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Veterinarians Reveal What They Got Asked Most During Quarantine

Telemedicine has helped pet parents address common concerns when they couldn't make it into the office out of safety concerns.

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The dog-tor will see you now—at home

If you’ve had a minor illness or injury during the novel coronavirus pandemic that required a physician’s attention, you may have turned to telemedicine—a consultation with a doctor via video conference. It turns out that the same service is available for pets. In fact, in March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) relaxed some of its rules to make veterinary telemedicine more widely available so pets and their humans can practice social distancing while receiving the care they need.

Prior to the pandemic, Zack Mills, DVM, owner of Tiger Tails Animal Hospital in Duluth, Georgia, was doing about two or three telemedicine calls a month before the pandemic started, using a system called PetPro Tele+; now he’s using it two or three times a day. “We can see the animal’s records on one half of the screen and the client on the other,” he says.

For some concerns, a virtual house call can eliminate the need to bring an animal into the office, while for others, it can buy added time or peace of mind until they can be seen in the office. Here are some of the most common concerns Dr. Mills and Dr. Killian are seeing in their telemedicine visits with dogs and cats. You’ll also want to know these 50 secrets veterinarians won’t tell you for free.

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Does my dog have an ear infection?

If your dog is shaking his head or scratching his ears a lot, he may have an infection, says Lisa Killian, DVM, medical director of Fuzzy Pet Health, a nationwide telemedicine system. Telehealth shines here, Dr. Mills says, because vets can get a pretty good look inside the ear while the pet’s guardian holds it up to the camera. “[We] can see how bad it is and tell if it needs to be seen right away and flushed out professionally,” Dr. Mills adds. If it’s just a mild irritation, both vets say they may advise pet parents on how to clean the ears, and possibly apply medicated ointment. If an animal can’t stop scratching, he or she may need to wear an Elizabethan collar, aka the cone of shame. Know the signs that your dog has an ear infection.

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What is this rash?

On a video call, vets can see what kind of skin irritation an animal has and how severe it is. Most commonly, Dr. Mills says, skin irritation is the result of an allergy. Dogs can have allergies to grasses and pollen, just like humans, but instead of sneezing, they may develop redness and irritation, especially on their paws. And now that their humans are home more, dogs are getting more walks and adventures—and more opportunities to come in contact with allergens.

Dr. Mills advises gently cleaning the area. “Oatmeal-based shampoo is ideal, but any shampoo is OK,” he says. He sometimes prescribes antihistamines but finds they don’t always work well in dogs. Dr. Killian says essential fatty acid supplements may also be helpful. Find out some of our favorite dog shampoos and conditioners.

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Why is my pet’s tummy off?

Calls about vomiting and diarrhea in dogs are on the rise, notes Dr. Mills, and he attributes that, at least partially, to human error. We’re eating more meals at home, so pets may be getting more treats, intentionally or not. That slice of pizza that Max or Molly nabbed may come back to haunt them—and you. The solution here is obvious—keep human food put away and limit the amount of table scraps you feed your pets. You might also do a quick check to make sure no toys are missing that might have been accidentally ingested. Learn about household items that are hazardous to your pet.

Of course, there are other causes for a gastric upset in animals. In a video consult, Dr. Mills will ask pet parents about any blood in the animal’s stool—a sign of a more severe problem. If none is present, he may ask humans to take their pet’s temperature, show him the animal’s gums so he can check color and moistness; and describe how well their pet is keeping food down. Depending on their responses, he may advise restricting their diet for a couple of days. Often, he recommends starting with small amounts of water, and gradually stepping up to small amounts of bland food, such as chicken and rice. Dr. Killian says anti-nausea medication may also be prescribed.

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Why is my pet coughing?

“Pets do not get colds, but they do get other respiratory problems, just like us,” Dr. Killian notes. She recommends treating minor coughs and sneezes in much the same way we handle our own: by providing lots of water to drink, and steam in the bathroom to relieve nasal congestion.

An upper respiratory infection in cats may be a sign that your fluffball is stressed out. “Once a cat has one, it’s always there, and stress can make it return,” Dr. Mills says. Here are other signs that your cat might be sick.

If a dog’s cough persists, it might be kennel cough, Dr. Mills says. In that case, your vet will need to prescribe medications. If those don’t kick the cough to the curb, your vet will probably want to see your dog in the office. The good news is that many vets will credit any fees paid for the video consult toward the cost of the office visit.

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Why is my pet limping?

