Pet ownership skyrocketed during the pandemic, but the number of veterinarians has not kept pace. A new law going into effect January 2024 will expand access to veterinary appointments over the phone in the hopes of reducing long appointment wait times and improving the quality of pet healthcare.
Currently, pet telehealth appointments in California are restricted to vets, pets and pet-owners with pre-established in-person relationships.
But since demand for pet healthcare isn’t commensurate with available vets, groups like the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles (SPCLA), have advocated for restrictions to be loosened.
“SpcaLA is in favor of increasing access to veterinary care to pet parents,” said SPCLA Vice President Miriam Davenport. “This particular bill does just that by arming both pet parents and veterinarians with the ability to provide telehealth appointments.”
Davenport added that the lack of vet availability has deterred potential pet owners from adopting, as they dread having to navigate a difficult healthcare system. Furthermore, it’s led to overcrowding in shelters throughout the state.
As for those already with pets, the wait times can lead to health scares.
“They might be foregoing an annual or routine vaccine or coming in for something that might seem incidental until it becomes really serious and they end up at a 24-hour emergency veterinary hospital,” Davenport said.
Telehealth appointments could help vets to catch those issues as they would be able to prescribe needed care, like medicine.
But some worry that ease and quantity may not translate to quality, like Keith Rode, former president of the California Veterinary Medical Association and a practicing veterinarian in the city of Woodland in Northern California.
“A thorough physical exam is the hallmark of establishing an effective veterinary-patient-client relationship. That physical exam includes steps that simply cannot be done via telemedicine,” Rode said in an email.
He worries the law will incentivize vets to prioritize telehealth over in-person visits, where essential check-ups like listening to the heart and lungs, feeling the strength of the pulses, are performed.
Pet telehealth, Rode worries, might lead to a lower standard for pet care.
But Davenport is hopeful the law will just add one additional option for a burdened system.
“We absolutely do not want telehealth to replace the in-person veterinary visit,” Davenport said. “Used as a resource and a tool, for both veterinarians and for clients, I think it will help to deliver that better medicine and see the pets when they need to be seen.”
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