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Ontario declares veterinary practices, pet food stores essential services

Veterinary professionals breathe a sigh of relief in wake of province-wide shutdowns

Ontario’s pets will continue to receive veterinary care, following the province’s decision to include animal health and welfare businesses on the list of essential services to remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is welcome news, says Doug Raven, CEO of the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association (OVMA), which lobbied the province’s solicitor general, as well as the ministry of agriculture, food and rural affairs to issue the designation. Retailers and wholesalers of pet food and supplies have also been declared essential.

The announcement is a huge win for animal health and welfare, but it almost didn’t happen.

“We were aware veterinary services were not on the list of official essential services under provincial legislation,” Raven tells Veterinary Practice News Canada (VPC). “So when this thing started to build, we [reached out] to senior people at the province to alert them to not forget the veterinary sector, which often does get forgotten when these kinds of decisions are made.”

Raven says he received no pushback from the province to make the essential services declaration. “The response was, ‘Thanks for calling us. Yes, we might well have forgotten.’”

The designation gives hope to veterinary services in other jurisdictions, including those south of the border. “I’ve shared my experiences with colleagues across the continent to help others in their lobbying efforts with their state governments to say, ‘Here are the jurisdictions that have already declared veterinary services to be essential,’” Raven says. “We are hoping that will snowball across Canada and the United States.”

A significant spike in the number of COVID-19 cases in Ontario in the last few days spurred Premier Doug Ford to shut down non-essential businesses across the province as of midnight tonight in the hope of flattening the curve. The order is in effect for 14 days, but an extension has not been ruled out.

Lisa Milan, practice manager at Dundas West Animal Hospital in Toronto, says the province’s declaration of veterinary clinics and pet food stores as essential services provides “a huge sigh of relief.”

“We were all holding our breath waiting for the response,” she tells VPC. “Clinics from all over were messaging each other asking what’s going to happen if we all have to close.”

While the essential services designation allows clinics and pet food stores to remain open, Milan says it also reinforces within the veterinary industry the need to practice social distancing and other methods advised by health officials to contain the spread of COVID-19.

“We need to keep our staff as safe as possible,” she says. “The worst thing that could happen is you’ll have to close the business, and this is now on you and not the government as to whether it deemed us to be open or not.”

To prevent infection at Dundas West, staff members have been taking their temperature upon arrival and filling out a questionnaire about their social distancing habits. And when they go home, they self-isolate.

“We need to do the right thing as professionals and as medical businesses,” she adds. “We should be setting the standard for other businesses when they re-open as to how they can continue to operate and do it in the safest way possible.”

Raven says he expects to see significant growth in the use of home delivery services for food and non-medical supplies, as well as telemedicine.

“Veterinary practices will be doing a lot more consultations with clients either over the phone or by text or by video, and only doing a face-to-face if there is no alternative,” he says.

Milan agrees, adding Dundas West has been using Facetime and shared videos and photos, but will be moving to a formalized telemedicine platform. In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, the College of Veterinarians of Ontario (CVO) announced it was relaxing its rules regarding telemedicine and the veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR).

The pandemic has taken the normalcy out of the day-to-day, Milan says.

“Whatever you’re thinking today, try to go two days forward. A week ago, I could not have imagined being where we are right now in terms of running our business. It literally was changing by the hour last week, and now it’s changing by the day. We will make tweaks to keep staff safe and to protect the business, which means we can continue to help pets.”

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