BRAINERD, Minn. -- COVID-19 not only has impacted people’s lives, but also our furry friends.

Veterinarians in the Brainerd lakes area have changed the way they do business to reduce the spread of the coronavirus by practicing social distancing all while treating animals.

Veterinarian clinics are practicing telemedicine and offering curbside services for pet owners.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Tuesday, March 24, it would provide flexibility across FDA-regulated industries by temporarily not enforcing certain requirements in order to allow veterinarians to better utilize telemedicine to address animal health needs during the pandemic.

Clinics in the area have already taken action to do their part in addressing the pandemic.

Dr. Deb Piepgras, veterinarian and owner of Lakeland Veterinary Hospital in Baxter, said they are taking things day to day as protocols are changing quickly and they’re constantly reevaluating how they’re doing things. Veterinarian clinics already have strict cleaning protocols in place, and now they are even more strict.

“There are always contagions,” Piepgras said. “We've always been really good about keeping everything clean, everything sanitized. But some of the things we didn't always worry about as much ... we started really bleaching and cleaning heavily things such as every door handle, every keypad, everything that people came into contact with.”

As COVID-19 began to spread quickly across the U.S., Lakeland implemented curbside services. Staff talk with pet owners on the phone to get details on what is going on with their pet, what services they need before they come to the clinic and the pet’s medical history. When people arrive in the parking lot a technician will meet them to collect the animal and bring the pet inside for an evaluation. They will not examine a pet in the vehicle.

Once a treatment option is determined the veterinarian will call the pet owner or go out to the parking lot to discuss options and get authorization to proceed. All medications and payments are done over the phone.

“Some pets don’t like to be taken away from their owners,” Piepgras said, and there are certain circumstances when the pet owner has to come inside the clinic with their pet. “We will still have clients come into the building, but we limit any contact time between them and any other people.”

If a person does come inside the clinic, they go straight to the exam room and stay in there until they are discharged.

Right now, veterinarian clinics are only doing essential health care, which includes emergencies such as a needed surgery that if not done right away could be detrimental to the animal’s health.

“Vaccines are really considered still pretty essential health care,” Piepgras said. “If an animal doesn't receive its Lyme vaccination and is left unprotected, it's still going to be going out going to the bathroom, going for walks, and put at risk. Same thing with rabies. Rabies is a human health risk and so we need to keep pets updated on that. Puppies who don't receive vaccinations can contract deadly viruses and infections. So at this point in time, we still feel that the preventative health care — getting your pet heartworm preventative and parasite preventative — is still key to keeping your pet healthy and hopefully keeping them out of the hospital from an illness.”

Services the clinics are not doing are elective surgeries such as spaying or neutering animals or cleaning their teeth as a routine appointment. If an animal has a dental disease or abscess tooth that needs extraction, it would be an essential surgery.

Dr. Deb Piepgras pets Autumn Rayne after an exam  with technician Kathy Holtti Tuesday, March 24, at the Lakeland Veterinary Hospital in Baxter. Precautions have been taken by the veterinary hospital to curtail the spread of COVID-19 by offering curb-side service and check-in for customers and their pets. Steve Kohls  /  Brainerd Dispatch
Dr. Deb Piepgras pets Autumn Rayne after an exam with technician Kathy Holtti Tuesday, March 24, at the Lakeland Veterinary Hospital in Baxter. Precautions have been taken by the veterinary hospital to curtail the spread of COVID-19 by offering curb-side service and check-in for customers and their pets. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Animal Care Center in Baxter is also practicing telemedicine and curbside services, where staff bring out prescriptions and food to clients.

“We'll come out and pick up your pet, we change leashes, we use brand new leashes to bring your pet indoors,” said Dr. Steven Rehnblom, veterinarian and practice manager at Animal Care Center. “The examination is done, treatments are done and communication is done through phone. Most clients wait here in the parking lot and then when we're done with the pet, we take them back out, and then we do payment over the phone with credit cards. ... Our doors are currently locked.”

Rehnblom said the changes in the way services are being offered has gone well and clients are on board with how it is done. Rehnblom said there are special circumstances where the pet owner needs to come into the building, such as it is an aggressive dog or the pet is being euthanized.

“We would take those pets in, we would just minimize exposure, try to keep social distance and protocols in place,” he said. “We are asking everybody that if they are ill to have a trusted neighbor, a friend, bring your pet in. ... We don't want you here if you're ill. But if your pet has a special circumstance and you need to be with your pet, or it's an end of life decision, we're certainly going to let those people come in.”

Dr. Katie Baratto, a veterinarian at the Garrison Animal Hospital and Wild and Free Wildlife Rehabilitation, said their clinic is 10 days ahead of most of the regulations the state is putting in place now. Baratto said they do a lot of public health training and a lot of initiatives on zoonotic diseases that go from animals to people.

The animal hospital is operating like the Baxter clinics — practicing telemedicine, curbside services, mailing medications and other supplies to pet owners, only offering essential services and doing more cleaning that usual. It also is practicing social distancing and saving supplies to be used for emergency type services.

The hospital is rescheduling most of its general appointments to be scheduled after April 15.

“Right now it is a wait and see how everything is going to go,” Baratto said. “It’s frustrating but it's what’s best for everyone right now.”

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Baratto said the Department of Health is sending out mandatory inventories and the clinic may have to give up their personal protective equipment to be used at hospitals that treat humans.

“That is what it may come down to and I mean our animals are important, but people are really the reason why we’re in this business because we care about them, too,” Baratto said.

As for services for Wild and Free Wildlife Rehabilitation — a nonprofit wildlife program that rescues, rehabilitates and releases orphaned and injured wildlife — the hospital is not having its volunteers help with transporting animals. If anyone has an injured wildlife animal they will have to bring it to the hospital and staff will take the animal in the parking lot. Last year, Wild and Free took in 700 wildlife animals.

According to the Brainerd Animal Hospital’s website, it also is expanding its precautions to keep staff and clients safe and healthy, while continuing to provide medical care. It is practicing curbside services and telemedicine.

Pets are safe

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not received any reports of pets or other animals becoming sick with COVID-19. Further studies are needed to understand if and how different animals could be affected by COVID-19.

Some coronaviruses that infect animals have become able to infect humans and then spread between people, but this is rare, the CDC reports. Severe acute respiratory syndrome and Middle East respiratory syndrome are examples of diseases caused by coronaviruses that originated in animals and spread to people. This is what is suspected to have happened with the virus that caused the current outbreak of COVID-19. However, the CDC does not know the exact source of this virus.

In the U.S., there is no evidence to suggest that any animals, including pets, livestock, or wildlife, might be a source of COVID-19 infection at this time. However, because all animals can carry germs that can make people sick, it’s always a good idea to practice healthy habits around pets and other animals.

  • Wash your hands after handling animals, their food, waste, or supplies.

  • Practice good pet hygiene and clean up after pets properly.

  • Take pets to the veterinarian regularly and talk to your veterinarian if you have questions about your pet’s health.

If a person is sick with COVID-19, they should restrict contact with pets and other animals, just like they would around other people. Although there have not been reports of pets or other animals becoming sick with COVID-19, it is still recommended that people sick with COVID-19 limit contact with animals until more information is known about the virus, the CDC reports.

When possible, have another member of your household care for your animals while you are sick. Avoid contact with your pet, including petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked and sharing food. If you must care for your pet or be around animals while you are sick, wash your hands before and after you interact with them.

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