Michelle Keith was distressed last April when her basset hound puppy ate some of the big chocolate Easter eggs she had laying on the top of a cupboard.
Knowing that chocolate can be toxic for dogs, she knew she had to do something.
But she was reluctant to rush Dinah into an emergency clinic at a local vet and pick up a hefty fee for the visit.
Instead, she called, via a video chat service, a vet available through Pawsquad, a UK based start-up.
“I got advice that the amount of chocolate she had eaten wouldn’t be toxic, based on her weight,” says Ms Keith, who lives in Greenock, 40 minutes west of Glasgow. “I also learned about the symptoms to look out for if my dog took a turn for the worse.”
London-based Pawsquad, founded in 2015, allows pet owners to call vets via video or chat through text messages so they can describe what is ailing their animals and learn what they should do next.
The subscription service costs £7 a month or can also be provided free to those paying certain pet insurance providers.
In around half of the calls, Pawsquad determines that a pet owner’s concerns “can be addressed there and then, avoiding the unnecessary stress and expense of a visit to the vet clinic,” says Mark Boddy, the company’s chief executive and co-founder.
He says that for those where a physical examination or diagnostic test are recommended, pet owners will see that their immediate questions get answered and can avoid late-night panic runs to a clinic.
Mr Boddy adds that pets may find veterinary visits very stressful. “In fact, a visual assessment of a pet in their own home can often reveal much more than a highly stressed one in a clinical environment.
“Animals by nature tend to do their best to hide signs of illness under conditions of perceived threat,” he says.
Pet telehealth services are cropping up not just in the UK but across Europe and North America. Similar to the human equivalent, the health professionals working with these start-ups can answer questions from worried pet owners about sicknesses such as upset stomachs, poor mobility or sudden wounds.
“Our main competition is someone doing a Google search,” says David Prien, chief executive and founder of FirstVet, based in Stockholm and available to pet owners in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the UK.
He notes that services such as FirstVet don’t replace bricks-and-mortar vet clinics but act as a supplement to those diagnostic appointments.
That’s a critical point because in many countries and US states these online advice-friendly start-ups can’t prescribe medication. While Sweden overhauled its regulatory market to allow pet telehealth firms to prescribe medication over the phone or video, the UK doesn’t allow this.
However, this year, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons will be reviewing its telemedicine guidelines and in November will finalize and publish any new guidance – after spending a year gathering evidence and drafting any proposals to change.
“Yes, these service are better than Dr Google, but most if not all veterinary practices offer 24/7 advice to their clients, free of charge,” says British Veterinary Association president Daniella Dos Santos.
“What makes these start-ups novel is adding video chat to these calls, but I still think many pet owners don’t realize their own vet clinics can give them free advice.”
Pawsquad’s Mark Boddy counters this by saying: “Video adds a considerable level of detail that enables a better quality and more confident judgment by the vet as to whether [the pet] needs to be seen or what action needs to be taken.”
And though some vets might offer free telephone advice, FirstVet’s David Prien says they can still be a pricey option. “There’s a financial incentive for a fully privatised market to get you through that door for a visit,” he says.
“Pet owners can feel that pressure in a phone call with their vet, and the alternative is to wait out and see what happens to the pet.”
“Having a low barrier to entry with a telehealth platform can give that pet owner key information and make them feel better about either going to emergency right away or waiting the next day to visit a clinic,” says Brendon Laing, co-owner of Hillside Veterinary Clinic in Ontario, Canada – a real-world vet who considers telehealth services a useful addition.
Their advice is particularly valuable to pet owners living in rural areas who don’t have easy access to a vet. It can be useful for worried owners who have a problem outside normal surgery hours, too.
Zubin Bhettay launched his San Francisco-based Fuzzy Pet Health to help, among others, pet owners who may have pet insurance and even a regular clinic, but want to ask a professional a burning question in the middle of the night.
“It can be challenging for clinics to get the staffing needed to service customers 24/7. The majority of clinics can’t recruit vets to service that demand,” Mr Bhettay says.
So if your dog does eat chocolate in the middle of the night, then help is at hand, but it’s probably best for dogs (and humans) to put those tempting treats somewhere little paws can’t get hold of them.