Veterinarians provide an essential service to their community and, during the COVID-19 crisis, your important work can continue safely with modified protocols.
Alley Cat Allies is keeping a finger on the pulse of the veterinary field to share the unique and innovative ways veterinary practices are adapting to the pandemic. In this critical resource, we’ve compiled our recommendations to protect staff, animals, and clients.
All of these suggestions can be adjusted to fit your particular clinic, team, and circumstances. Before making any decisions, be sure to consult local health authority guidelines as well as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) information.
Important Information for Clients
If a client is concerned about their cat catching or transmitting COVID-19, let them know that the CDC states
- That so far “there is no evidence that animals play a significant role in spreading SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, to people.”
- That only a “small number of pet cats and dogs have been reported to be infected with SARS-CoV-2 in several countries, including the United States.”
- That the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people is considered to be low.”
- That “it appears that it [COVID-19] can spread from people to animals in some situations.”
To put in perspective just how low reported companion animal infection rates are, here is some useful data from the USDA. According to USDA, by the end of 2020, there had been 54 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in cats and 38 in dogs in the United States. In the same period of time, there were over 21 million cases reported in people in the U.S. Not only are the cat and dog infection rates far, far lower, but companion animals who have tested positive for the virus, the outcomes are better than for humans. The CDC indicates that “most only had mild illness and fully recovered.”
Learn more in our COVID-19 Guide: You & Your Pet Cat.
Social Distancing – Staffing and Layout Shifts
Preventing overcrowding in the workplace is critical to stop the spread of COVID-19. If it is possible, have employees who can telework continue to do so. In your facility there are steps you can take to help staff stay safe:
- Rework your clinic’s layout to allow for six feet of distance. That may mean reception employees sit further apart or moving someone into their own office space.
- Create room occupancy limits. Based on your own discretion about the size of your workplace, determine maximum occupancy for each room in your facility. For example, you may determine that the break room should only be accessed by only two people at a time. Post signs on each doorway detailing the maximum occupancy.
- Separate workplaces and equipment. If possible, each staff member should have their own space and equipment that other staff don’t use. If equipment must be used by multiple staff members, disinfect thoroughly between uses.
- Work in shifts. Some veterinary clinics divide their staff into teams that take different shifts in the clinic to prevent overcrowding and work through potential exposure. E.g., if shift A is exposed and must quarantine, shift B can continue to work with precautions and after thorough cleaning of the space.
- Try to stay apart during procedures to the greatest extent possible. If you must be in close contact with a team member, prepare all equipment in advance so the procedure can be done as quickly as possible.
- Consider daily health checks/fever tests. Some veterinary clinics have incorporated health checklists before an employee comes in for every shift. If the employee reports experiencing respiratory symptoms or has a temperature over 100.4°F, have them stay home.
Social Distancing – Limiting Client Exposure
Veterinary practices are discovering innovative ways to mitigate community spread of COVID-19 while still meeting the needs of clients. Here are some of our recommended practices:
Take Advantage of Telemedicine
Telemedicine is an amazing tool to virtually give consultations. For minor issues, it is an easy way to diagnose an animal with zero contact.
- Familiarize yourself with your area’s telemedicine policies and veterinarian-client-patient relationship requirements. In the United States, these requirements can vary by state.
- While some veterinarians turn to special telemedicine platforms, others are simply utilizing services like Zoom or FaceTime.
Adopt Curbside Drop-off and Pick-up
For safety and convenience, many veterinarians have turned to curbside service. The method is simple:
- Over the phone or online appointment setup, provide instructions about curbside service. Tell clients they are expected to park in the clinic parking lot and call when they arrive.
- Before setting the appointment, ask the client if they have symptoms of, tested positive for, or have been exposed to COVID-19 recently. If so, ask if they can have another person bring in the animal. We detail suggested protocols later in this resource.
- Include signs in designated parking spots with a phone number and instructions to remain in the vehicle and call upon arrival.
- Once called, a staff member in a mask and gloves can approach the car to hand over any necessary paperwork and take the animal into the building.
