The coronavirus outbreak in the UK is happening – this isn’t something we see on our television screens from far away places. Our neighbours, friends and families are at risk. Many of us know people who are suspected or confirmed cases. And carrying on as normal, while admirable in many circumstances, is unhelpful and dangerous now. All businesses and professions are affected by it, but in this blog we’re going to look at how vet practices are likely to be affected, and what you can do to help them until we all come out the other side.
How will vets be affected?
Except for those of us working on farms, vets are not designated as “key workers” by the government. As a result of that, and the advice from the government to self-isolate if showing any symptoms, there will be fewer vets and nurses available to work.
In addition to this, the advice from the government and our professional bodies is now to dramatically scale back on routine and non-urgent services. The reason is simple – every time we meet you, there’s a chance that one of us will infect the other with the virus. We can reduce that risk with careful preventative measures, but never entirely eliminate it. And so, the best solution is to massively reduce the amount of face-to-face contact between people.
Are pets at risk?
No – there is no evidence that dogs, cats or rabbits can become ill with the new coronavirus, or spread it to humans. The jury is still out on rodents and ferrets, but it doesn’t seem likely that they are at high risk. It’s people (and possibly non-human primates) that are at risk of contracting and spreading the virus.
It is true that there has been one reported case of a dog picking up the virus, but despite screening many thousands of other dogs, the Idexx laboratories haven’t found any other cases, so we think this is really really rare. You can read more about this in my previous blog here.
What vet services will be running?
All vets in the UK take an oath to uphold animal welfare. However, that oath also commits us to uphold our responsibilities to the public (in this case by preventing the spread of coronavirus), and clearly these two requirements are in tension.
That’s why vets across the UK will still be seeing emergency cases. It may be that you won’t see your normal vet, or that your practice will have joined together with others locally to provide a skeleton service. Whatever arrangements there are, your practice will make sure that there’s someone to deal with genuine emergencies.
The majority of practices will also see “urgent cases” – those where animal health and welfare are in immediate danger from a disease or injury, even if it isn’t a danger to life. However, these slots may well operate differently, and be harder to get, than usual.
What is an emergency?
An emergency can be defined as a situation where the animal’s life is imminently in danger. Conditions such as uncontrolled seizures lasting more than 5 minutes, inability to give birth (dystocia), difficulty breathing, and severe and uncontrollable bleeding might fit into this group.
What is an urgent case?
Urgent cases are those that need veterinary attention, but the animal’s life is not (yet) immediately in danger (although it may become so if not treated). These might include serious wounds that are not bleeding heavily, prolonged vomiting, or most infections.
For these cases, vets may or may not need to physically see the patient – for example, it might be that, in some circumstances, they are able to prescribe medication to manage the symptoms or the underlying disease (for example, painkillers or antibiotics). What is appropriate will of course vary from case to case.
What sort of things might not be happening?
Routine cases like weight clinics, nail clips and puppy parties are now essentially banned from going ahead. Most small animal practices will also be stopping reproductive work except for emergencies (i.e. dogs and cats that are already pregnant) – the consensus of opinion is that it would be irresponsible to be breeding right now.
Routine appointments such as medicine reviews, flea and worm checks, and even booster vaccines might not occur face-to-face either. Whether your practice offers them at all will depend on the exact situation, the risks of doing them compared to the benefits.
It’s important to remember that most vaccines have a window of opportunity and for most animals, most of the time, they do not instantly lose their protection because they haven’t been vaccinated by the due date. While we do NOT want to see a surge in infectious diseases in dogs, we also do not want to see a surge in coronavirus cases either!
Your vet will be able to advise you on how they are approaching this.
How will visiting the vet change?
Well firstly, you won’t be asked to come in unless it’s really necessary! See below for other alternatives.
Most practices are already saying one owner per animal – and that will be the norm from now on. The practice may also take your pet and examine and potentially treat them without you being there – in some cases this already occurs, but it will be more frequent. In the practice, expect them to move to card-only payments, and for them to insist you wash your hands on arrival.
If you are self-isolating, you should not be going to the vets. Try and find a friend or relative to take your pet, or call your vet for advice. In many parts of the country there are small neighbourhood groups setting up to support people in isolation and many of them are offering dog walking etc, so see if that might be an option.
Although this is a fast-moving situation, at the moment we think that having an animal seen by the vet in an emergency or urgent situation is going to be covered under “essential travel”.
What about prescription repeats?
This is a difficult one. Normally, it is a legal requirement for your vet to see and examine your animal before they can authorise a repeat prescription. However, under these extreme circumstances, the RCVS have said that under some, very limited, circumstances these rules may be waived for existing clients.
This is an area that’s in flux so may change rapidly!
What can I do instead?
If your pet is healthy – stay inside as much as possible, and when exercising, stay at least 2m (6’) away from other people. If you’re concerned about medicines etc, contact your vet for advice.
If your pet is seriously ill, call your vet for advice – don’t just drive down, call them first, because your main vets might not be open. Many vets are now offering video consults and we expect this to become an increasingly common way of performing triage and checking whether your pet does need to be seen. In some practices, routine appointments and check ups may well be offered over this service.
If, however, your pet is unwell and you aren’t sure how urgent it is, use the Symptom Guide to decide whether you need to call your vets right now, or not.
If you want more routine advice on your pet’s health, take a look at our Pet Health Library.
What shouldn’t I do?
Go out and meet up with other people; break self-isolation, or go to your vets unnecessarily. Also, please don’t contact your vet unless you need to – I suspect they’re going to be really busy over the next few days!
Where did you get all this information from?
On Sunday 22nd March, the British Veterinary Association ran an open webinar for the veterinary professions (vets and nurses) in the UK. The information on here is based largely on their advice, and on our knowledge as to how vets are planning to respond to it, and on the government’s new measures released in 23rd March.
However, the situation may well change over the next days, weeks and months that the outbreak is predicted to last for. We’ll try and keep updating this blog for that time, but always check with your own vet what they’re doing and when.
The coronavirus pandemic is serious, and we all need to take it seriously. Stay indoors, don’t visit your vet unless you REALLY need to, and contact your vet for advice by telephone or video consult in the first instance.
But if we work together – animal owners, vets, and related industries – we can come through this stronger than we were before.