New Dogs Trust research shows that despite owner’s fears and severe restrictions, veterinary practices in the UK and Republic of Ireland coped well with the pandemic

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic causing disruption to already stretched veterinary healthcare services, new research shows that vets ensured urgent care was still available for 97.5% of dog owners and all of those who made an emergency visit without an appointment were seen by a veterinarian. 

As a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, veterinary staff were asked to maintain social distance, wear protective clothing and, in the early stage of the pandemic, attend to emergency cases only. These restrictions, combined with staff absences due to illness or being furloughed meant that the COVID-19 pandemic had a major impact on how veterinary practices operated.  

During the first stage of the nationwide lockdown, UK government advice about limiting service provision resulted in the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and British Veterinary Association jointly issuing guidance to the profession regarding restricting non-emergency veterinary healthcare.

Researchers from Dogs Trust analysed multiple data sources to learn about access to veterinary healthcare during the first wave of the pandemic from dog owners’ perspectives. Data included responses to a survey answered by over 2,500 people and information extracted from electronic diaries collected between March-July 2020.  

The study found that one-third of respondents worried about access to veterinary healthcare, but, reassuringly, most people who required urgent and emergency care for their dog were attended to. However, many routine, non-urgent procedures were delayed or cancelled (28% of planned neuters and 34% of planned vaccinations). Therefore, owners may need additional reminders in the future to make sure preventive care is up to date to avoid health problems. 

Veterinary practices adapted to the ‘new normal’ by offering remote telephone, video or email consultations and by dispensing repeat medications and preventative treatments, such as worming pills without having to come into contact with dog owners. Over one fifth of dog owners experienced remote consultations during the early stages of the pandemic.

Sara Owczarczak-Garstecka, one of the lead researchers on the project commented:

“The majority of the respondents thought that remote consultations were convenient. This method also enabled those who were shielding or unable to travel to the practice to access veterinary care.”

Changes in how consultations were run meant that dog owners were not always allowed to accompany their dogs inside the veterinary practice. Some owners found this stressful.

Katrina Holland, a lead researcher on the study, said:

“Being present during the consultation means owners can provide reassurance to their dog but may also help build owner–veterinarian relationships; shape owners’ perceptions of veterinary healthcare; and improve owners’ understanding of–and potentially compliance with–veterinary diagnoses and advice.”

Free-text comments indicated that being unable to accompany a dog into the practice also led a small minority of respondents to delay seeking veterinary care or seeking it elsewhere, e.g. in a different practice that was offering face-to-face consultations. Dog owners also adapted to the pandemic by taking on minor tasks previously carried out by their veterinarian, such as nail trimming.

The researchers suggest the importance of getting dogs used to being inside the vet practice and creating a positive connection with veterinary checks in getting dogs used to being in the clinic is important to help dogs in the future. Tips on how to do this can be found here.

To read the full study, please click here.