Pet owners turn to telehealth platforms amid lengthy vet backlogs due to pandemic

By Denise Paglinawan, The Canadian Press

TORONTO — When Marissa Price and her fiancé Mike Kozuira’s newly-adopted puppy started having stomach issues, the closest veterinary clinic told the couple they were so booked up that the earliest appointment they could get was a few weeks away.

Because their puppy needed immediate medical attention, the Toronto couple looked to veterinary telemedicine, as recommended by a friend, and were able to get in touch with a veterinarian instantly with the platform Vetster.

As surging pet ownership amid the pandemic strains the veterinary industry, people like Marissa and Mike are turning to online pet care options for services that don’t necessarily require a hands-on visit.

“We were a little apprehensive. We thought you’d have to actually see and touch the dog to be able to do a diagnosis,” said Price, who in April saw Dr. Sarah Machell, an Ontario veterinarian who also serves as Vetster’s medical director.

According to a survey conducted for the Canadian Animal Health Institute in February, the population of dogs in Canada increased from 7.6 million to 7.7 million from 2018 to 2020.

“We have seen a massive uptake, not only in Canada but internationally, we have seen a significant increase in pet ownership (during the pandemic),” said Toronto veterinarian Ian Sandler.

Earlier in the pandemic, pets were adopted not only from breeders but also from shelters, which have mostly been empty due to the increased demand for pets as people remain inside their homes, he added.

Sandler, who sits on the national issues committee of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, said the increased volume of pets, coupled with additional COVID-19 health and safety protocols followed by vets, has slowed veterinary practices’ ability to deliver care in a timely fashion.

Online vet platforms have stepped in to fill the gap. In addition to Vetster, Toronto-based allows pet owners to book clinic, mobile or online vet appointments, while Treatwell Pet Care offers in-home veterinary care in the Ottawa area and has been operating mostly through telemedicine since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vetster CEO and co-founder Mark Bordo described the pet care startup as a “marketplace” for veterinary telemedicine.

Unlike popular telemedicine platforms like Maple – a Canadian virtual health care service – Bordo said Vetster lets clients choose which veterinarian they want to speak with, instead of the platform making the decision for them.

“(Pet owners) can really make a choice on who they want to treat their animal,” he said.

Vetster lets clients see a veterinarian’s license, years of practice, where they practice and languages they speak, said Bordo.

The company is betting big on growth, announcing Wednesday that it raised $12.25M in Series A funding led by Toronto-based Whitecap Venture Partners, Brightspark Ventures and angels like Wealthsimple’s Michael Katchen.

It said the round will be used for the company’s international expansion, platform development, and growth of veterinary and pet care services.

For new puppy owners Price and Kozuira, who both work long and sometimes unpredictable hours, a video call with the vet was a convenient solution for their dog’s urgent tummy problem.

“Whereas to bring Murphy to the actual physical brick and mortar, it requires us to come home from work and bring him in, it’s like a two or three-hour process, even if it’s a half an hour appointment,” said Kozuira.

Telemedicine gives people access to veterinary advice when they can’t physically get into the building, said Sandler, adding that this is a great option for those who have accessibility issues, can’t leave home, live very far from a veterinarian or when the clinic is closed.

“It’s a much better option than say, ‘Dr. Google,’ and just trying to figure out what’s going on without being able to actually have veterinary advice,” he said.However, Sandler noted that telemedicine is limited and can only be used as a supplement to in-person vet visits.

“There’s no question without a physical exam, it is still limited in terms of what it can provide,” he said.

Some vet clinics in certain provinces have started to cut down on virtual appointments as they start to open up, said Sandler.

“I think communication in person is always the best way. That face-to-face contact is important but also the veterinarians’ ability to physically examine the pet is really, really important,” he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 26, 2021.


This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Denise Paglinawan, The Canadian Press

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