Once the appointment is over, a staff member calls the client to inform them and then brings the animal back to the car.
Take it Outdoors
Some practices have set up outdoor exam tents to triage or fully treat patients. These tents can be especially useful for dogs who are too nervous to be without their family nearby. The outdoor space allows for easier social distancing.
Have a Hands-Off “Check-In” Area
An alternative to curbside service that allows clients to stay with their animals as long as possible is a hands-off check-in area.
Rather than a staff member picking up the animal from the client’s car, clients are directed to enter a “hands-off” room with sanitized cages. They are asked to place the animal in one of the cages, remove any leash, collar, or other belongings, and then leave the room. Then, a veterinary technician takes the animal into the main hospital. The cage and door handles are sanitized immediately afterwards.
If Clients Must Enter Your Clinic
If clients must come into the building:
- Have a “one person per animal” policy. Inform clients that only one person should come into the clinic with the animal.
- Ask clients to wear face masks. Consult your local guidelines on when and where mask wearing is enforced. If you choose to include a policy where all staff and clients wear masks inside the building, hang signs on the walls and doors that detail this policy. Have extra masks on hand to give out if needed.
- Consider a workplace safety shield. A plastic or plexiglass shield or barrier between staff and clients will help keep front desk staff safe when addressing clients.
- Use floor markers. Show clients where they should stand and how far apart they should be using floor markers. An easy way to do this is by placing tape on the floor to mark areas where clients can walk and wait and setting decal stickers on the floor at six feet apart to aid social distancing.
- Sanitize thoroughly. Clean any chairs or surfaces touched after each client. Have hand sanitizer stations available for clients’ use.
Limited Access Appointments
Some veterinary clinics have adopted policies to avoid using the waiting room. An example would be having clients wait in their cars until an exam room is open. Then clients are escorted with their animal directly into the exam room.
If possible, clients can be asked to leave through a different exit away from the front doors to further prevent contact.
Take Off Unnecessary Items
Another suggestion is asking clients to remove collars, use the clinic’s disposable leashes, and not have pets wear “outfits” to their visit to cut down on materials that might transmit the virus into the clinic.
Staying Connected in a Contactless Appointment
While curbside drop-off is safe and convenient, clients will no longer be in the room to hear the results of your examination or procedure.
Many veterinarians call or text the client throughout the exam or procedure to update them on how their animal is doing and what they need to know. It’s also a chance for the client to ask any questions.
Consider Video Conferencing
Some clinics are keeping clients in the loop by performing the examination or procedure while the client waiting in their car is connected via a video conferencing app like Zoom. That way there is a real time communication, and the client can see their animal.
If a Staff Member is Sick With or Exposed to COVID-19
According to CDC guidelines, staff members who test positive for or have symptoms of COVID-19 should quarantine at home for 10 days from the time they received their test results or started experiencing symptoms.
For staff members who were exposed to someone who tested positive for or has symptoms of COVID-19, the CDC recommends quarantining at home for 14 days from the day of exposure.
It’s important to note that veterinarians and their staff are essential workers. The CDC states that ill or exposed staff can return to work following quarantine “provided they remain asymptomatic” or they are given clearance by their health care professional or local health care agency.
If a staff member is showing symptoms of or tests positive for COVID-19:
- Inform contacts. Anyone who came in close contact with the ill staff member must be informed, while maintaining confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act, so they can immediately go home and begin quarantine.
- Clean thoroughly. Follow CDC guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting areas sick employees have interacted with. If possible, hang a sign informing others to stay out of the area as it is being cleaned.
If a Client is Sick With or Exposed to COVID-19
Sick clients may not have time to wait until they are well to get their animals the help they need. That is why it’s important to have a plan in place.
Before setting an appointment, ask if the client has symptoms of or been exposed to somebody with COVID-19 in the past two weeks. If the answer is yes, recommend that the client have someone else bring in the animal for them.
If that is not possible, then experts recommend that veterinary clinics:
- Ask that the client place their animal in the back of their car in a plastic carrier or any carrier with an easily cleaned surface.