If your animal is limping, Dr. Mills will use the video call to help determine the cause and proper treatment. First, he’ll ask if you know how it happened. Is the dog getting more walks than usual because of the change in your routine? Was the dog playing Frisbee with you right before the limping became apparent? Or did the lameness come on little by little? Then he’ll watch the dog walk and observe how she’s putting weight on her limbs. “She might have arthritis or an injury,” Dr. Mills says, in which case he might suggest trying an anti-inflammatory, made specifically for dogs, as human versions can upset the dog’s belly. If the problem persists, he might need the animal to come into the office for X-rays. Dr. Killian adds that rest and ice packs may be in order. Find out what common dog dangers may be lurking in your backyard.

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Is this lump cancer?

Now that humans are home more, they’re also petting their animals more, and are more likely to notice assorted growths on their dogs and cats. “We can look at it close up on camera,” Dr. Mills says. It might be something totally harmless, like a sebaceous adenoma, he says. These bumps originate in the oil glands and are most commonly seen in middle-aged and elderly dogs, according to the National Canine Cancer Foundation. They typically appear on a dog’s head, neck, back, eyelids and feet, and usually don’t require treatment, according to PetPlace.com. But Dr. Mills says with telemedicine, he can keep a watchful eye on any suspicious lump. “If it’s gotten bigger, they might need to come in,” Dr. Mills adds. Similarly, if skin bump is red or inflamed, he’ll want to investigate that in person, too.

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Are these stitches healing OK?

In some cases, pets with longstanding health problems or acute injury or illness require surgery, despite the ongoing pandemic. But once mom or dad takes their four-legged companion home, much of the after-care can be handled remotely. Dr. Mills can check incision sites and make sure they’re healing properly. For other minor wounds, Dr. Killian recommends cleaning them with plenty of water and using an Elizabethan collar if the pet is licking the wound frequently. “Topical antibiotic ointments are usually not necessary but not harmful either,” she says. Pain medication may also be prescribed.

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Why is my pet acting weird?

These are the biggest clues to health problems in cats, Dr. Mills says. People may notice their cat is hesitating to jump, not using the litter box, or being more lethargic than usual. Often, he says, these problems arise when cats feel stressed. Unlike dogs, who are mostly delighted to have their humans home full-time, cats feel imposed upon. Normally, they sleep during the day but with their people, their environment is noisier and more chaotic.

Pheromones—natural chemicals that animals secrete to communicate with each other—are available in sprays and plug-in diffusers, and Dr. Mills recommends these to help calm high-strung pets. Additionally, he says it’s important to make sure they have at least one place they can go to enjoy time away from people. On top of that, they need to be stimulated physically and mentally, especially if they’re indoor-only cats. “Get toys you can put food in that they have to roll around to get the food to fall out,” he suggests. Bored dog on your hand? These are the 20 best puzzle toys for pups.

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What can I do about separation anxiety?

Dr. Mills expects to see more of this in dogs when pet parents start going back to work. He recommends tackling this before it becomes a problem, ideally a week or two before returning to work. “Start letting them spend little bits of time by themselves,” he says. “Go for a walk and leave them at home. Let them get used to you leaving the house.” He also suggests trying pheromones for anxious dogs and recommends Adaptil, which he says mimics the substances dogs are exposed to when they’re nursing. Here are more strategies for preventing post-quarantine separation anxiety.

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Make the most of your appointment

You can help to make the appointment go smoothly by making sure you have the necessary computer, tablet, or smartphone connection, and downloading any software ahead of time. Then, write some notes to help you answer the vet’s questions. Think about when you first noticed the problem, how long it’s been happening, what you’ve tried, and what makes it better or worse. Be ready to answer questions about how well your pet is eating and drinking, urinating, defecating, and sleeping. Here are 15 training secrets dog trainers won’t tell you for free.

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It’s not for everyone—or everything

Not all veterinarians offer telemedicine, and many insist on having met your dog or cat in the flesh at least once. The FDA actually required this prior to its March announcement, and many states still do. “The first thing a telemedicine doctor will do is determine if we can safely offer care for your pet via telehealth,” says Dr. Killian. In addition, some problems are just too complex to be handled over video. It should never be used for things like major trauma, sustained seizures, difficulty breathing, bleeding that won’t stop, or other emergencies. After all, hands-on care is still the gold standard for major health concerns. It’s best to check with your veterinarian to find out if your pet is a good candidate for a remote visit. Find out the 20 things you’re doing that your veterinarian probably wouldn’t.