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Pet Care Is Also Human Care During Shelter-In-Place

Babette Thomas
KALW reporter's Babette Thomas' dog, Horton.

Many pets have been seeing a whole lot more of their people during the past few months. Our animal friends probably love the extra company and attention, but what happens when pets develop medical conditions of their own during shelter in place? In this installment of The Essentials, we talk to a veterinarian for some answers.

My dog Horton tends to have a lot of minor medical issues. Skin allergies. Foxtails getting stuck in his paw. And Horton’s ailments haven’t stopped with the onset of COVID-19. He’s been in what my family calls “the cone of shame,” a number of times since shelter in place started. 

I’m living with my parents and we’re home almost all day every day, so when something’s not right with the dog, we all feel it. Veterinarian Joe Fong says:

If that pet’s in pain or in suffering, that's got to be one of the more difficult things to deal with during a pandemic. Having something that you love, and they love you, but they're sick and you don't have anywhere to go.

Dr. Fong isn’t Horton’s vet. But he’s the owner and medical director of Irving Pet Hospital in San Francisco.

Being isolated, not really having a lot of social contact ... the bond that is shared with your pet — it’s indescribable how much love can be there.

Irving Pet Hospital has remained open in these past few months of shelter-in-place, but while Dr. Fong is still seeing his animal patients, their human owners are not allowed into the vet office. So he and his staff have had to implement new guidelines for these kinds of contactless appointments:

During the day, well, I personally probably see maybe about fifteen to twenty patients ... The client calls us and lets us know that they're outside. We send one of the nursing staff to go out and basically they just change leashes. So we say, put on our leash, you take yours off, because there’s potential contamination from leashes and things like that.

Then, the human client stays outside, while the pet goes inside. 

And once they're inside, then we usually have a FaceTime call, or some sort of video chat. So it's kind of a virtual exam with them. client, because the client is the one that has the history and information, but the patient's with me.
So during that time, I’ll do my physical exam. And it's nice now with technology because some clients will say, Well, “can I watch you? I'm like, absolutely!” And so my nursing staff will hold the phone, and I'll do the exam in front of them.
If you're gonna bring your dog to me, there's a covenant of trust. That's important. And I can't, I can't break that. That's why I became a veterinarian. So I do my best to try and provide what I can.

Dr. Fong’s practice has made lots of adjustments: using more masks and gloves, staff washing hands more regularly, sanitizing the office more often. But in terms of COVID being transferred through animals, he’s not too concerned.

We're still kind of wearing our gloves and our masks, and we're not like putting our face next to a cat face that’s sneezing that kind stuff. I'm not too worried, not too worried until someone can prove without a doubt that there's a transference of COVID-19 from a pet to a person. We just take our precautions.

Dr. Fong says in some ways, his practice has started to adjust to these changes, but at the start of shelter-in-place, it wasn’t necessarily a given that the hospital would stay open.

When we first got our order to shelter in place by Mayor Breed I sat down with the staff and they said, ‘What do you guys want to do? Because you have to take care of yourself.’ The staff is very important to me. But, we do have this concept of taking care of our community and taking care of our people that come see us.

Dr. Fong says he and his staff agreed to keep the vet hospital open because they understand that vet medicine isn’t just pet medicine. It’s people medicine, too — especially right now. 

I think for people, sometimes we can find our humanity in pets. Where can you have something accept you for who you are 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, seven days a week? You come home and no matter what kind of a day you've had — good day, bad day — your pet just says, I'm just glad you're home. You're the best thing in my life, let's do something, or let's just sit down and watch TV. I don't care. You know, and having that type of acceptance, especially in times where you're isolated. I think that's good medicine for people.

And he says, as a vet, his job is to preserve that.