I received a text yesterday from an awesome relief vet friend of mine who lives in a
COVID-19 hot zone. Taking into consideration frequent contact with her elderly
grandparents, she was flirting with the idea of canceling her scheduled relief shifts for
the next few weeks to socially distance herself from the pet-owning public and
veterinary practice staff. She asked me if I thought she was crazy.

No. I don’t think SHE’S crazy. I think the whole situation is crazy. It got me thinking
about our jobs as relief vets, our frequent and close exposure to the general public, our
responsibilities as health care providers, and our duty to our communities as a whole.
(And don’t worry. This isn’t a blog about washing your hands and using hand sanitizer. I
know you know that already.

This pandemic is obviously threatening our economy on many levels. When we
consider our veterinary small businesses, either independent practices or relief
businesses, the threat of cancellations can go both ways and impact many livelihoods.

Veterinary practices may consider canceling relief shifts due to decreased
appointments as pet owners elect to stay home for non-emergent care. Having a
contract with a cancellation policy may help protect your income in these circumstances.
However, some may consider waiving their cancellation policy when taking into
consideration their own ability to weather the financial hit and their relationship with the
practice. Don’t forget that these practices have employees they need to pay, may be
running short-staffed due to sick leave, and in some cases may be struggling to keep
their doors open.

On the other hand, relief vets who are in hot zones – which may be more and more of us
as the weeks pass – may consider canceling their shifts to protect themselves and their
high-risk loved ones if they are in regular contact with elderly or immunocompromised
family members or friends. Or it may be a matter of having children home from school
due to closings and no available childcare. Again, I think considering one’s relationship
with the clinic and open and honest communication will help preserve professionalism in
these scenarios.

There may be some remedy in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act that as of this writing on March 17, 2020, has been passed by the House but is not law yet. See sections 7002 and 7004 for more information.

But what about when you are working in the clinic? Personally, I’m a toucher and when I
euthanize a beloved pet, unless I get strong signals from the pet parent not to, I’ll wrap
my arms around that tearful person and give them a sincere, warm hug. If I’m
completely honest, that hug is for both of us. I also believe in first name introductions,
smiling eye contact, and friendly handshakes when I greet clients. So social distancing
will be very, very hard for me. That said, I think most people understand its importance
now. Here are some practical tips for staying farther away from people in a clinical

  • No handshakes.
  • Try to stay at least 6 feet away from the clients. This is sometimes physically impossible
    in tiny exam rooms but do your best.
  • Consider recommending drop off appointments for the patients and communicating
    recommendations over the phone.
  • Have clients wait in the car for quick procedures like blood draws or nail trims.
  • And when you have to euthanize that pet and comfort a grieving pet parent, avoid the
    hug and communicate your empathy from a distance through words, facial expressions,
    and body language.

And what better way to help pet owners without coming into direct contact with them
than telehealth. More and more practices are signing up for these services and relief
veterinarians are well-suited to handle these calls whether it’s teletriage when you don’t
have a VCPR with the pet parent or telemedicine because you’re working with a practice
who has an established VCPR. This is becoming more relevant for reasons beyond
COVID-19 but the recommendation for relative isolation is driving the demand for
telehealth services. Practices that don’t already offer this service to their clients may
want to consider adding it now. Relief vets can be a great resource for receiving calls
and helping clients. A telehealth company who I’ve done some work for is Airvet.
They’ve done a great job of designing a product that works for both pet parents and
veterinarians alike.

Other ways that our lives as veterinarians may be affected by this virus is via personal
protective equipment and drug shortages. This is where the flexible medical mind of a
relief vet will come in handy as we are forced to consider alternative treatment plans in
the face of medication shortages.

We may all be in for a wild ride this year. Although social distancing is
recommended and prudent, we must remember the power of supporting our
communities both virtual and local. As relief vets and independent veterinary practices,
we are all small businesses and colleagues and we need to look out for each other. There is no one right answer on how to handle cancellations no matter which direction they come from. These decisions will have to be considered on a case by case basis. But now more than ever, we need to approach them with compassion and thoughtfulness and consider their effects on businesses, relationships, human safety, and animal health.


Read Relief Vets and COVID-19 Part II: Watching Your Cluster.

For more information on COVID-19 check out the CDC and AVMA general info and FAQ’s.