Washington State University Veterinarian Katie Kuehl wants to make sure the animals of people facing homelessness in Seattle don’t go without care during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Via a phone call or through a computer screen, Kuehl is providing care to pet owners while following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social distancing guidelines.
It’s known as veterinary telehealth, and for pet owners and veterinarians it’s the safest option.
“We want to improve access to veterinary care during a time people have been instructed to avoid social contact. Veterinary telehealth is a way for us to provide a safety net for pet owners and get to the animals who need us most,” said Kuehl, a WSU veterinary instructor who oversees WSU’s fourth-year veterinary student rotation at Seattle Humane.
Kuehl has spent the past two weeks providing veterinary care from home to clients who previously visited WSU’s One Health Clinic in Seattle — a space where people experiencing homelessness with companion animals receive simultaneous medical and veterinary care.
The clinic is made possible through a partnership with WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, the University of Washington Center for One Health Research, New Horizon’s and primary health care provider Neighborcare Health.
Kuehl’s salary is funded by PetSmart Charities, a nonprofit that specializes in saving the lives of homeless pets.
Due to COVID-19, the clinic has temporarily ceased in-person operations. Now, Kuehl and administrative assistant Courtney Stanley are taking to the phone and computer to keep animals who may need care the most from falling through the cracks. Kuehl notes reaching the clients can be difficult, as many may not have phones, data, or a computer.
Skin conditions, anxiety, and regular clients seeking prescription refills, Kuehl has handled these types of requests and more from her home office. She said most of her interactions with clients were by phone and involved her receiving photos of the animal. Others were video calls.
“I hate to think of people who may not be able to care for their companion during this time,” she said. “Just by letting the owner know they can receive care, we can bring peace of mind in at least one aspect of their life.”
Kuehl isn’t stopping there.
The One Health Clinic is not the only free veterinary care for people experiencing homelessness or who are low-income that is closed for the foreseeable future in Seattle. Doney Coe Pet Clinic, where Kuehl and fourth-year veterinary students offered care twice per month for this population, is also closed for in-person visits.
“We anticipate with the unemployment and loss of income, the need for services for those experiencing homeless will increase dramatically,” Kuehl said. “If awarded, the ASPCA grant funding will help strategize how to provide that care.”
The One Health Clinic, Doney Coe Pet Clinic and Seattle Dogs Homeless Program are working together to find solutions to offer care in Seattle. Using telehealth, Kuehl and the team of volunteer veterinarians and licensed veterinary technicians from Doney Coe Pet Clinic are offering care for existing patients who are experiencing homelessness or are low-income. For emergency care, local veterinary clinics have agreed to offer discounts to clients of the partnership.
Between the three organizations, over 1,500 patients in the community can be offered care. The hope is the animals will stay with their owners and provide emotional stability during this heightened time of turmoil.
Back in Pullman, Veterinary Internal Medicine Specialist Sarah Guess has also taken to the phone.
Dr. Guess is working with referring veterinarians and patient support service representatives at the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital to ensure clients receive specialty care for their animals. She also advises some of the doctors staffing the hospital.
“It’s important we keep as few people in the hospital as we can but still continue to provide the quality veterinary care we’re known to provide,” Guess said.
Kuehl, Guess, and a handful of other specialists at the hospital are providing telehealth, but that could change soon.
While Washington state law prohibits veterinarians from establishing a veterinary-client-patient relationship by telephone or other electronic means, last week the Washington State Veterinary Board of Governors agreed to relax that rule as part of an emergency ruling. Once the ruling takes effect veterinarians will able to reach new clients electronically.
Kuehl was one of many veterinarians who wrote letters to the Board.
“Now more than ever, the human-animal bond is vital,” Kuehl said. “We as veterinarians need to be able to reach the animals, and if we can avoid it, why put our clients or ourselves at risk?”
- Laura Lockard, WSU College of Veterinary Medicine, 206-861-6884, firstname.lastname@example.org