- Ask that the client don a face mask and stay in their car upon arrival.
- Have a staff member in appropriate PPE, including facemask, eye protection, and gloves, approach the car to bring the animal into the clinic.
- Have a staff member disinfect the surface of the animal’s carrier before entering the facility.
If an Animal is Sick With or Exposed to COVID-19
Around the world, only a small number of cats, dogs have tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19. Of those infected, few become sick. Of those who become sick, most recover fully after only a mild illness.
Given this and given that the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people is considered low, routine testing of animals for COVID-19 is not recommended by health experts. Direct clients to learn more in our COVID-19 Guide: You & Your Pet Cat.
The CDC says the decision to test an animal, at the veterinarian’s discretion, should be “agreed upon using a One Health approach with the appropriate local, state, and/or federal public health and animal health officials” and that veterinarians “are strongly encouraged to rule out other, more common causes of illness in animals before considering SARS-CoV-2 testing.”
With this in mind, it is up to the veterinarian’s judgment whether an animal is showing symptoms of COVID-19, whether to implement safety protocols, and whether a COVID-19 test is necessary.
Before any appointment, ask the client if their animal has been exposed to someone who has or is suspected to have COVID-19.
If you believe an animal has been exposed to COVID-19:
- Keep them separated. If an animal has to stay in the facility, such as during surgery recovery, designate a room as a quarantine area so the animal can be kept separate from others.
- Use proper personal protective equipment. Wear PPE including gloves and a face mask at all time when handling the animal. The CDC has in-depth veterinary guidelines on the appropriate PPE to use depending on the situation and the animal’s condition.
- Clean thoroughly. Thoroughly sanitize all surfaces the animal touches before bringing in another patient. Wash hands thoroughly and regularly, or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, while and after handling the animal.
- Add new gear. If performing a procedure, consider adding a plastic face shield to the usual PPE.
The CDC has thorough guidelines on handling sick or exposed animals here. Direct clients–especially those who are worried about their cat catching the virus–to learn more in our COVID-19 Guide: You & Your Pet Cat.
Implement Low-Contact Prescriptions, Forms, and Payment
The fewer points of contact, the safer! Here are some of the ways veterinarians are reducing the amount of time staff spend in close proximity with clients:
- Use downloadable forms. Downloadable forms can be printed, filled out at home ahead of time, and then brough to curbside appointments. This can include an Authorization to Provide Care form that clients are asked to verbally confirm upon arrival.
- Include “Card-on-File” section in forms. Ask clients to provide payment information within the form. Then once the visit is finished, simply ask for verbal confirmation to charge the card on file. Then email an invoice and visit summary to clients.
- Consider Touch and Go. Some clinics are utilizing smartphone apps or card readers that allow for “touch and go” payment.
- Use electronic agreements. These agreements, like DocuSign, allow for a complete hands-off payment.
- Utilize curbside service for medications and prescription foods. Many clinics are turning to curbside service to provide an animal’s prescriptions. The client simply calls when they arrive, and the food or medicine can be taken to their car by a staff member in PPE or left on a table outside of the building for the client to come and take.
All frequently used surfaces should be disinfected multiple times throughout the day. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), COVID-19 is “readily inactivated by disinfectants typically used in animal shelters” and veterinary clinics.
The CDC has more guidelines on disinfecting surfaces and disposing of waste, including:
- Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces with an EPA-registered, hospital grade disinfectant.
- Frequently cleaning multiple use areas such as microwaves, fridge handles, toilet handles, bathroom doors, light switches and plates, door handles, etc.
- Laundering scrubs, gowns, blankets, towels, or any other soft item with a detergent or bleach with the warmest water setting possible.
- Washing hands immediately after cleaning.
Let Us Know if You Need Anything
Alley Cat Allies is here to help. We are committed to providing support to veterinary professionals and all those on the front lines saving and improving the lives of cats. Learn more about our COVID-19 response at alleycat.org/Coronavirus.
If you need assistance, advice, or materials, reach out to us at alleycat.org/GetHelp.