Vet checks go virtual

Dr. Kelly Loree was busy visiting dairy farms earlier this year, providing veterinary care to various herds in the Ponoka, Alta., region. The pandemic hasn’t affected the need for livestock veterinary attention.

But while on the job, Loree was exposed to the COVID-19 virus on three different farms, the result of farmers’ earlier participation at a birthday party where someone had the virus.

“That party resulted in 23 cases,” said Loree. “Despite being exposed three times, I didn’t get it, fortunately. I tested negative but because of regulations I was stuck at home for two weeks.”

Colleagues at Central Veterinary Clinic had to cover for him during his forced isolation, but that event was among few changes his practice, and those of large animal veterinarians in general, have had to make.

In most cases, clinic staff are required to wear masks now, and some have limited or closed door policies regarding visitors. Curbside pickup of veterinary supplies is now common, as Dr. Pat Burrage has observed in his own practice and elsewhere.

“I think we still provide a very good service as far as animal health goes, meaning the animals have never been in jeopardy because of COVID regulations. We’re doing a lot of different strategies to minimize human-to-human contact.”

Burrage, who also serves on the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association, said the pandemic has nevertheless imposed stress on practitioners, as it has on every sector of the population.

“The animal health part of it has never been in jeopardy but the mental health issues with those that are involved with an essential service is a concern and I think everybody recognizes that,” he said.

“The general public doesn’t take well to stress and so sometimes that’s deflected upon the professionals that are providing the services to them, essential services, and that beats people up.”

A backhanded benefit of reduced traffic at veterinary clinics is that fewer farmers and ranchers hang around and visit, making it easier for clinic staff to get their work done, said Dr. Roy Lewis, a large animal veterinarian affiliated with a clinic in Westlock, Alta.

He shared Burrage’s assessment that livestock treatment has proceeded apace despite the ravages of COVID in other sectors.

“The large animal (practices) basically went ahead without much of a quiver, quite frankly, because you’re dealing with farmers who are kind of in a bubble anyway,” he said.

Another unexpected plus during pandemic times has been increased public interest in both human and animal health.

“In the production animal sector when we talk foot and mouth, when we talk African swine fever, when we talk some of these things, they’ve got a pretty good idea of what we’re talking about and how critical it is and that we’re not just blowing smoke. So that’s been good,” said Lewis.

Worries about possible veterinary supply shortages early in the pandemic fortunately were not realized. The only temporary issue involved a worldwide shortage of rubbing alcohol, which is used in hand sanitizer. Vats of the stuff have been used by average people around the world since March.

Rubbing alcohol is the carrier for the active ingredient in ivermectin, a pour-on treatment for parasites used primarily on cattle. However, worries about a shortage have since been averted.

Veterinarians said there hasn’t been a major increase in video diagnosis or telemedicine in their field, but there are a lot more phone calls and video chats to discuss matters with clients, as opposed to in-person visits at the veterinary office or the client’s office.

“I think it’s improved our abilities to communicate with clients, and not only for the risk factor from the human side. It becomes much more convenient for us to sit in front of a computer screen than have to go on site, which is sometimes hard to organize,” said Burrage.

Loree predicts the pandemic will increase veterinary telemedicine eventually now that people have become more comfortable with it for human diagnosis and advice, although he hasn’t done much of it so far in his practice.

Clients tend to prefer veterinarians to see their animals, added Lewis, but there is potential for more analysis by video.

“People like us to see, touch, do these things and when you kind of do it over the phone or video or pictures, it’s looked on as a lesser service but I think it can get you by, too. So will it ramp up over time? I think it might.”

Lewis also said the pandemic has forced some changes on his usual communication methods.

“I kind of like talking. I’m sort of in your face … that’s the way I am. I don’t think I’m miserable but I like to be engaged. You get used to talking from six to eight feet away. Some veterinarians probably do that anyway,” he said.

Now there are few invitations to have coffee in the house after a farm call, which is in keeping with health department advice. As well, Lewis said he is encouraging his clients to build up their on-farm drug inventory so they don’t have to make as many trips to town for supplies, where they may encounter people with the virus.

However, rural life may not be as safe as many farmers and ranchers initially assumed when the pandemic began, noted Burrage.

“The agriculture community feels reasonably safe but as Alberta government health officials are saying, we’re not as safe as we think we are and so we have to be cautious. I think everybody, both producer and veterinarian, know and understand that.

“Now I think we all appreciate where we are in the world today in that every interaction with somebody outside your cohort is a risk.”

Now every interaction with clients comes with some assessment of risk. Veterinarians ask about the health of those on the farm before making a farm call. The constant threat of contracting an illness that will affect livelihood and veterinary practice can take a toll.

“Like everybody else, it wears on you. Our people, our veterinarians, are tough and we as an association try and support them in every way we can,” Burrage said about the AVMA. He finds relaxation and solace by visiting his own cow herd.

“We have to remind ourselves we’re all in this together so beating up on other people takes the fun out of it. And we sort of see more and more of that, not just in the veterinary profession but in all the health-care profession.”

Lewis, a man who looks on the bright side of situations, said he is proud that veterinarians and others in the agricultural industry are seen as an essential service and are high on the list of those who can be trusted.

“I didn’t see lawyers anywhere close to that,” he said. “They don’t even come up in the conversation.”

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