Caption: Maine veterinary hospitals are making some major changes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Micky Bedell

In an effort to remain open, Maine veterinary hospitals are making some major changes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They are also banding together to ensure that around-the-clock emergency care continues to be available to pet owners throughout the state.

“We can still be here for your pets,” said Ai Takeuchi, veterinarian at Lucerne Veterinary Hospital in Dedham. “But if we get exposed [to COVID-19], we’re going to need to shut down.”

To reduce their exposure to the virus, many veterinary hospitals have recently made the decision to “go curbside,” Takeuchi said. This means that pet owners are not allowed inside of the buildings. Instead, pet owners remain inside their vehicles in the parking lot, and pets are brought inside by hospital staff. Communication is done by phone or through a cracked vehicle window.

“We’re minimizing the human contact and keeping the hospital employees as healthy as possible,” Takeuchi said.

In addition, some veterinary hospitals are recommending that payment be done over the phone or by credit cards, which can easily be sanitized.

Also, prior to traveling to any veterinary hospital — whether it’s for an emergency or scheduled appointment — veterinarians are asking that you call ahead. That way, they can let you know about their current protocols and evaluate whether or not your pet needs to visit during this time. In some cases, appointments can be postponed until after the threat of COVID-19 is over. Veterinarians may be able to diagnose a pet over the phone or using photos, and it can be arranged for medication and instructions to be picked up in the clinic’s parking lot.

Veterinarians are also asking that pet owners, prior to visiting veterinary hospitals, notify staff if anyone in their household is diagnosed with COVID-19 or experiencing symptoms of the disease. That way they know to take extra precautions around you and your pet. They may additionally recommend that those who are sick with COVID-19 limit interactions with their pets.

“Everybody has a different protocol because we’re all small businesses, if you think about it,” Takeuchi said. “There’s no overarching management [for Maine’s veterinary hospitals], but there are general recommendations from the American Veterinary Medical Association.”

Some veterinary clinics, including the North Country Animal Hospital in Caribou, have recently announced that they will be open for urgent and emergency care only, canceling all non-essential appointments until further notice. This includes routine annual exams, vaccinations and elective surgeries such as spays, neuters and dental cleanings.

Other veterinary hospitals, such as Camden Hospital for Animals, have yet to take such drastic measures.

“We’re advising one [pet owner] coming in at a time with a pet, but we are allowing them into the building,” said Sharon Bettney, veterinarian at The Camden Hospital for Animals. “If the client chooses not to come in, that’s absolutely fine.”

While that’s how the Camden veterinary hospital is operating right now, the facility’s small staff is constantly discussing what changes in protocol should be made as COVID-19 spreads.

“We’re really taking it day by day,” Bettney said. “We don’t want to shut it down. We’re considered essential. There’s no emergency day clinic in the area, so we have to see emergencies. In the future we may need to shut down our routine appointments and let animals lapse on their vaccines a little bit, let things settle down and only be available for emergencies. That’s something we’ve been discussing and we’ll see how things progress.”

Medical supply shortages may impact veterinary care

In addition to enforcing new protocols in how they treat pets, veterinary hospitals are taking measures to ration certain medical supplies that because of the pandemic are sold out or may become unavailable in the near future.

“It’s just like the toilet paper situation,” said Takeuchi. “Right now, you can’t order [face] masks, you can’t order certain gloves, and already most places have run out of alcohol, which is part of the protocol for cleaning the skin for blood draws and surgery.”

Because of this, veterinarians may start postponing surgeries and other medical procedures for conditions that are not life threatening.

“Most animal hospitals are prioritizing emergency surgeries and cancer surgeries,” said Takeuchi. “We’re trying to look at the big picture and be prepared.”

The Camden Hospital for Animals has a good amount of medical supplies right now, Bettney said. Being a small clinic, they don’t need as many supplies as larger clinics. But whether those supplies last will depend on how long the coronavirus persists and how many people it affects.

“We’re trying to be optimistic that it won’t be months-long that we’re going to have this crisis,” Bettney said. “We also don’t want to be a part of the issue of hoarding a bunch of equipment that other places could probably use more than us.”

How to deal with a pet emergency during the pandemic

Most veterinary hospitals are open during specific hours on weekdays. If your pet becomes injured or sick during that time, call the veterinary hospital that you typically go to for check-ups and other treatments. Or, if it’s an emergency and there’s a closer veterinary hospital to your location, you could give that hospital a call.

In addition, Maine is home to five emergency care veterinary hospitals, which serve as places pets can go for emergency treatment if their typical veterinary hospital is closed — for example, on weeknights, weekends and major holidays.

These emergency veterinary hospitals are:

Portland Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Care in Portland, open 24/7

Maine Veterinary Medical Center Emergency and Specialty Hospital in Scarborough, open 24/7

Animal Emergency Clinic of Mid-Maine in Lewison, open weeknights and weekends

Midcoast Animal Emergency Clinic in Warren, open weeknights and weekends

Eastern Maine Emergency Veterinary Clinic in Brewer, open weeknights and weekends

What happens if one of those emergency hospitals is forced to close due to the coronavirus?

That very thing almost happened on March 16, when Eastern Maine Emergency Veterinary Clinic in Brewer — the only emergency veterinary clinic for all of eastern and northern Maine — learned that their staff had been exposed to a person who could potentially have COVID-19. It turned out to be a false alarm.

Several staff members self-quarantined and the center remained open on a limited schedule with a skeleton crew until the negative test result was returned.

If the hospital had been forced to completely shut down, Takeuchi said that the board has a backup plan to continue to provide 24/7 emergency veterinary care in the area. The plan will include the participation of local veterinary clinics and their staff, she added.

“We do have a plan for emergency care, even if that building has to shut down or the whole staff gets exposed to the virus,” Takeuchi said. “We’ll do our best to make sure that availability of veterinary medical care doesn’t change.”

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...