Trends in Veterinary Telehealth
Telehealth is booming in the pet industry.
A slew of startups are rushing to disrupt the way veterinary care is delivered to pets.
But first, a definition. Teleheath is the use of technology to provide remote delivery of vet services including health information and pet care. Picture an app on your phone that allows you to be connected to a veterinarian with one click. The vet then views your dog or cat through the phone’s camera, makes a diagnosis, and determines the next steps. The related term telemedicine has a more narrow definition suggesting the remote delivery of medicine by a licensed practitioner, but the two terms are often used interchangeably.
Proponents of telehealth boast that the technology can save pet owners both time and money. Does that spot on Fido really require an in-person visit to the vet’s office? No worry, just fire up an app and your virtual vet will tell you if things look serious.
The veterinary industry is hoping that telehealth will help them reach more customers. More than 27% percent of pet-owning households don’t visit the vet in a typical year. Reasons vary from thinking the trip is too much of a hassle, not enough time or money, or resistance from their pet (cats hate the vet!) Telemedicine aims to solve these problems and get more pet owners to engage with a vet professional.
Companies involved in veterinary telehealth can generally be divided into two groups with different business models: 1) Direct to Consumer and 2) Business to Business.
Direct to Consumer
Several startups aim to replace pet owners’ visits to their local veterinary clinic with care from the startups’ online vets. If the pet problem looks serious, the company may offer an at-home visit or a referral to a partner with a physical location. But their primary service is providing online pet care.
A big challenge for these direct to consumer companies are state restrictions on what vets can do online. Most states require that a vet examine a pet in person before they can diagnose, treat or prescribe medicine. The personal examination creates what is referred to as a veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR.) Thus, a vet cannot run a robust online-only practice. Unless the vet is willing to offer merely basic advice, typically referred to as triage, they need to physically inspect the pet at some point.
Vet industry groups claim that the VCPR protects consumers and their pets by ensuring a high level of care. While this is probably true, it also limits pet owners options when it comes to selecting care providers.
|Fuzzy Pet Health||On-demand video telehealth with Fuzzy vet professionals; in home vet visits also available||US|
|whiskerDocs||On-demand phone, chat and email with their vet experts. They also offer monthly subscription plans.||US|
|PetCoach||Free online advice from PetCo vet experts. Users can also upgrade to a paid plan that includes veterinary visits and extra benefits. Owned by Petco.||US|
|Instavet||At home vet visits. Online chat available.||US|
|Modern Animal||Text, phone and video chat for members||US|
|Small Door Vet||24/7 telehealth for members||US|
|Pawsquad||On-demand telehealth; in home vet visits also available||UK|
|FirstVet||On-demand video telehealth; will refer to a clinic if necessary||Sweden|
|Barkibu||Free online advice from pet experts. Quicker answers for a fee||Spain|
|VetChat||On-demand video, phone and chat with vets||Australia|
|Nuzzl||Scheduled video telehealth service||Australia|
|GoFetch Health||24/7 chat or phone call with vets||Canada|
Disrupting the pet health market is tough. Vetted and VetPronto both tried and failed to create an on-demand at home vet service. Vetted raised $3.5 million and shut down in February 2020 after acquiring the struggling Vetpronto in 2017. Similarly, BarkCare, an on-demand vet service from the folks at BarkBox, shut down after 18 months of operation.
Modern Animal and Small Door Vet have a more expansive business model. In addition to offering telehealth, the companies both plan to build a network of physical vet clinics. They are also creating a subscription vet service, where members pay a monthly fee instead of the typical pay-per-visit model.
Business to Business
A second group of pet telehealth startups are not looking to compete with existing vet practices like the companies outlined above. Rather, this group hopes to partner with veterinarians and help them offer telehealth services to their customers. These startups are more like technology partners trying to bring new tools to the veterinary community. They see an opportunity to connect 33,000 vet clinics with 160 million pet owners. (And those numbers are just for the US pet market.)
|Airvet||Yes||Yes||Yes||Triage support when vet is unavailable||Los Angles, CA|
|Anipanion||Yes||Yes||Yes||San Diego, CA|
|Activ4pets||Yes||Yes||Yes||Triage for pet owners also offered by Active4pets team||Miami, FL|
|Medici||Yes||For some plans||Yes||Not just for vets – it’s telehealth platform is used by doctors for humans too||Austin, TX|
|PetsApp (Gula)||Yes||Yes||Yes||London, England|
|TeleVet||Yes||Yes||Yes||Pet owners can send in virtual consultations for their vet to review||Austin, TX|
|VirtuWoof||Yes||Yes||Yes||St Paul, MN|
In addition to providing a technology platform for vets, AirVet and PetsApp offer triage pet care to pet owners as a form of after hours assistance when the primary vet is unavailable. As noted above, triage care is where there is no VCPR in place, so the scope of care is limited.
Impact of Coronavirus (COVID – 19) on Veterinary Telemedicine
Weak sauce from the feds. Claiming a need to help veterinarians provide care for pets during the Coronavirus pandemic, in March 2020 the US FDA temporarily lifted some of its requirements regarding the use of telemedicine during the crisis. Specifically, the agency will not enforce the animal examination and premises visitation portion of the VCPR requirements governing extralabel drug use in animals and veterinary feed directive drugs.
This action may be helpful for food animal producers, but it does nothing to help local vets provide telemedicine care to dogs and cats. As is typical from the US government, this action seems designed to help big business with their animal problems with no thought given to everyday pet owners or neighborhood vet clinics.