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Mutts, Masks And Modifications: How Veterinarians Are Handling COVID-19

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Ellen Bausback/WUFT News
The Florida Channel
Maverick, an 11-year-old pit bull, snags a treat from Katherine Heston, practice manager at Newberry Animal Hospital on 39th Avenue in Gainesville.

When the pandemic started, many vets stopped elective surgeries. Now, all procedures have resumed, and vets have come up with new ways to help animals while keeping staff and pet owners safe.

Veterinarians in Florida were deemed essential workersin March, so their work didn’t stop when the COVID-19 pandemic began.

And yet while business is booming for vets in Alachua County, everything is different.

The volume of customers has increased, as people stuck at home with their pets have been noticing issues more quickly, vets say. And while finances aren’t threatened, COVID-19 has affected many of the emotional aspects of a vet visit or being a provider.

When the pandemic first started,many vets stopped performing elective surgeries but continued to provide other services. However, all procedures have resumed, and vets have come up with new ways to help animals while keeping staff and pet owners safe.

“It just boils down to the fact that animals need care, and people care about their pets,” said Thomas Hester, a vet at Trenton Animal Hospital who represents more than 1,200 others in the region for the Florida Veterinary Medical Association.

Many animal hospitals across north central Florida began offering curbside services in March.

At most practices, pet owners are not allowed to enter the office. Owners call when they arrive in the parking lot. A vet technician then comes out, meets with the customer through their car window, collects their pet and then returns the animal after the appointment.

Micanopy Animal Hospital uses technology to make the experience more personal. Owners can ask questions of the vet via FaceTime during the procedure, said Misty Tate, the office manager.

One aspect of vet services that have changed drastically are end-of-life procedures. While the number of them hasn’t changed – around one to three a month – to abide strict social distancing, many offices sometimes allow one person in the room when saying goodbye to a pet, Tate said.

Normally, whole families might otherwise be in the room, and many practices would provide blankets and pillows to create a comfortable environment.

“We would turn it into a giant living room,” said Lance Baltzley, a vet and the owner of Newberry Animal Hospital’s four locations.

Julia Glavin-Duncan, 29, of Gainesville, had to say goodbye to Nova, her 16-year-old PTSD-support dachshund, in July. She spent an entire day calling area vet offices, desperate to find one that would allow her and her husband to say goodbye to their pet of nine years together.

“It was very difficult, because they all tell you that you can only bring one person back, and I’m like, ‘Are you human? Do you have a soul?’” she said. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, right. The world’s ending.’”

Some offices said they have had a hard time enforcing the one-person rule and might make exceptions for people. A few practices allow procedures outside, or in their customers’ vehicles, to allow for safe distancing while still being sensitive.

Glavin-Duncan eventually took Nova to Gainesville Animal Hospital – and said goodbye to her on a blanket outside on the office’s property.

Kendall Rake, 17, a senior at Santa Fe High School, had to say goodbye to her boxer-Rottweiler mix Mia in early October, after vets found a bleeding tumor in the pet’s heart.

“She was an angel,” said Rake, of Cross Creek.

She said none of her family members wanted to go into Micanopy Animal Hospital for the procedure by themselves, so they said goodbye in their car outside. They fed Mia her favorite meal of McDonald’s french fries and nuggets before the vets came out.

“We had this really great bond with her, so when she passed away, it was kind of like losing a sister to me – for my mom it was like losing a child,” Rake said. “I’ve never experienced that kind of pain with a death, even with my other family members.”

Rake said she wants to pursue veterinary medicine as a career because it brings her joy to see pets getting the help they need.

Vets say not being able to physically support owners during euthanasia procedures has caused an emotional disconnect for them as well.

“I feel like a lot of people who work in the vet industry are very empathetic, in general, and sympathetic, so we feel every emotion they do,” Tate said of the families. “It’s never easy.”

Other challenges include finding enough protective masks and gloves and, at Micanopy, enough “easy cheese” to distract pets during procedures, Tate said.

Hester said unreliable shipping of medicine, because many of the steroids normally used in veterinary care are going to hospitals for COVID-19 patients, has added to the stress for vets.

“You’re dealing with emotions every day, you’re dealing with life and death, you’re dealing with compassion and compassion fatigue,” he said. “We go out wanting to save every animal and wanting every outcome to be good, but that’s just not the way that medicine works.”

On the positive side, Katherine Heston, the practice manager at Newberry’s 39th Avenue location, said many animals who previously were nervous during visits have calmed down. Not having owners in the room keeps the animals from feeding off their anxious energy, Heston said.

Veterinary care has also helped to relieve stress for families during the pandemic.

Kelsey Wilson, a mobile equine veterinarian who owns Coastline Veterinary Services, of Trenton, recalled when lots of people would watch her do procedures on horses at farms.

“It would seem like the entire neighborhood would show up because everybody was so bored,” Wilson said. “It was the most interesting thing in their day.”

Animal doctors said their work likely won’t return to normal for a while, and most will offer curbside services until they deem in-person visits safe again.

“It’s been a unique and very unprecedented time in our history,” Baltzley said. “I’ll be interested in seeing where the profession goes.”

Ellen Bausbeck - WUFT