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How does online veterinary telemedicine work?

Cocker Spaniel with stethoscope in mouth advice

Talking to a vet online can be a convenient and quick way to ask advice about your pet.

© Shutterstock

Booking a vet appointment online has become very useful in times of coronavirus and social distancing. But how does it work? Can you still be prescribed medicines? Everything you need to know is explained here.

By Dr Jo de Klerk, BVetMed (Hons) MScTAH MRCVS

Updated on the 11/08/2020, 14:02

Being a pet owner will result in many times of uncertainty, when you’re not sure if it is necessary to go to a vet, but feel you should seek some sort of advice. Other times, you might have a medical problem when the vet is closed, and are not sure if you are overreacting to call them while they are having their Sunday lunch. This is the joy of veterinary telemedicine. It is a service where you tap into online consultations for your pet and can video chat to a vet any time of day about anything you like. It may even save you a trip to a vet, and put your mind at ease.

Video chat to a vet online. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk

Online veterinarian consultations will vary from company to company. Some telemedicine companies offer video consultations, others offer chat consults. Whichever way, it’s helpful for a vet to see your pet.

Online veterinarian consultations are similar to face-to-face consultations at the vet, with the exception of limited diagnostic techniques and treatments. You can’t expect the vet to take a blood test remotely, for example. As a result, the end result is usually a plan of what to do next, rather than an official diagnosis and treatment. For example, you might get advice for home remedies or be told to take your pet to the vet tomorrow, or urgently take your pet to the vet now.

What is telemedicine?

Telemedicine is not a new concept. It has been around in the human world for a long time. ‘Tele’, means telecommunications, i.e. remotely chatting, and we know what medicine means. So, essentially a veterinary telemedicine consult is chatting about your pet to a vet online.

Book a teleconsultation online. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk

What can I expect from an online vet consultation?

You should expect a professional consultation with a registered veterinarian, much like you would expect when you take your pet into the practice. Thus in much the same way, make sure your pet is nearby during the chat, as the vet may ask you to check things. After all, you wouldn’t let your pet wander out the consultation room in the vet practice.

What does an online vet appointment involve?

Every company is different, so it is best to check out the system of each individual veterinary telemedicine company. Some companies offer an appointment system. Others offer a queuing system, where you don’t have an appointment but just wait for a vet to become available.

For those companies where you can book a slot, you simply need to click the link on their website where you can choose a time and date, then enter some details about your pet and why you are calling. Often, you will be able to see which vet you have an appointment with.

Most online systems require you to create an account, where you can add all the details about your pets, such as date of birth, breed, microchip details, vaccination history, underlying chronic health conditions, etc.

You will need a webcam and microphone for the consultation, either on your smartphone or on your computer, so check that they are working beforehand.

You are likely to be asked for your bank card details before you talk to the vet, so that if the consult is completed with no technical hitches, you are charged for it. Therefore, don’t forget to have a means of payment necessary.

Talk to a vet online. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk

What can I expect from an online vet consultation of my pet?

The governing body of veterinarians in the UK, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, has made it a legal requirement for a pet to be ‘under the care’ of a vet for a diagnosis or prescription medications to be dispensed online. This is generally interpreted as that the vet has to physically see your pet to be allowed to diagnose or prescribe licenced medication. However, it is a grey area.

Most online vets will be able to give you a list of potential diagnoses, but will not tell you which it is most likely to be. Likewise, they cannot prescribe medications online with a POM-V licence (Prescription Only Medicine), but they can advise you about products and medications that have a licence to be sold by trained personnel in pet stores and vet shops.

In the end, the likely result of a consultation will be some advice, and knowledge of whether you need to take your pet to the vet or whether you can manage your pet’s condition at home.

Can online vets prescribe medication?

Online veterinarians are not considered by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons to be diagnosing patients, and therefore they are not allowed to prescribe POM-V medications (veterinary prescription-only medications). However, they can prescribe health supplements and medications that are licensed to be sold in pet shops.

Get medications online. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk

What kind of consultations can you do with an online vet?

There can be many types of consultations that take place with an online vet. Some consults are simply to find out what to do in the case of an emergency or whether a situation is an emergency. Other consults will be to discuss chronic conditions or answer questions about medications prescribed by the owner’s local veterinarian.

Here is a list of the most common conditions that can be discussed during an online vet consultation:

  • diabetes 
  • arthritis
  • thyroid conditions
  • ear infections
  • limping
  • skin conditions
  • lumps and bumps
  • parasite infections
  • mild vomiting and diarrhoea
  • post-surgical health
  • minor wounds

In addition, general doubts, travel requirements, legal issues, secondary medical opinions, home remedies, behaviour, nutrition and dieting are also things that a veterinarian can provide advice about, where maybe you think a physical veterinary consultation is too costly for a discussion about this. This is when veterinary telemedicine comes in.

