Fortune // Veterinarians are turning to virtual visits to care for Fido

BY DANIELLE ABRIL

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At 8 years old, Cowboy is normally a rambunctious Papillon with bad table manners.

But about a month into a statewide shelter-in-place order in New York, something strange happened. He started limping and his back legs looked paralyzed. It was 9 p.m. on a weekday, and he was looking up at his owner, Whitney Casey, with concerned eyes that indicated, “You better figure this out, lady,” she recalls. Having recently attended her own virtual doctor’s visit, she took to Google to find similar care for Cowboy. 

“I was alone and worried, ‘How am I going to get access to anyone?’” she says. “It was disturbing.”

Casey found Fuzzy Pet Health, which offered her the option to text or video chat with a veterinarian. Within 20 minutes, she had an answer: Cowboy was having an allergic reaction to a generic brand of flea medicine, and it would likely clear up in 24 hours. The guidance calmed Casey and gave her a sense of security during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Casey is among a growing number of pet owners turning to virtual pet care as they hunker down at home. The relatively nascent industry is seeing a rise in demand as vets see visits to their physical offices decline. Meanwhile, some states are loosening regulations to allow for more virtual care, making it easier for new tech companies to drum up business. 

“We doubled in size in three months,” says Deb Leon, CEO of WhiskerDocs, a company providing virtual vet care to clients through large employers. “It was a boom.”

Data from mobile analytics firm App Annie shows that downloads of virtual vet apps rose in mid-March—around the time several cities imposed shelter-in-place orders—with some apps’ daily downloads jumping 40%. And with pet owners and vets establishing new habits during the pandemic, companies and experts expect telemedicine for pets to only continue to grow even after the crisis is over. 

PetPro Connect, an app that some vets use to provide virtual care, became the 15th most downloaded medical app in the U.S. on May 20 and 21, according to App Annie. That’s up from its normal rankings, which were below 300 prior to mid-March. 

The app, owned by pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim, waived additional transaction fees during the pandemic, aiming to help connect vets and pet owners on its service. Some vets use it for virtual visits, while others started curbside service, allowing pet owners to wait in the parking lot while they watch the vet visit over video.  

“Overnight, hospitals came flooding in to learn about the platform,” says Andrew Gillies, associate director of Boehringer Ingelheim digital health customer experience in the U.S. “During the early days of the pandemic, the team probably did over 1,200 demos and calls about PetPro Connect.”

Fuzzy Pet Health, a San Francisco–based pet health care startup that offers pet products, health records management, and virtual vet visits, similarly saw a rise in demand, both from pet owners and vets. The company received more than 100 applications from vets, saw a nearly 15% increase in monthly customers, and experienced a 75% increase in usage of its wellness tools that help people track the trends of their pet’s health over time.

The increase in customers, usage, and purchase of its products is helping the company grow its revenue 30% month over month since April. To date, the company has logged more than 750,000 virtual visits with 12 on-staff veterinarians and more than 100 contract vets. 

Zubin Bhettay, Fuzzy’s founder and CEO, says that for the past few months, shelters have been clearing out as more people adopt. But because of that, a lot of new pet owners don’t have a vet—a problem that commonly existed even pre-pandemic.

“What we saw with COVID was more pet parents looking for advice and trying to get answers around basic information,” Bhettay says. “People are trying to learn how to better care for their pets, and that’s exciting.”

Though virtual vet care often can help pet owners with quick questions about general care, changes in behavior, or whether a situation should be deemed an emergency, there are some limits. Current state laws allow virtual pet apps and services to provide guidance about health concerns. However, most states restrict virtual providers from prescribing drugs or offering a diagnosis. 

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, 16 states have started to allow some form of virtual pet care, even if just temporarily, according to Roger Redman, president of the American Association of Veterinary State Boards. “Now that the pandemic has hit, addressing telemedicine and telehealth has come to the forefront,” Redman says. “I would think most states have it on the front burner and are trying to sort through what it will look like moving forward.”

John Howe, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, estimates that use of telemedicine by vets has gone up by 20% since the outbreak of the coronavirus, and he doesn’t expect that to stop. “We anticipate that telemedicine will continue to enjoy more integration into veterinary practices than existed prior to COVID-19 even as we move toward the ‘new normal,’” says Howe. “Many veterinarians with whom we have spoken, that have chosen to implement it during COVID-19, say they will continue to include it as a service offering in their practices.”

For Airvet, a Los Angeles–based tech startup that connects pet owners to vets at hospitals and private practices, the loosening restrictions and rise in demand for virtual care came at an opportune time. The company started offering services in January, just prior to the coronavirus-related city shutdowns. Between mid-March and June, the company’s revenue jumped by a factor of seven. Airvet also secured $14 million in funding last month and is expecting to double its 15-member team within the next few months. 

“When COVID hit, we saw not just an explosion for us but in the industry,” says Brandon Werber, founder and CEO of Airvet. Some animal “hospitals were forced to shut down. Telemedicine was the only way to treat clients.”

Several virtual care services are finding that once a pet owner starts using virtual pet care, they often stick with it for the sake of convenience. Casey is a prime example. She says she’s already started ordering products from Fuzzy Pet Health, given the new level of anxiety Cowboy has developed since Casey has been home so often. Meanwhile, Cowboy has already had a couple of other incidents that alarmed Casey.

“It just feels reassuring to know there’s someone you can quickly text,” she says. “I wouldn’t go back to the vet unless I needed to.”

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