Image courtesy of VetNOW.

If you’re worried about your pet’s health but not sure it’s worth a trip to the vet during the COVID-19 stay-at-home order, try telehealth.

VetNOW, a Pittsburgh-based virtual care company providing veterinary telemedicine services, is partnering with the global company Elanco Animal Health to provide veterinarians with access to their platform so they can maintain their service to animals and owners, including specialist consultations.

That means the platform that has a couple hundred participating veterinarians now will onboard about 12,000 veterinarians in the coming months, says Apryle Horbal, VetNOW’s founding CEO.

Like other businesses, veterinary practices are facing challenges right now, says Horbal, who started VetNOW in 2018 to help address a shortage of veterinary specialists. The new partnership gives veterinarians the immediate ability to access clients much like doctors do with human patients. Clients pay by credit card when they log on for an appointment.

“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in demand across the entire U.S. and Canada since the COVID-19 crisis began, and our weekly onboarding sessions have more than tripled,” says Horbal, who also founded the former University Veterinary Specialists hospital in McMurray and now operates the City Vets clinic on the South Side.

“We’ve been growing steadily over the last two years and having a lot of interest from the veterinary community,” she says. But with the coronavirus public health emergency, “this has turned from ‘nice to have’ to an economic imperative.”

Because a veterinarian must have performed a physical exam on an animal before advising via telemedicine, Horbal says, “For legal reasons and quality care reasons, in most places people need to use [VetNOW] to access their own veterinarian. … They can log onto our website if their veterinarian doesn’t already use this platform and request that we reach out to get their veterinarian on board.”

VetNOW’s proprietary software was developed in collaboration with Texas A&M University, and Horbal maintains partnerships with the school and other universities, including the University of Pennsylvania. Six types of cameras allow pet parents and veterinarians to communicate in real-time about concerns and conditions. Both veterinarian and patient can upload and share photos and documents, including care instructions.

Sometimes a diagnosis can be made digitally, as Horbal did Thursday with Tara Mocco of Canonsburg and her 4-year-old cat, Phineas. Horbal became Phin’s veterinarian about six months ago and had examined him once.

Mocco sought advice online because Phin has been licking his paws and tummy, but is eating and drinking well and not showing signs of distress. Through a Q&A session like those that take place in a veterinary office, and an on-camera examination of Phin’s paws and ears that showed no lesions, Horbal concluded the problem may be linked to household disinfectant cleaners Mocco recently began using to minimize the risk of COVID-19.

“I’ve been really interested in using the platform for Phin because he typically likes to jump on my computer as soon as I log on,” says Mocco. She told Horbal he’s been licking and scratching himself a lot. Because he takes walks when the weather’s warm and can interact with other animals in her building, she keeps the cat’s flea and tick medicine up to date.

“He does jump up on a marble countertop in the kitchen to eat his food, so maybe we need to dial back a bit” on the disinfectant spray, says Mocco, who knew that some brands, such as Lysol, can be toxic to felines. Horbal recommended leaving the spray on for five minutes and then rinsing or making sure the surface is dry before the cat has access to it.

When the pandemic wanes, telemedicine is likely to remain a viable option. It can be helpful for those who travel often. For general practice veterinarians, telehealth can provide a better work-life balance, and the ability to consult with specialists in fields such as critical care, oncology, neurology and cardiology can improve business by keeping specialty cases in-house, which means more revenue.

“This is a time when we are all learning new ways to look out for each other, including the animals we love and care for,” says Dr. Tony Rumschlag, head of consulting veterinarians for Elanco.

VetNOW has an app that’s downloadable in the Apple store. Its services are also accessible to non-Apple users via an internet browser such as Chrome. VetNOW is accredited by the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS).

Sandra Tolliver

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.