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Is telehealth for pets safe to use?

Online veterinary care can be helpful and convenient in times of need, but is it a safe option for your four-legged family members?

Updated August 26, 2021

Created By

Emily Johnson,

What is telehealth?

Telemedicine services have been recently growing in popularity, especially with the global pandemic, COVID-19. Here are a few common terms that are important to know in the online pet care space:

  • Telehealth is the overarching term that encompasses the use of technology in order to remotely deliver health information, education, or care to pet owners.
  • Telemedicine is the veterinary care provided remotely to a pet owner using technology, whether it be a phone call, a live video chat, or email. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), telemedicine may only be conducted using an existing veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR) that the patient must have established from in-person visits.
  • Teleadvice is the giving of any general pet health information, opinion, guidance, or recommendation to pet owners. This is general advice that is not intended to give a diagnosis or treat any medical condition.
  • Tele-triage is the assessment and management of pet patients via electronic consultation with pet owners. If treatment is needed, online vets can give owners a referral to an in-person local clinic.

How to choose a safe and reputable online vet

Choosing an online vet can be intimidating since you can’t get a face-to-face impression of the individual or the clinic. There are a few things to look for, however, when searching for an online vet to help narrow down your options:

  • Access to licensed veterinarians and/or experts
  • One or more ways to connect with a vet, whether with an app on your phone or using a computer (see if they offer 24/7 services)
  • Monthly or yearly subscriptions
  • Emergency funding
  • Any additional perks, like at-home lab testing, informational articles to browse, etc.
  • Make sure they’re located in your country

👉 Always check for reviews from pet owners who’ve used the service or platform before.

Risks of online vet care

Just like anything on the Internet, some online services can be misleading if you don’t know what to look for. With the convenience of using online vet care also comes the risks that you may not experience if you were in person with your vet:

  • Potential for misdiagnosis
  • More reliance on the owner’s interpretation
  • Lack of a physical examination
  • Difficult (or, in some states, illegal) to develop a VCPR
  • Potential for over-prescribing medications or lowering of medical standards
  • Unable to perform diagnostics
  • Risks of prescribing medications without a physical exam
  • Risk of fraud
  • Risk of pressure from clients pushing interventions
  • Not speaking to a DVM, but only a technician

Benefits of online vet care

Online vet care can be a great option for some people, like busy pet parents who might not have time during the day to take their pet to a clinic for a minor question. Some other benefits include:

  • Easier access to veterinary advice
  • Decreased load on veterinary clinics
  • Another income option for certified vets and techs
  • Vet advice for pets that may not be able to go into a clinic (location, pet’s temperament, etc.)
  • More affordable option for pet owners
  • Able to visualize (via video) animals’ behavior at home
  • Less stress for pets
  • Reassurance for owners to determine if their pet needs an in-person visit
  • Speed of access to a vet
  • Good for repeat/follow up exams

🚨 It’s important to note that we never recommend self-diagnosing your pet at home after reading online resources, ALWAYS consult with a vet if you’re concerned about your pet.

Purchasing prescriptions for your pets online

It’s recommended to always visit your pet’s primary vet in person for all needed prescriptions. While some online vets offer these services, we believe it’s best for your pet to see a licensed veterinarian face-to-face before being prescribed any medicines.

However, some pet parents choose to purchase their pet’s medications online. It’s incredibly important to only purchase medications for your pet from a reputable online company.  The FDA released a guide in 2010 with recommendations on how to safely order prescriptions online from reputable companies.

So, what do we think about telehealth for pets?

At betterpet, we believe that reputable online vet services are safe to use — but don’t rely on these services in emergency situations or for your pet’s annual checkups. For example, if you have a question about your dog’s diet or a small bump, your pet’s primary vet might not be able to see them for several weeks. In the meantime, you can use an online telehealth service to share your concerns about your animal with a certified veterinarian. Online vet care is a great addition to your current VCPR with your furry friend’s local vet.

A reputable online vet will also be able to give you advice on when to see your pet’s primary veterinarian. Some tele-triage companies will identify if your pet is indeed experiencing an emergency, and help you find the closest clinic. However, if you’re ever 100% certain that your pet is seriously ill or injured, always take them to an in-person vet or emergency clinic immediately.

“If I have a VCPR with someone, and they can't get in to see me right away (my clinic is booked out two weeks in advance), I can have them send an email with photos or video, and I can legally prescribe treatment based on telemed. But without a VCPR and in-person exam, big things can be missed!”

Dr. Erica Irish, DVM

👉 Companies like Pawp are great when emergencies arise because they will cover one-time emergency visits up to $3,000, for only $19/a month.

Want to use an online vet service but not sure where to start looking? First, read our guide on how online vets work, then check out our review of the best online vets that have been vetted by our team of veterinarians as great, safe options to use.