Get vet advice online. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk

What kind of non-urgent questions can be discussed with an online vet?

You might want to talk with a vet about some non-urgent questions. These can range from behavioural advice, feeding advice, or simply to have some professional support with looking after your puppy or senior pet. A vet can answer questions about a lot more than health issues and are a wonderful source of information for all things to do with your pet.

Here is a list of the most common behavioural and feeding problems that can be discussed with a vet online:

  • separation anxiety
  • noise phobias
  • training issues
  • soiling in the house
  • excessive barking
  • pickiness with food
  • choosing the best food
  • dietary supplement advice
Discuss your pet with a vet online. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk

What does preventative care advice mean when booking an online consultation?

When booking an online consultation, you might be asked about preventative care. This is an opportunity to let the vet know about what vaccines your pet has had, as well as anti-parasite treatment, such as flea, tick and worming products. Being able to provide rough dates as to when they were last given is also very helpful.

Can ongoing and chronic conditions be treated with telemedicine?

Ongoing and chronic conditions should be treated with the local veterinarian, as they have all your pet’s clinical notes. However, there might be times when you think that something is not quite right clinically with your pet, but it is only a subtle change, or you want the medications that have been prescribed to your pet explained to you again. This can be discussed with an online veterinarian to put your mind at ease.

These are some of the most common ongoing and chronic conditions that a vet online can discuss with you:

  • arthritis
  • diabetes
  • kidney disease
  • liver disease
  • Cushing’s disease
  • thyroid conditions
  • immune-mediated diseases

Maybe your pet has recently been diagnosed? Cramming all the background information about a condition into a veterinary consult, as well as a clinical examination, diagnostic tests and medicine dispensing, is almost impossible. So, chatting to an online vet can also help you understand more about your pet’s condition and how the future looks for them.

Talk to a vet online. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk

Can a vet do deworming consultations online?

Online veterinarians can provide plenty of advice about deworming. They can discuss with you the different types of worms that your pet is at risk of, and talk about the advantages and disadvantages of various products, including the active ingredient drugs and route of administration.

Online vets are also allowed to recommend deworming products that are not veterinary prescription products, and point you to where you can buy them, if they don’t have an associated online shop. However, veterinary prescription medications cannot be dispensed by an online vet, so you will need to go to the local veterinary practice if you need one of these.

Get deworming advice. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk

Can emergencies be treated in a telemedicine or online consultation?

Emergencies are ailments that require your pet to immediately go to the vets, whether it be day or night, weekend or weekday. Without immediate veterinary care, emergency scenarios can potentially be fatal for your pet. A common example is toxin ingestion. This is a particularly good example of an emergency that a telemedicine service is useful for. You might have noticed your cat chewing on your favourite house plant, or maybe your dog has eaten some food that your child has dropped on the floor, and you don’t want to scour through pages and pages of untrustworthy internet content to see if you need to take your pet to the vets. Quickly booking an online vet will give you that answer straight away. They can tell you if you should take your pet straight to the vet, or if it is safe to keep your pet at home under careful watch (and advise you on the symptoms you might see if there is going to be a problem).

Get online help. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk

Another scenario where an online vet might help is in managing a case of vomiting. If your pet is vomiting, it might be because they have a mild stomach bug, which can be treated at home with a bland diet. However, it could also be because of an intestinal blockage, which can be fatal. Booking an online vet will help in determining the severity of the problem, and whether you should immediately take your pet to the vet, take them in the morning or monitor at home.

Here is a list of the most common emergencies that cannot be treated by an online vet:

  • breathing difficulties 
  • open-wound injuries
  • car accidents
  • male cats struggling to pass urine or faeces
  • rabbits neglecting food
  • eye problems
  • severe vomiting or diarrhoea
  • swollen abdomen or retching in large dogs
  • loss of thirst and appetite
  • struggling to give birth
  • seizing or fitting
  • collapse

Are online vet consultations reliable?

Online vet consultations are relatively reliable. Only qualified veterinary professionals are hired to work for telemedicine companies, so you can guarantee that the advice you receive is of a high quality.

Yet checking your pet remotely is not a substitute for a hands-on clinical exam, so it is still possible for an online veterinarian to miss something. As a result, they are not allowed to give you a diagnosis. Instead, they can only advise you of a list of potential issues, and whether or not you need to physically see a vet.

Speak to a qualified vet. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk

Will I be talking to certified vets online?

All veterinarians who are employed by telemedicine companies in the UK must be eligible to become a member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (MRCVS). This requires them to have graduated from an approved veterinary university or to have passed the RCVS examination. Without being an MRCVS, they are not allowed to practise as a veterinarian in the UK.

Talk to a certified vet. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk

How do I know who I’ll be talking to online?

Most veterinary telemedicine companies have a webpage where you can see their vets and what their qualifications and backgrounds are. Before your appointment, most companies will also tell you who you will be talking to.

