'Limit human contact': How pet owners can help keep vets open amid pandemic

Pet owners are being urged to take extra precautions when visiting their vet to ensure Australian animals can continue to receive treatment amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) president Dr Julia Crawford told Yahoo News Australia that people who require an appointment should telephone their vet first and not just turn up at the door.

In order to help slow the spread of the virus, vets now need to be aware of not just animal well-being, but also human health.

That means clients must be prepared to answer a series of questions remotely before bringing in their animal.

“We need people to be honest with us about whether they’ve been in isolation,” Dr Crawford said.

That means where they’ve been, whether they’ve come in from overseas recently and their general state of health.

Split screen. A medical practitioner in a mask pats a dog in a car boot. The same woman stands ready to open the practice door. She has the dog in her hands.
Pet owners are being asked to wait in their cars with their animals until called for an appointment. Source: Greencross Vets

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“We are often taking animals from the owners, examining them and then giving them back to the owners to limit human contact.”

‘They can sit in their cars and wait’: New measures to ensure safety

Animal Medicines Australian research from 2019 found that Australia has one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world.

The report found that the country is home to an estimated 5.1 million dogs, 3.8 million cats, 11.3 million fish, 5.6 million birds, 614,000 small mammals and 364,000 reptiles.

As infection rates grow across the world, major clinics are increasingly adopting a policy of asking pet owners to wait outside the clinic until staff are ready to see them.

By ensuring waiting rooms are kept empty, the federal government’s social distancing guidelines can be adhered to.

Greencross Vets Chief Veterinary Officer Dr Magdoline Awad explained that all of their clinics are implementing “minimal contact procedures” to keep the spaces safe for everybody.

A dog wears a surgical mask against a white background.
The AVA is urging pet owners to be honest about their exposure to COVID-19 before going into a vet clinic. Source: Getty

“We’re also ensuring the safety of our clients and our staff by having people let us know they’ve arrived by calling us, and then they can sit in their cars and wait,” Dr Awad said.

“We don’t want people to wait in the waiting room because that’ll mean there will be a congregation of people in there.

“If we are doing the right thing and enforcing social distancing then we need to make sure that we don’t get clients accumulating in our consult rooms.”

Greencross say their minimal-contact appointments allow pet owners to drop and collect their pets outside clinics and pick them up after the consult.

Call for vets to be designated essential service amid pandemic

Changing human behaviour when visiting their vet will help ensure that practitioners stay healthy, but the AVA say they are “critically concerned” about whether this will be enough to keep their doors open.

On Sunday, the AVA released a submission seeking assurance from all levels of government that the services of vets be classified as essential amid the COVID-19 pandemic response.

They highlighted the importance of animal health and the impact that a shut down of veterinary services would have on animal welfare and biosecurity, but also food supply chain integrity.

'Caution do not enter' reads yellow tape stretched across an outdoor seating area.
While cafes and bars (pictured) have been closed to to COVID-19 concerns, the AVA wants vets to be considered an essential service. Source: AAP

In order to maintain veterinary care, Dr Crawford believes governments need to act swiftly and reassure animal medical practitioners.

“Hopefully common sense will prevail and veterinarians will be considered essential services,” she said.

“It’s never been documented anywhere that we are an essential service and that’s what we need documented across the country.

“Obviously vets are involved in regulation, food safety, livestock, wildlife and companion animals.”

Animals are playing a role in human health as people work from home

With many Australians now working from home or practicing social isolation, pets are more than ever key to companionship.

NSW Animal Justice Party MLC Emma Hurst told Yahoo News Australia that she is working to get the government to make a public commitment to keeping vet surgeries running.

Animal Justice Party MP Emma Hurst talks to a reporter as people protest in the background.
Animal Justice Party MP Emma Hurst is calling on the government to designate veterinary services as essential. Source: AAP

“We risk seeing increases in depression, isolation and loneliness during this crisis – and animal companionship has never played a more integral role in human mental health,” she said.

“But the physical health of these companion animals must be provided for. Vets are vital for the ongoing health and wellbeing of companion animals.”

Ms Hurst noted that with animals still recovering from bushfires which destroyed key habitats across the country, the continuance of animal care must be assured.

“Many rescue groups are still providing daily care for injured animals after the bushfires,” she said.

“Without a public commitment to keep veterinary services open as this pandemic continues, carers are in more stress than ever.

“These services are essential for the health and wellbeing of all animals in NSW, as well as for the health of animal carers.”

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