Taking a lesson from the late children’s TV host Fred Rogers, “Being a helper is the best thing you can be.” As I write this column in mid-March, COVID-19 has taken a firm grip of our country, but as is expected, veterinary professionals are hesitating not one iota to help flatten the curve. It’s as if the profession had planned and prepared for this. Well, in some ways, it actually did. One Health is a concept veterinary professionals have embraced and know well. The profession is also a pretty unselfish bunch—as most medical professionals are—and recognized instantly the implications of what we are facing.
It’s as if they all received an email directive about how to deal with COVID-19. Instantly, from New York City to Chicago to San Francisco, our industry took decisive action, allowing for drive-through pickups, greeting clients and their pets in cars, etc.
This is one of the finest hours for the profession, and I’m not alone in holding that sentiment.
As essential as any other essential business
In some parts of the country, however, government officials don’t consider veterinary clinics and hospitals (or for that matter, pet stores and/or animal shelters) to be “essential businesses.” There must be no confusion, no question, no doubt—they definitely ARE essential.
Sixty-seven percent of U.S. households have at least one pet. This works out to approximately 85 million families, according to the 2019-2020 National Pet Owners Survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association (APPA). Overwhelmingly, pets are considered beloved members of the family.
After Hurricane Katrina, you’d think public officials might have learned a lesson—many lives were lost solely because people wouldn’t evacuate without their pets. Not accommodating for all family members spells disaster, is a grave mistake, and is ethically wrong. The lives of animals have meaning. But it’s much more than that.
This issue is real. States working to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 have brought to the fore the question as to whether or not veterinary practices are considered “essential businesses.” As if there should be any debate about it all.
In this unprecedented time of extreme uncertainty, families—particularly children—depend on our companion animals, who as we know, love unconditionally and are unaffected by the evening news. Their unwavering love benefits our well-being. This readership understands that undeniable fact better than most. Millennials have adopted the term “fur baby,” and millions upon millions of Americans—whether they like this particular moniker or not—consider their pets as children, literally. In fact, there are more pets today in America than children.
Veterinarians also oversee the care of laboratory animals, which are critical to research that leads to the development of pharmaceuticals and vaccines, such as those currently being developed to combat COVID-19. I also happen to know how veterinarians are working on the frontline of research in the fight against COVID-19. I can say that when a treatment for COVID-19 is found, it will very likely happen with significant veterinary input.
Industry groups at every level are working overtime on the “essential business” front. “We fully support the risk-mitigation measures being introduced as part of the global fight against COVID-19, but we are concerned at reports from some of our members that they have been asked to close their doors,” says World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) president Shane Ryan, BVSc, MVS, CertVetAcupuncture, GradDipAnimChiro, MChiroSc, MRCVS. “Veterinarians and their teams deliver essential medical care for animals, ensure animal health and welfare, and support the human-companion animal bond by protecting these deep and important relationships.”
There is unwavering support for this sentiment here at home, too. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) pointed out in a press release, “Veterinary teams provide essential animal care, play a critical role in protecting the health of animals that enter the food supply, and serve as trusted members of the local community in disaster situations.”
Some get it, others need help
The good news is veterinary practices in Pennsylvania and Maryland are considered “essential,” and the same goes for San Francisco, Calif. At press time, many communities headed toward shutdowns and orders of shelter-in-place have not yet designated veterinary practices as essential and in line with other health-care providers, supermarkets, and pharmacies. Not to be forgotten, animal shelters and pet stores must also fall under the “essential business” umbrella.
The AVMA is urging “all authorities to similarly designate veterinary practices as essential businesses, and also ensure their ability to obtain necessary medical supplies.”
Here’s why this point is critical, the association says:
1) Frontline veterinary practitioners and staff are among the health-care professionals who provide surveillance for diseases deemed reportable by state and federal governments, including zoonotic diseases, such as rabies, influenza, and Lyme Disease. They are also responsible for issuing certificates of veterinary inspection that are required for the movement of animals between states and countries, including those entering the food supply.
2) Veterinarians are an integral part of our nation’s food and fiber industries. Veterinary care is critical to ensure that only healthy animals enter the food supply. While primarily housed on farms, food animals are also present in urban areas.
3) Veterinary practices provide medical and surgical care daily for critically ill and injured animals. Isn’t there an ethical need to treat their health care?
4) Veterinarians provide care for service and therapy animals, supporting both animal and human welfare. Many Americans couldn’t function as well without their service animals.
5) Veterinarians care for rare, threatened, and endangered animals in zoos, aquaria, wildlife rehabilitation clinics, and wildlife facilities, as well as in our animal shelters. Even if such entities need to be closed to the public for COVID-19 mitigation, veterinarians and animal care staff must continue to care for these animals.
Please speak up and reach out to public officials who haven’t fully considered which businesses are essential. If veterinary and pet-related services have not been designated essential in your community, contact your state association and ask how you can help.
I am a certified animal behavior consultant, not a veterinary professional, though I have been close to this profession now for about 25 years. Veterinarians and technicians/nurses aren’t always so great at patting themselves on the back and tend to take failings harder than most, hence some of the mental health issues within the industry. I am sure my editor won’t allow 72-point type and 100 explanation marks to holler on behalf of pet owners around America: Thank you!!!! We do love you.
Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior consultant who speaks at animal welfare and veterinary conferences. Visit his website at stevedale.tv. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.