The bonus for vets who work for telemedicine companies is that it is flexible work, which is often done from home. This means that in most cases, vets do not have specific shifts, and just because you had a certain vet at 11am on a Saturday, does not mean the following week you will have the same vet at that time.

How much does an online vet consultation cost?

Online veterinary consultations range in price from £20 to £36 for a consult, depending on the time of day, or up to £48 for specialist consultations. However, many pet insurance companies offer subscriptions to these services as part of their package, which ensures that you can contact a vet any time of day or night at no extra cost. Some online veterinary services also offer monthly subscriptions for under £10 per month, which give you unlimited consultations. In addition to this, some also provide a money back or discount guarantee if you must still see a vet after the consultation.

Book a vet online for only £24. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk

How long will an online vet consultation take?

Most veterinary consultations provided by online vets will last approximately 15 minutes. This is the same as consults in a veterinary clinic. It does not mean you will be cut off after 15 minutes, but it is likely that if you are still discussing an issue after this timeframe, the vet will bring the conversation to a close.

Some telemedicine companies provide services that last longer than this, for example health check discussions and specialist consultations, however these types of consultations will cost more.

What do I need to book an appointment online?

To book an appointment online with a veterinarian, you will need a computer with a supported browser, such as Safari for iOS/Apple or Google Chrome for Windows and Android, or a mobile phone with the telemedicine company’s app installed. In addition to this, you need a video camera with audio, and fast-enough internet to stream a video smoothly.

Book an appointment online. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk

Can I speak to a vet online just to ask a question?

If you want to ask a vet a question, you can certainly speak to one online, but you will need to pay a consultation fee unless you have pet insurance with a company that has a partnership with the telemedicine service.

Ask a vet a question. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk

What are the advantages and benefits of telemedicine for me and my pet?

Telemedicine provides you and your pet with plenty of advantages and benefits. It is a place where you can speak to a professional day or night, to ensure you are providing your pet with the best care possible. In many situations, it will simply put your mind at ease, but it may also save your pet’s life. It is also a convenient and quick way to talk to a vet online, and may even save you money and a trip to a vet.

Is telemedicine useful for getting a second opinion?

Telemedicine services can be used for second opinions. But you should remember that talking to a vet online is not a substitution for a hands-on clinical examination and diagnostic tests. So even though the online vet can give their opinion, to an extent, it is not as reliable as physically visiting another vet if you want a second opinion.

Get a second opinion. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk

What happens if I booked an online consultation and my case cannot be treated online?

If your pet cannot be treated by an online veterinarian by giving advice for what to do at home, they will be able to tell you where your nearest physical veterinarian is that you should visit. Some online vets will also give you a discount or your money back for your online fee.

Can online vets give first-aid advice?

Online vets can give first-aid advice to help you manage your pet until they can see a vet. For example, your dog might have a small cut. They can tell you how to wash and clean it, and what sort of dressing it needs, before seeing a vet the next day for medication such as pain relief and antibiotics. Another common first-aid scenario would be if your pet has an ear infection. The online vet can describe to you how to clean your dog’s ears, so that your pet is more comfortable until you can get them to the vets the next day for medicated ear drops.

Get first-aid advice online. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk

Can you do an online consultation without having a camera?

Some telemedicine vets offer ‘chat’ conversations that do not require having a video camera. This is ideal for owners with a slow internet connection, or who cannot stream video or audio effectively. But you should be proficient at typing in a chat box, as much more can be discussed in a video consult in 15 minutes compared to typing due to the extra time needed for typing. Also, chat consultations are not ideal for scenarios that require the vet to see your pet, and this may hinder their ability to provide advice.

What are unnecessary visits to a vet clinic that can be replaced by an online consultation?

There are many reasons why you can call an online vet, but some examples of ideal times to call an online vet include:

  • eating something where it is unknown if it is toxic
  • mild vomiting or diarrhoea 
  • behavioural conditions
  • nutrition and dieting advice
  • advice regarding travelling abroad with your pet
  • questions about prescribed medication from the local vet
  • minor cuts and scrapes
  • mild skin, ear and nail conditions
  • emergency scenarios that require first-aid attention before urgently travelling to a vet
Ask a vet online. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk

Where can I find online vet consultations?

Veterinary telemedicine has rapidly evolved over the past few years, and now there are many providers of the service all across the world. Even though you can contact a foreign service, it is best to consult with a UK online vet, as they are familiar with local diseases and local prescribing laws.

Here are a few examples of UK veterinary telemedicine services you could contact: 

  • My Family Vets: www.myfamilyvets.co.uk
  • Pawsquad: pawsquad.com
  • First Vet: firstvet.com/uk
  • Joii: joiipetcare.com
  • Pet GP: pet-gp.co.uk
Book an online consultation now. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk