A poodle waits to go into EMMAvet in Alexandria, Virginia. (Deborah Block/VOA)
A poodle waits to go into EMMAvet in Alexandria, Virginia. (Deborah Block/VOA)

ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA - Harriet Lankford steps out of her car with her dog at Belle Haven Animal Medical Centre in Alexandria, Virginia.  Instead of taking her pup into the veterinary clinic, she stands by her vehicle looking a little confused as to what to do next.  Soon, receptionist Rose Gonzales comes out wearing a medical mask and gloves and escorts the pet inside for a routine examination.  

Like grocery stores and restaurants, veterinary practices in the United States, including Belle Haven, recently began using a pet “curbside service” for safety measures during the COVID-19 pandemic.

An employee comforts a dog at Belle Haven Animal Medical Centre in Alexandria, Virginia. (Courtesy - R. Gonzales/Belle Haven Animal Medical Centre)

“We want to be here for the animals but we need to do it in a way that keeps both our staff and clients healthy” by keeping the pet owners out of the building, explained hospital administrator Danielle Gallagher. She said before the curbside services, some clients were hesitant about being in the waiting room.

Lankford called this new normal a “necessary adjustment” as she remained in her car waiting for the veterinarian to call her with the results and to pay over the phone with a credit card before her dog is returned to her.

Virginia is among the states that have issued a stay-at-home order with exceptions that include people who take care of animals. About 85 million Americans, some 70% of households, have pets.

“I am grateful to the animal hospitals," Lankford said, “because animals still get sick and they’re a big part of our family, and if they were shut down it would be disastrous.”  

Pamela Wyville, another customer, is “thrilled Belle Haven is still open while respecting social distancing because we love our animals and want them to get good health care.”

In Arlington, Virginia, Caring Hands Animal Hospital veterinarian and medical director, Michael Robinson, said “as precautions against the coronavirus got ramped up, we asked clients to stay outside to minimize human contact," which led to curbside services.

“It’s allowed the staff to feel more secure and minimize their fears they might be at risk,” he clarified.  "It’s also helped the clients by letting them know they don’t have to hesitate bringing in their pet.”   

And that includes puppies. “We’ve been seeing an increase in the number of puppies,” he said, “and I wonder if during this period of social isolation, people think it’s a good time to get a puppy.”

EMMAvet owner and veterinarian Veronica Jarvinen is seen with one of per 'patients.' (Courtesy - EMMAvet)

Curbside check-in at EMMAvet in Alexandria, Virginia, has meant changes in the “entire veterinary experience” said veterinarian-owner Veronica Jarvinen.  “While the urgent care service is the same, I miss talking to people in person and offering them a cup of coffee while they wait,” she said. "Now they’re stuck in their cars or sitting on a bench near the front door worrying about their pets.”

Besides phone calls, she is also using telemedicine to communicate with established clients through videoconferencing for things like a minor foot injury to a dog or cat. But she added that without seeing the patient in person, it has limitations.  

Robinson said he is often asked if COVID-19 can be transmitted from a human to companion animal and vice versa.  He explains that supporting evidence indicates it is not possible but recommends following medical guidelines that encourage people who think they have the virus to distance themselves from their pets.

But now Robinson and other veterinarians are waiting to see what the next guidelines may be since COVID-19 has infected a tiger and likely other tigers and lions at the Bronx Zoo in New York that probably came from a zoo employee.

Despite the epidemic increasing in Virginia and elsewhere in the U.S., Jarvinen and Robinson said they will do whatever they can to remain open.

“I can’t imagine not being here to help dogs and cats during this pandemic,” said Jarvinen. “I swore an oath just like a human doctor to care for and protect animals,” Robinson added. “So even when a pandemic hits, I still uphold the oath.”