Coronavirus lockdown is rapidly accelerating how quickly remote consulting and technology is being used by practices throughout the UK to assess and treat pets. The veterinary regulator, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS), was planning a consultation on telemedicine and remote prescription of medication later this year. The global pandemic has meant the review has been overridden by emergency measures, allowing vets to prescribe medication without having physically seen an animal for the first time since the birth of the profession.
The benefits of online consultations during the UK lockdown
The most obvious benefit of an online consultation is reducing the risk of spreading coronavirus. As the government advice is to limit any journey outside of the home, non-urgent vet advice is best done remotely. It's also less stressful for your pet not to have to visit the vet. Your pet will also behave more naturally in the home - often a pet which seems very unwell at home may perk up by the time you arrive at the vets. This is because adrenaline (the excitement/fight/flight hormone) is released, which can mask signs of ill health. If a vet can remotely observe your pet at home, there won't be any adrenaline to change the symptoms.
Vets can guide you on how to check for clinical signs such as heart/pulse rate, breathing rate, gum colour and how to check for any signs of pain or tenderness.
How do I use online vet consultations?
You can first speak to a vet to see if they offer an online consultation service. If they didn't before the coronavirus outbreak, it’s worth checking now, as many practices have started to offer this due to the lockdown. Alternatively, there are many third-party providers of vet consultations.
When should I use online consultations with a vet?
During coronavirus lockdown you should always speak to the vet practice before taking your pet to the clinic. Vets will advise if they think an online consultation would be appropriate, for example to check if a wound needs stitching, a sore eye, itchy skin or if your pet has vomiting or diarrhoea. They may advise you that your pet needs to be checked immediately – without an online consultation – for example if their stomach is bloating, they are very lame or are unable to get up.
What happens during online consultations?
Without being able to physically examine your pet, vets won't be able to pick up on subtle signs, such as how their chest sounds with a stethoscope, or the quality of their pulse. They will not be able to feel for any signs of inflammation or infection, such as heat, pain and swelling. It can be difficult to take an accurate temperature on an animal, even for the professionals, and it's a pretty unpleasant task. All the senses can be useful when examining a pet – even smell can give a guide to underlying conditions.
Vets will only be able to observe, guide your own examination, and discuss the relevant history and behaviour changes. Any further diagnostic would need to be carried out in the vet practice.
Can a vet prescribe treatment without seeing my pet?
Before the coronavirus pandemic the answer to this was NO. The veterinary Code of Professional Conduct required the animal was under the care of a vet – meaning your pet had to be seen by a vet before medication could be prescribed. However, in light of recent government guidance to limit non-essential contact with others, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (who regulate vets in the UK) decided that remote prescribing of certain medicines should be temporarily permitted (this may change and will be reviewed by 30th June 2020 at the latest). This remote prescribing process is also known as telemedicine.
Vets have been advised only to do this in exceptional circumstances and only when it's necessary for animal welfare. They should only prescribe the minimum amount until it is possible to physically examine your pet, and if you fully understand the potential risk of a pet being given medication without being examined. In other words, your vet has been advised that this is a last resort, and they should always try and see your pet before dispensing prescription medications. In all cases, the risk of giving the medicine without seeing your pet should be outweighed by the benefits in terms of reducing coronavirus spread and the benefits to your pet's welfare.
How much do online vet consultations cost?
Some online vet consultations may be offered as free, for example through pet insurance companies. Many providers also refund the cost of the online consultation if your pet ends up having to go to the vet clinic. It's worth shopping around and looking at online reviews and recommendations for the best providers of remote consulting.