I remember back when I started practicing in 1980. The overall traffic and normal peaks and valleys of flow—high in the summer and slower in the winter—were upended by something that seemed to come from nowhere. A virus. Specifically, parvovirus.
My partner, Bill Strobel, DVM, hadn’t had a vacation in a really long time, so after staying with me a few days at Green Acres Veterinary Hospital in Twin Falls, Idaho, while I got my bearings, he took off. I was left with a team I barely knew to handle a catastrophe none of us had ever experienced, let alone thought possible.
Pets were dying in homes, apartments, farms, and ranches. Because parvo was on the news both locally and nationally, and on the lips of family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers, everybody knew their dog was at risk of becoming sick and dying. And what a condition it is. Treatment protocols were literally and figuratively fluid. Parvo was expensive to treat, the suffering severe and lengthy. I recall the pleading voices on the phone asking to be put on a list for a vaccine that was in short supply. The toll on the practice team was immense.
Jump forward four decades. It’s 2020 and practices are once again seeing demand for services that is off-the-charts high. Unexpected… unplanned for… caused by something that seemed to come out of nowhere. A virus. Specifically, coronavirus.
One virus is devastating to dogs, the new one can be devastating to humans. The former caused dramatically increased traffic because pets were dying and at risk of contracting the disease. The latter has our facilities bursting at the seams because people are dying and at risk of infection.
As Paul Harvey used to say on his popular radio show, “Now, for the rest of the story.” Coronavirus caused hundreds of millions of people (a number that seems weird to even write) to suddenly stay home. Out of the air, out
of the office, out of restaurants and bars, largely inside the four walls in which we live. Whether staying home because mandated by a government body, an employer, or by choice, our hamster wheels had the emergency brakes applied—bodies in motion became bodies at rest, relegated to makeshift home offices, kitchen tables, the couch. Who was there at our side, loyal, loving, evoking laughter, and tapping off excess fear and stress like furry pressure relief valves? Pets!
Feeling good when things are bad
As a veterinary medicine communicator, I’ve often closed by saying, “There’s only one greatest pet in the world, and every family has her.” What tens of millions of pet parents hadn’t known pre-COVID was that while their pets always made them feel good, they were actually good for them.
Yes, shelters emptied and people who’d never had a pet before were suddenly blessed with four-legged family members. Being home gave pet moms and dads a picture window into a popular book of many years ago called, The Hidden Life of Dogs. They found out their pets sleep… a lot. Their ears and mouths stink because they’re infected. They also lick and lick, and scratch and scratch because of skin issues. Daily visits from mail or delivery people create distress. The weekly visit by the lawn service and “those crazy weed whackers,” or the garbage crew with the trucks that make funny sounds as they back up to empty those big green containers cause them to lose control of their bladder.
You see one cat wanting to go to the litter box with another guarding the kitty toilet like it’s an armored car. It’s easier to just go in the plant or behind the armoire. Or at precisely 10:45 a.m., a certain neighborhood cat strolls through the yard, and your cat responds by getting in a pissing match (with the window) or by biting the hand that feeds it. Let’s sum up this thread of thinking by saying that with being home, having time on their hands, and with evidence literally staring them in the face, clients saw their pets suffering and wanted to help by taking them to the veterinarian.
But nothing moved the needle like the human-animal health connection. And it wasn’t just in our minds (as well as on our laps), but in the media. Speaking with my friend Ed Creagan, MD, of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., a little while ago, he told me many top human health-care professionals thought pets were one of, if not the, best medicines for improving human health. I’d met Dr. Creagan at the start of the new millennium when I’d interviewed him for my book, The Healing Power of Pets, but these comments really got me leaning in. Pets = human health?
Dr. Creagan explained:
- pets are in about 70 percent of U.S. households
- pets are a medicine with no bad side effects
- pets are trusted
- pets are a medicine that always “tastes good”
- pets can be deployed immediately and at literally no cost other than the ability to coerce extra treats out of us
He went on to say we’re either going to survive COVID by contracting it, surviving, and building immunity, or we’re going to be vaccinated and acquire immunity. Fear, anxiety, and stress (FAS) cause increased levels of cortisol, which negatively affect the immune system. So what do we have that can decrease FAS and the resultant cortisol levels? Pets!
I remember getting off of the phone with Dr. Creagan, stupefied. Then it came to me. I my lifetime, I’ve seen dogs and cats go from animals on our farm, to pets in our house, to family members with primarily human names, to children with human moms and dads, to now “human life-support systems cleverly disguised as four-legged children.” Pets: A miracle medicine of sorts.
More than an essential business
Knowing the pets clients share their hearts and homes with directly impact the health, happiness, and longevity of men, women, and children, what would a pet owner not spend to make sure they life a happy, healthy, full life?
While the suffering of COVID is far from over (medically, emotionally, socially, and financially), I predict veterinary medicine is going to continue to flourish as never before. We’ve moved from an essential business to a primary facility for pet and human well-being.
Take advantage of this growth. Pay living wages. Pay down debt. Hire more people. Invest in new facilities, equipment, technologies, and training. Make a commitment to always look after both the physical and emotional well-being of pets and people. And remember: You’re seeing faces that haven’t been to a practice in years, or ever. Show them your heart is even bigger than your head.
Marty Becker, DVM, writes every other month for Veterinary Practice News. He is a Sandpoint, Idaho, practitioner and founder of the Fear Free initiative. For more information about Fear Free or to register for certification, go to fearfreepets.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.