recommends calling ahead of time to let the clinic know you’re coming and what the problem appears to be.
“Telemedicine is an extremely valuable tool to help provide care for a patient,” she said. “It is not a substitute for in-person veterinary care that requires a physical exam or diagnostic tests, such as blood work or imaging, but is a way to manage patients in-between visits to the hospital.”
During times of disruption, such as the current pandemic, telemedicine can be an excellent way to ensure that your furry friend continues to get the care they need while also following social distancing requirements and staying safely indoors.
“Telemedicine is especially valuable during a pandemic because it can be used to help the veterinarian and the client determine if and when the patient needs to be seen in the hospital or if the problem can be managed at home, at least for the short term,” Teller said. “It also helps conserve PPE (personal protective equipment) and other resources for emergencies and for human health care facilities.”
Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the web at vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.