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Humans on the outside, looking in as Upper Valley veterinarians adapt to virus restrictions

  • Veterinarian Gracey Welsh speaks with Jesse Bacon, of Rockingham, Vt., after a preliminary examination of his dog Bruiser outside the SAVES clinic in Lebanon, N.H., on March 27, 2020. Bruiser had intestinal surgery the week before and was back for a check. The clinic returned to 24/7 operation on Monday to give relief to other clinics whose hours might be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Kevin Shee, of West Lebanon, N.H., holds his 14-week-old Dachshund Loki after the dog's checkup at the Hanover Veterinary Clinic on Thursday, March 26, 2020, in Hanover, N.H. Wearing protective gear, veterinary technician Wendy Nelson picked the dog up outside the clinic, then returned him to Shee after the exam. The next day, Shee flew with Loki to California where he is moving. "The vet clinic has been amazing," Shee said, helping him with travel papers and the dog's vaccinations. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • SAVES veterinary clinic in Lebanon, N.H., returned to 24/7 operation on March 23 to give relief to other clinics whose hours might be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. At SAVES, customers fill out paperwork on their smartphones and hand off their pets in the parking lot. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 3/27/2020 10:47:42 PM
Modified: 3/28/2020 9:51:34 PM

Most experts believe that dogs and cats cannot contract COVID-19, but the pandemic is nonetheless making it harder for pet owners seeking to make a routine appointment for Fluffy or Fido with the veterinarian.

Upper Valley veterinary practices are curtailing their hours, cutting back non-urgent medical services and instituting safety protocols such as curbside drop-off and pickup of pets at clinics in order to reduce the possibility of transmitting the novel coronavirus between people.

The measures mean that pet owners have to wait for an indefinite amount of time before a veterinarian or vet tech is available for routine consultations and procedures.

But the restrictions have also led one veterinary clinic to expand its hours and to hire additional staff to respond to the crisis: SAVES, the emergency veterinary clinic that was open 24/7 until 10 months ago when it cut back hours, on Monday returned to around-the-clock care.

Because of COVID-19 “a lot of our referring practices have been closing earlier, so to help them and our clients we are going back to 24/7,” said Claudia Peach, hospital services manager of Ethos Veterinary Health in Woburn, Mass., which owns SAVES.

“With everything going on in the world we wanted to be a little more supportive,” said Peach, who manages the Lebanon SAVES clinic.

SAVES, like other Upper Valley veterinary clinics, has instituted “curbside” drop-off and pickup for pet owner when they arrive at the SAVES location across from Lebanon High School on Evans Drive. SAVES is employing per diem vets and tech workers until it hires an additional full-time veterinarian to handle what it expects to be a greater caseload as a result of the expanded hours.

Other vet clinics are adapting their practices differently with some curbing a few services while others are cutting back sharply.

“We’ve gone to limited service or emergency care only,” said Wendy Nelson, a vet tech and practice manager at Hanover Veterinary Clinic, which has introduced what it calls “curbside concierge service” for clients and also cut its hours.

The clinic is postponing “anything that is non-life-threatening,” according to Nelson.

“Any elective surgery we’ve put on hold. We are only (treating) things that are detrimental to a pet’s quality of life,” she said.

Nelson explained that staff members are meeting people with their pets in the parking lot and are wearing protective gear, including gowns, gloves and masks “when we greet or handle pets.”

“If treatment can be done in the open air, we do it,” she said.

Other clinics, such as Animal Medical Center of the Upper Valley, are keeping regular hours but have instituted a strict protocol when meeting clients, handling pets and preparing examination rooms, according to Dr. Charlie Hutchinson, the veterinarian who owns the Etna Road clinic and boarding facility.

Staff members call ahead to pet owners the day before their appointment to assess whether the owner falls into a “high risk” category, which Hutchinson defines as someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, who has been exposed to someone who has or who works in an infection-heavy environment such as hospital patient care. Those clients are met in the parking lot and, along with pets, are taken into a “quarantine area” through a side entrance instead of the front lobby.

“For people not in those groups we are still performing routine procedures,” Hutchinson said. “But we’re being mindful of social distancing and not getting too close to people. We don’t allow them to hold their own animals while we examine them.”

Fewer appointments can be booked because more time is required to disinfect the examination rooms between consultations, he said, which involves wiping down counters, door knobs, counter tops and computer screens.

“We’ve had some pushback, people saying it’s overkill,” Hutchinson said. “Fine, you’re entitled to your opinion, but you’re not coming into the building. I have a staff to protect.”

A post on the Upper Valley Facebook page soliciting pet owners to share their experiences with veterinary appointments generated more than 40 comments within a few hours on Tuesday, nearly all of them positive, with people giving shoutouts to such vet clinics as Veremedy Pet Hospital in White River Junction; Claremont Animal Hospital in Claremont; Riverbend Veterinary Clinic in Plainfield; Oxbow Veterinary Clinic in Bradford, Vt.; Sugar River Animal Hospital in Grantham; and Stonecliff Veterinary Clinic and Stoney Brook Veterinary Hospital in Lebanon for adapting their practices to accommodate clients.

“It was not a good experience for the cat but it was a good experience for me,” said Grantham resident Karen Neumann as she was driving home after an appointment from Stoney Brook Veterinary Hospital with her 5-year-old tabby Henry loudly meowing from inside his carrier. She said Stoney Brook staff met her in the parking lot, brought Henry inside “for some shots and a wellness visit” and returned with him less than 30 minutes later.

“It’s definitely more work on their part,” Neumann said. “But I could stay in my car and it felt safe.”

At River Road Veterinary Clinic in Norwich, vet tech Christine Whiteside was on double duty answering phones on Tuesday but she said “we’ve basically shut down except for emergencies. No routine appointments” since March 19.

But that doesn’t mean they haven’t been busy, Whiteside said: River Road had 17 emergency visits over four days, including nine on Monday. Routine appointments, such as vaccinations, spaying and neutering, are going on a list to call when they think it’s safe to return to normal. As of Tuesday afternoon, the list was 4½ pages with 16 appointments on each page.

“They either had appointments or wanted appointments,” she said.

People who work in the pet care industry are also seeing their livelihoods dramatically affected by the coronavirus.

Kanga Break, of West Lebanon, who started her dog walking and pet sitting service Upper Valley Pet Care last year — she describes her service “like a pet nanny” — said “my business has taken a huge hit with people not working or not traveling and staying at home.”

She said about the only clients she has maintained are those who work at Dartmouth-Hitchcock or in “essential services,” but her overnight pet sitting business, “which is most of my income,” has dried up.

“Pet sitters don’t make money when people are sitting at home,” Break said.

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.




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