Even before COVID-19, Vineyard veterinarians were struggling to maintain basic emergency care for all the animals here. Many of us are getting older. OK, we’re all getting older. Especially me. Seriously. I have been practicing here for 38 years. That’s a long time. Our year-round pet population is too small to support an actual emergency clinic, so we veteran vets have stretched ourselves thin for decades to provide 24/7 emergency services. Due to a nationwide shortage of veterinarians, a new generation of doctors is not moving in to take our places. Local multidoctor practices have been unable to find new associates. Young veterinarians simply do not want to work on an island where they have to be on call for emergencies. They want work-life balance. They want nine to five. (So do I, but clearly that ship has sailed.) Which brings me to COVID-19.
Island residents are acutely aware by now of the limited number of personnel, critical supplies, and beds at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, as well as the recommendations for staying home, washing hands, and social distancing. What should owners do if pets need care during this pandemic? Are veterinary practices “essential” businesses that should stay open? If so, how do veterinarians keep ourselves and our staff healthy, practice social distancing, and help “flatten the curve,” while still providing services for both year-rounders and the sudden influx of summer residents arriving from everywhere and wanting care for their pets too?
Veterinarians across the country are grappling with the pandemic. Some are closing outright, referring any urgent care to large emergency clinics. Some are “business as usual,” which I personally believe is irresponsible and ill-advised. Most are modifying procedures to optimize social distancing. All elective surgery is canceled, to conserve equipment like masks and gloves for human medical personnel. Many large facilities, such as the Foster Hospital for Small Animals at the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, are basically shutting down except for emergencies. So are referral centers like Cape Cod Veterinary Specialists in Bourne, currently available only for serious emergencies.
What about Island veterinarians? There are exactly eight of us living and practicing here. As a group, we were already having trouble covering 24/7 emergency hours before any of this mishegas. (It’s Yiddish. Look it up.) None of us want to leave our clients, who are also our friends and neighbors, without care for their animals. By the time you read this, the situation will likely have changed yet again, but here’s what I can share as of press time. At least one veterinarian is self-quarantining after travel. At least one has a cough. (That would be me. Don’t worry. I’m pretty sure it’s just a cold.) Most are canceling annual physical exams and routine appointments, and restricting visits to emergency or urgent care. Some are limiting people in the waiting room to one at a time. Most are working primarily by “drop-off” or “drive-through.” You stay in your car with your cell phone. Staffers bring your pet from your car into the building for evaluation and treatment. Some are offering telemedicine consultations. Most are screening clients, asking that if you are sick, have been in contact with someone COVID-19-positive, or have traveled to high-risk areas, to have a healthy friend or family member transport your pet instead. Many are using online pharmacies and “medication pickup” systems outside their offices, so clients can obtain needed medications while maintaining social distancing. We are asking people to disinfect carriers, collars, leashes, before bringing pets, and to leave toys and blankets home.
If your pet is due for vaccinations, don’t worry. We have enough to worry about already. Immunity doesn’t magically disappear on the “expiration” date. Except for puppies getting initial vaccines, it’s fine to temporarily delay booster vaccinations. Rabies is the only vaccine required by law. Some clinics are continuing to see clients for rabies vaccination. Others are holding off, or considering drive-through rabies clinics. Call your veterinarian and discuss it. With Lyme and kennel cough (bordetella) vaccines, immunity really does wane dramatically after a year, but right now the need to reduce the spread of COVID-19 between humans outweighs the minor risk to dogs from delaying vaccination. Be diligent with flea and tick control. Avoid areas with lots of ticks. Avoid boarding kennels. Skip the grooming appointment. (But maybe Pay It Forward to your groomer, who is likely hurting like all small businesses. Maybe pay now for grooming in August?)
We are trying to maintain emergency veterinary services, despite reduced office hours, laid-off employees, and our own health issues making some of us high-risk. The more you do to keep pets healthy and safe so you don’t need us, the better. Be extra-careful they don’t eat bad stuff — raisins, grapes, chocolate, rat poison, ant traps, medications, dead things on the beach. Be extra-careful to avoid injuries. Limit play dates to dogs you know well, in controlled environments, to minimize fight wounds and communicable diseases.
Over the years Island veterinarians have been badly bitten, scratched, kicked, and trampled. We have contracted tularemia from our patients, been reviled on social media, gotten hate mail, and even received death threats. We have also received thank-you cards, flowers, chocolate, home-baked goods, eggs, garden-fresh vegetables, trees, gift cards, books, artwork, socks, posters, and, on one occasion, a bushel of quahogs. Like the cashiers at the grocery stores and the people working at the pharmacies, like the doctors and nurses and all the support staff at the hospital, like veterinarians all over the world, we are trying to figure out how to keep going, providing necessary services through this current crisis. Help us by staying home. Help us by understanding we are eight human beings trying to care for thousands of animals as well as ourselves and our families. Help us help your pets by taking extra-good care of them and of yourselves during this time. We can do this, together.