Challenging Times Dictate Adjustments: Veterinarians Must Focus On What Matters Most

To say that COVID-19 has changed our personal lifestyles over the past month is an understatement. The coronavirus pandemic has caused us to shelter at home, and of course avoid time with friends at social events, entertainment venues, restaurants and even church. Sure, we may have video and streaming services, take-outs from our surviving restaurants and Zoom meetings, but they are a poor substitute for our former social contact points.

Then we have our relationships with our pets at home. They bring us joy and consistency to our lives in this time of disorder. As veterinarians, we have a role in being there to help as much as we can as essential businesses (thankfully recognized as such in all states).

As a practicing veterinarian, I have continued to practice through this pandemic thus far. Our staff has been accomplishing our work through curbside service, meaning that we check in when clients call is to announce their arrival. Our clients are kept out of the front lobby area. Staff members bring the pets in for the veterinary examinations, then we (the vets) call the client back with the appropriate treatment plan. When the work is done, checkout can be done from the staff within the building as the pet is returned to the client’s vehicle. Aside from a few glitches (extremely high call volumes on an already stressed staff), it has worked out alright thus far.

Most of my cases have been sick pets and those in discomfort. My surgeries for the most part have been trauma cases or cancer-related procedures, as both the AVMA and our state VMA have asked us to refrain from performing elective surgeries and routine dentistry procedures until shelter-at-home mandates are lifted. Preventive medicine has taken a back seat, not only because the medical cases take priority, but because many pet owners don’t want to get out for these services at this time.

That means that things like vaccines, wellness exams and annual heartworm tests are being delayed in many cases. Yet, all veterinarians agree that these services shouldn’t be put off indefinitely. So, what can we do in the meantime to address the issue of heartworm prevention and treatments that are necessary during this time of uncertainty?

The American Heartworm Society released a position statement a few weeks ago that asked that veterinarians provide an extension for up to six months on prescriptions for heartworm prevention, beyond due dates of preventive services. In addition to annotating this in the patient record, veterinarians are asked to put on a reminder for six months out from the prescription to ask the client to bring the pet back for a heartworm test.

In instances where a pet has been diagnosed with heartworms but a client is not able to return for the treatment regimen because of shelter-at-home orders, veterinarians are allowed up to six months to resume the treatment without starting over if the treatment has already been initiated.  Once again, veterinarians are asked to annotate the circumstances, communicate them clearly to the pet owner, and utilize follow-reminders to assure a return to treatment.

The American Heartworm Society has vowed to revisit the issue in July, at the three-month mark of their position statement.

As a veterinarian on the gulf coast, I am communicating to clients every day on this subject, as I practice in a heartworm-endemic area. I, like all pet owners cannot wait until our doors are open wide and we return to full service veterinary care. In the meantime, we will do our best to improvise and adjust to the challenging circumstances that the COVID-19 virus has bought upon us.

Dr. Chris Duke
President, American Heartworm Society

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