Vet visits in Montgomery County looked very different during the pandemic

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Diana Schonfeld says she can’t imagine how she would have handled so much time in her small Bethesda apartment during the pandemic without the company of Rosie, her 9-year-old basset hound mix.

“Just having her there was a comfort,” say Schonfeld, who had a mild case of COVID-19 in February. She didn’t have the space to quarantine apart from Rosie, but she wasn’t too worried about passing the virus to her dog. Schonfeld did notice that Rosie was more cuddly than usual, seeming to sense that she didn’t feel well.

Early in the pandemic, Schonfeld took precautions to avoid getting infected with the coronavirus, and she kept her distance from other dog walkers while out with Rosie. Feeling badly about limiting Rosie’s opportunities to interact with other dogs, Schonfeld began taking her to a local animal day care once a week to socialize.

Now in its third year, the pandemic has impacted many aspects of pet care—from owners having to navigate interactions with others to the way that veterinarians are providing services. For veterinary practices, requiring owners to drop off their pets at the curb became the norm—even though the setup created communication challenges when owners weren’t allowed to be with their pets during examinations. And for the owners of animals facing serious health issues, trying to make end-of-life decisions or saying goodbye in unusual circumstances became even more difficult.

While the coronavirus can spread from people to animals during close contact, the risk of pets getting seriously ill is extremely rare—and the risk of animals spreading the virus to people is low, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I think there’s a lot of confusion” concerning the virus and pets, says Dr. Cathleen Ciampa, veterinarian and medical director at Kenwood Animal Hospital in Bethesda. “If a dog or cat has an upper respiratory infection, the first thing people are concerned about is COVID. But fortunately, we really haven’t seen it.”

During the pandemic, pet owners found that they often weren’t allowed into the veterinarian’s office because of safety protocols. A technician escorted the pet inside, and the veterinarian later called the owner to report the visit results. The pet was then returned to the owner, according to local practices.

Emma Basch of Chevy Chase, DC, received such curbside vet service at Kenwood for her 9-week-old goldendoodle, Luna, two weeks after adopting her in February 2021. “It was strange not to have a face in that experience,” says Basch, who didn’t meet Ciampa in person for several months. “It was a little hard to let someone else take your brand-new puppy out of the car and you can’t go in with them.”

Despite the “weird virtual veterinary medicine,” Basch says, “our dog turned into a lovely addition to our family after being a very crazy little puppy.”

For Lawrence Kotchek of Rockville, the revised office procedures only compounded the heart-wrenching ending for his beloved 9-year-old Labrador retriever, Ozzie. The dog stopped eating in March 2021, and tests revealed a ruptured cancerous tumor on his spleen. With no promising treatment options, Kotchek brought him to Friendship Hospital for Animals in Northwest Washington, DC, to be euthanized. Because of safety protocols, the procedure took place in a makeshift room behind a screen in the hospital’s parking lot
garage, he says.

“Unlike what I’ve dealt with in the past, where there’s at least a pleasant room with a couch where the dog is comfortable, it was basically just a black asphalt parking lot,” Kotchek says. “It was pretty awful.”

Friendship Hospital’s Dr. Christine Klippen says the situation was horrible for veterinarians as well, but they tried to be as accommodating as possible with the outdoor set-up that lasted from April 2020 through October 2021.

The rush to adopt dogs during the pandemic put even more pressure on vet practices, says Dr. Julie Augustine, a veterinarian at Montgomery Animal Hospital in Rockville. Some had trouble accommodating the demand for services and are now playing catch-up with
clients who fell behind on getting their pets’ vaccinations and lab work.

As the pandemic evolves, Ciampa says, it’s gratifying to look back on how pet owners responded. “We really see people caring for their pets and going above and beyond…to make sure that their furry family members are taken care of,” she says.

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