Visiting Vet: Humans, please follow directions!

Pets, nice to see you.

Someone was kind enough to drop off a small bunch of lilies of the valley at the vet's office. — Michelle Jasny

Tired of all COVID-19 all the time? Me too. Since realizing we needed a new way to provide veterinary care for Island animals, I’ve watched endless webinars on telemedicine, social distancing, virology, epidemiology, and personal protective equipment, but I’ve also learned some interesting things from personal experience.

I’ve learned that human beings have trouble following directions. Even when provided in advance in writing. Now, don’t take this personally. We’re all struggling and, honestly, our new “contactless curbside” protocol involves some very difficult instructions … like 1) Bring your cell phone. Oops, forgot your cell phone? OK, I will scream at you across the parking lot anything you need to know about your dog’s health. People are doing a bit better with 2) Wear a mask, though I had to amend that one to say 3) Put mask on before getting out of car. No. 4 depends on No. 1: Call when you arrive to make sure we are ready for you. Oh, you have your phone but forgot you were supposed to call from your car, and instead came knocking on the door or peeking in the windows. Go away.

Now we get to instructions that actually include your pet. 5) Please attach dog to secured stationary leash provided outside. Oops, you put him next to the stationary leash but forgot his collar, so didn’t actually hook him up to anything. Good thing he was mellow from his tranquilizers, and just sat there until we came out to get him. 6) Please wait in your car, and keep your phone on so we can call with any questions, and let you know when your pet is ready to return to you. Wait. Let me guess. Forgot your phone? Ah, you have your phone but were calling your mother. That’s why we keep getting your voicemail. But good for you for checking in with Mom. Seriously.

On a positive note, I’ve learned that taking credit card numbers over the phone is a great opportunity for what I now call “COVID-19 breathing.” Here’s what you do. Take a deep breath in while client reads first four numbers of credit card. Hold it while you wait for the second set of four numbers. Don’t be tempted to prompt verbally with “OK” or “Go ahead.” Trust they will proceed. Be in the moment. Let go of the desire for them to say the number sooner … or later. When they speak the second four numbers, exhale slowly. Repeat. Inhale four. Pause. Exhale four. Finally, inhale again, then exhale while chanting “Expiration?” One caveat. COVID-19 breathing does not work with American Express cards. Nobody knows how to read off AmEx numbers with meditative rhythm.

Joking aside, people have been very appreciative. The other day I saw a woman, unrecognizable under her bandanna and hat, repeatedly bending down in my driveway as though collecting shells on the beach. What was she doing? I wondered grumpily as she finally got in her car and left. Going outside later to investigate, I found a small bunch of lilies of the valley on top of our “Medication Pickup” box. She had been selecting a stone to put on the bouquet so her gift and card wouldn’t blow away on that windy day. Thank you. I love them. Someone else left a vibrant pot of purple pansies. Thank you. I love them, too. I’ve learned small gestures mean a lot.

As for telemedicine, I’ve learned my brilliant idea of loaning owners thermometers so they can check pets’ temperatures at home was not so brilliant. Seems the few people willing to take a poodle’s rectal temperature already have thermometers. The other 99 percent find it hard enough just to access FaceTime and point the camera at the poodle for my teleconsultation. In the office, I’ve learned wearing masks all day is stifling, face shields make it hard to use stethoscopes, and Velcro straps get stuck in my hair and are really annoying. I’ve learned some animals are scared by our gear, and that I depend on my sense of smell more than I realized, now that I can’t sniff a cat’s breath for ketosis or dog’s skin for seborrhea. I’ve learned it is exponentially harder coping with end-of-life decisions and euthanasia for pets during a pandemic. I can’t fathom how human healthcare workers manage, caring for dying people who cannot have their loved ones beside them.

By telephone, I’ve learned the Art of the COVID-19 Interview. Although there have been no documented cases of pets transmitting the virus to people, a very small number of animals have been infected, and pets living with infected people can theoretically have virus on their fur. Veterinarians must be extra-cautious, since our work requires close physical contact with our patients. I’ve learned that asking, “How long have you been on-Island?” makes people defensive these days. Why do I ask? Because for sick animals, knowing where they have been recently helps me make a differential diagnosis list. And in the age of COVID-19, it also helps me assess my risk. Except for dire emergencies, pets should observe the same two-week quarantine as newly arrived people. OK, seasonal folks. I get it. You’ve been attacked on Facebook. You sometimes feel unwelcome. I know you are our family and our friends, not to mention the Island’s bread and butter. Please forgive our fears, but please also be thoughtful, respect the self-quarantine recommendations, and understand our cautiousness.

As for my dear friend (who shall remain nameless) who wanted reassurance I wouldn’t get my cooties on her dog at the appointment, I will continue to screen myself and my helpers as carefully as I screen my clients. Let’s keep everyone, whether two- or four-footed, as cootie-free as possible. Follow instructions. Wave at us from afar while we retrieve your pets, spiriting them away into the inner sanctum where we can take care of them, but can no longer welcome you in for a chat. We miss you. Stay safe. Inhale. Exhale.