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All About Telehealth Vet For Your Pet 

Dog feeling sick on the couch with owner doing a telehealth vet visit

Have you ever had a night where your dog won’t eat and seems ‘off’? Noticed a new lump on your cat, but you know that a visit to the vet will result in anxious vomiting, howling, and scratching as you try to put her in the carrier? Want to make sure it’s normal for your puppy to behave in a certain way after being neutered? Been curious about whether it’s safe to have your pug wear a Halloween costume? You know it isn’t an emergency, but there is something you’d like to talk over with your veterinarian or another professional to get some advice and peace of mind. In instances where you might not be sure if your pet needs to be seen, if it is difficult for you or your pet to go to the veterinarian, or if you are looking for the convenience of a virtual visit, telehealth vet might be the perfect answer for your situation.  

Table of Contents:

What is Telehealth?

While telephone diagnoses and medication refills have been available to us for decades, during the pandemic, telehealth options for humans became commonplace, whether through a phone call or a video chat. The National Center for Health Statistics reports that telehealth use spiked and was used by 85% of the population in 2020 and 2021, and many people continue to use telehealth to access health care post-pandemic.  

Veterinary telehealth has been slower to catch on, with one study estimating that only 3 percent of cat owners and 12 percent of dog owners had used it for their pet. All signs, however, point to an increased use of telehealth in the veterinary setting as veterinary organizations and states work to refine and standardize the types of care available. Regulations currently range from states that allow anyone to contact a vet for telemedicine to those that require a previous vet-patient relationship to those that require previous vet-client contact for the specific issue being examined in telemedicine. While some states relaxed their requirements during the pandemic in order to save on PPE and offer greater access for isolating patients and their pets, they subsequently reinstated their regulations. 

Telehealth is the term that covers all technology assisted care. The umbrella term ‘telehealth’ is broken down into a few categories that distinguish between the type of care that can be provided. Providers make a distinction between telemedicine and tele-triage or tele-advice.  

Telemedicine allows a veterinarian to remotely examine your pet in order to offer a diagnosis and prescribe treatment to the animal. At this time, all but a handful of states require there to be a previously established veterinarian-client-patient-relationship (VCPR) in order to practice telemedicine. This ensures that the veterinarian has a prior relationship with the animal to aid them in their assessment.  

Tele-triage is typically done by a veterinary assistant or a vet tech. They can help you determine if your pet’s need is something that should be seen in-person by a vet or if it is something that is normal and will resolve itself or can safely wait to be evaluated and treated at a later time. This is a consultation only, and tele-triage appointments cannot offer a diagnosis or prescribe treatment.  

Tele-advice can be a useful way to get more general questions about your pet’s health answered, similar to questions you might research online. These can range from questions about health and behavior to feeding, grooming, and training. 

Benefits of Telehealth

  • Convenience: Telehealth visits can be much more convenient that an in-clinic vet appointment. People who live far from the veterinarian, lack transportation, or are unable to take time off from work find that a virtual visit can be the best way to get their questions about their pet’s health answered. It also allows people to consult with specialists who might not be available to people who live far away from metropolitan areas. 
  • Less stress: Dogs and cats who do not do well on car rides sometimes do not get the care they need because the trip to the veterinarian’s office is so troublesome. Cats, in particular, are much less likely to visit the vet regularly, either because they hide their pain more or because of the difficulty in transporting them there and the stress caused by the office visit. Telehealth also offers a chance for the provider to see the animal in their ‘home environment’ instead of when they are stressed out from a visit to the vet’s office.  
  • Quick and easy: Telehealth providers can also answer a wide range of questions that might not warrant a vet visit on their own. Tele-triage is a quick way for an expert to give emergency information before you can get your pet to the hospital. Conversely, it can give you the peace of mind to know that your pet’s condition can wait until the vet’s office opens in the morning. 

To Consider

It is important to acknowledge that telehealth might not be the best answer in every situation. A few issues that might arise and make it a less positive choice for your pet’s health are: 

  • Impersonal: It might feel like your pet is not getting a full and thorough assessment during a virtual visit. Appointments tend to be shorter and can leave you feeling like some questions have not been answered. In states where telemedicine is allowed without a VCPR, you will probably never have met the veterinarian before. 
  • Inaccurate: A remote exam depends on the owner’s descriptions and interpretations instead of a hands-on assessment by the provider. We as pet parents might make an assumption about our pet’s behavior and symptoms that could lead to mistakes in diagnosis and missed interpretations of the pet’s condition. It is frustrating for veterinarians and pet parents as well to have to serve as the ‘middlemen’ in the conversation. 
  • Animal management: It can be difficult for you to manage your dog or cat during the appointment in order to give a clear video or sense of your pet’s ailment. Our fur friends don’t always cooperate when we need them to arrive on time for an appointment or to lie still as we try to follow the vet’s instructions, all while working to control our phone to enable a clear video assessment. 
  • Legal issues: Each state sets their own guidelines for telehealth, with some requiring a pre-existing VCPR and others allowing an animal to be treated virtually on the first visit. It can be confusing to determine if telehealth will be provided by your veterinarian or through another provider, which can even be a pet supply company with a veterinarian on staff. 

The Bottom Line

A study done by the Danish Centre for Companion Animal Welfare in 2022, revealed that while a majority of participants recognized the potential benefits of veterinary telehealth for themselves and their animals, few had already taken advantage of it. Pet owners in the study acknowledged that tele-triage could be useful in determining whether an in-person veterinary visit was called for and for getting emergency information. They also felt telemedicine was appropriate and useful for follow-up care and in consultation with specialists who may not be easily reachable in person. People whose dogs or cats require numerous vet visits see telehealth as a positive addition to the ongoing care their pet is receiving. The biggest hesitation in more active use of telehealth is the fear that important diagnoses could be missed without a hands-on assessment by the vet.  

As state regulations continue to evolve and people increasingly see the benefits of remote healthcare for themselves, it is likely that the number of pet parents seeking virtual care for their animals will continue to rise. Knowing which aspect of telehealth is available and appropriate for your pet’s situation is important in determining if that is the best path for you at the time. Nothing will replace the bond we have with our trusted veterinarians, but veterinary telehealth can offer great benefits in access and convenience that are sure to please everyone.