Is telemedicine the answer to anxious pet prayers? For the pet that hates visiting the vet, telemedicine may offer a stress-free alternative. Whilst this new branch of medicine has flaws and isn’t suitable for all cases, for some distance medicine has a real benefit.
What is Telemedicine?
The definition of telemedicine is: “The remote diagnosis and treatment of patients using telecommunications.” Telemedicine is a rising trend in human medicine, especially for those living in remote areas or time-poor people who can’t take time off to visit a physician. And it’s on the rise for pets.
Pets Aren’t People
But pets aren’t people and therein lays a big problem: Pets can’t talk. Obvious as it sounds, this is a crucial point. Whereas a person can describe whether the pain is sharp or dull, constant or intermittent, your pet can’t. A person tells the physician where it hurts, whereas a vet determines this with a hands-on physical exam. So let’s get the disadvantages out of the way so we can concentrate on the positives.
The Downside of Telemedicine for Pets
First, let’s be clear that your vet and you both want the same thing, which is to make an accurate diagnosis and give the pet the most appropriate treatment. However, in some cases, telemedicine may not give the vet all the information necessary to do this. Here’s why:
Touch, Sight, Sound, and Smell
During a physical exam in the consulting room, the vet uses all her senses. Vets palpate the pet’s tummy, feeling for localized pain or gas build-up. They smell the dog’s ears, mouth, or coat, to gain clues as to what the problem is. They assess how the cat reacts when the hip is extended in a certain direction. They listen to the heart sounds, alert for a murmur or a strange rhythm. In short, there’s much more to a physical exam than taking a patient history from the owner.
Have you ever seen a movie with a twist in the story because of an ‘unreliable narrator’? The latter is a person who gives biased or incorrect information, based on their interpretation of events. With the best will in the world, many extremely caring owners are the pet equivalent of an ‘unreliable narrator.’ Take a straining cat for example. An owner sees their cat straining in the litter tray and concludes the cat is constipated because of a lack of poop. Cue a telemedicine consult where the owner says, “My cat is constipated.” The owner is convinced (wrongly) the problem is constipation and gives the vet this information as gospel. But this is misleading because the cat is actually straining because they have a blocked bladder… or they may even have diarrhea and the empty gut is so inflamed the cat thinks there’s something to pass and strains. The point is, that owners may jump to conclusions that color the way they describe the symptoms, which has the potential to send the vet thinking off in the wrong direction.
The Legal Aspect
Laws governing the treatment of animals state: “A veterinarian-client-patient relationship cannot be established solely by telephonic or other electronic means.” In other words, it is a legal requirement that a vet physically examines the pet, at least in the first instance. This helps to safeguard the pet from misdiagnosis, based on lack of information. But once that diagnosis is made, telemedicine may have a place, especially for anxious animals assisted by the wonders of wearable technology.
The Benefits of Telemedicine
Let’s say your dog is diagnosed with early-stage heart failure. The vet wants to follow up and see how the meds are helping. However, your dog hates the vet clinic. He shakes, his pants, and generally gets into a state of high anxiety as soon as you enter the waiting room. This pushes his heart rate through the roof, making it difficult for the vet to accurately assess his heart rate and rhythm. Enter telemedicine!
When that same dog is using wearable technology, such as a PetPace collar, all his vital signs are monitored whilst he’s relaxed at home. This gives a far more accurate reflection of the state of his circulation than is obtained during a high-stress vet visit. The ideal partner for telemedicine is a PetPace collar. So comfortable to wear the dog is unaware of it, the collar tracks all the dog’s vital signs including:
- Heart rate and rhythm
- Respiratory rate
- Activity levels
- HRV (Heart Rate Variability)
This is displayed both in real-time on the PetPace app and recorded for future reference. Indeed, PetPace is clever enough to detect variations from the normal pattern and send an alert to the owner. All this information can be accessed by the owner, who can forward the data to the consulting vet. Better still; the traces allow the vet to see how the heart responds when the pet is at rest or exercising, giving vital clues as to the effectiveness of treatment. Thus, telemedicine and monitoring of a patient remotely become not only convenient but truly beneficial to the patient.
The Best Use of Telemedicine
There is a right and a wrong way to use telemedicine. The law is quite clear that telemedicine should only be used as part of an existing patient-vet relationship. In most cases telemedicine only becomes an option once a firm diagnosis is made, to assess a response to treatment. In other words, it’s best to think of telemedicine as a tool, rather than a standalone option. However, and this is the really exciting part, for some pets the use of wearable technology married with telemedicine can save them significant stress AND improve treatment.
- Monitoring of stable patients on long-term meds
- Heart patients
- Patients recovering from surgery
- Elderly pets
- Pets with long-term conditions
- Anxious pets
An Interesting Observation
If you’re still struggling with the concept of telemedicine, know this: Vets use it all the time to confer with specialist colleagues! Yes, that’s right. When a vet has a query about a patient’s test results, radiographs, or other imaging, it’s highly likely they use telemedicine to get the expert opinion of a specialist. Whether it’s emailing a radiograph or chatting on the phone…this all counts as telemedicine. Interesting!
Telemedicine and Your Pet
Telemedicine is never going to replace the hands-on approach of a vet, but it is a great tool. This is especially true when paired with the data stored by a PetPace collar. Truly, this combination represents a quantum leap forward in the monitoring and treatment of ongoing cases, especially those pets that get anxious at the vet clinic. Certainly food for thought!