When my cat, Pip, started sniffling and sneezing a few weeks ago, I didn’t give it much thought. But as the sneezing continued, I started to get worried – both about Pip, of course, and about how I was going to safely get him to the veterinarian during Columbia’s stay-at-home order.
So, I called my vet and found out they had changed the way appointments were handled. Instead of going into the office with my cat, I would call when I was parked outside, hand Pip over in a carrier from my car, and then talk to the vet over the phone about a treatment plan.
A drive-up, hands-off vet clinic.
Dr. Wendy Forbes at Rock Bridge Animal Hospital is Pip’s vet, and she said this is an effort to reduce the chance of COVID-19 transmission for owners and clinic staff.
“Our biggest line of protection is minimizing our contact with the outside public,” Forbes said. “We’re doing the curbside check-in, all our check-ins over the phone, and then we discuss our findings over the phone.”
Dr. Forbes added that the office is also working to postpone routine pet care, things like teeth cleanings and wellness visits, because the animal will be okay without those services, and it cuts down on unnecessary exposure.
She said the clinic is “essential” under Columbia’s stay-at-home order, and, for now, is still open for vaccinations for diseases that could impact humans, like rabies, and for pets who need immediate care.
Dr. Leah Cohn is a small animal internal medicine specialist with the University of Missouri Veterinary Health Center, and she said the animal hospital will also continue to give “life sustaining care.”
“We can still be there if a dog has a broken leg or if a cat goes into renal failure or if we see an animal with diabetic ketoacidosis,” Cohn said.
She said treatments, like chemotherapy, would also fall under that category and be continued if it’s already started. But, she added, that for some procedures, like non-cancerous tumor removal or exploratory biopsies, it may be better for owners to wait until the pandemic is over.
“It really is a case-by-case scenario,” Cohn said, “to try and determine are we better off to wait a little while or is this something that we need intervention right now.”
Cohn said this is for the safety of the animal because once the pandemic is over, things will be “a little more normalized and we will have more normal staffing.”
One of the other ways that both Rock Bridge Animal Hospital and the University of Missouri Veterinary Health Center are trying to further minimize contact is using telemedicine. By using available technology, like FaceTime or Zoom, the veterinarians can determine if a physical examination and visit are even needed.
“They can hold up their phone or their iPad. We can watch the animal breath or we can watch the animal move or we can ask the owner to lift their lip and look at the color of their gums,” Cohn said. “And we can have a conversation with them and determine how best to help their pet.”
She said that if a physical visit to the clinic is needed, the staff is prepared. They screen owners to see if there’s any chance they’ve been exposed to COVID-19 or even if they’ve tested positive.
If that risk is high, or the person has tested positive for COVID-19, the staff will use personal protective equipment, or PPE, like masks and gloves to handle the pets. There is also a decontamination process where dogs are given baths and cats are wiped down.
Cohn said the staff will use PPE during that initial decontamination period, but that it is probably unnecessary as the risk to animals and from animals for COVID-19 is relatively low.
“There’s not any evidence that animals can become sick from COVID-19,” Cohn said. “[There’s] probably little risk to even being in contact with the animal.”
Both the vet clinic and the University of Missouri Veterinary Health Center said staying six feet apart while taking care of an animal is not really possible, so by reducing the number of cases being seen, they are not only reducing the risk of transmission between people, but also preserving PPE.
Which could be important if COVID-19 numbers in Missouri continue to climb and the pandemic gets worse.
“We have inventoried our PPE to be available to the human hospital,” Cohn said. “We have inventoried, not just the PPE, but things like our ventilators. So, if they tell us they’re needed, we will supply them.”
But back at my house, Pip, unfortunately, continues to sneeze. He may have a respiratory infection, but thanks to Dr. Forbes and our drive-up, hands-off vet visit, I’m just keeping an eye on it and hoping he stays healthy.