Telehealth for pets: advocates, experts split on expansion of veterinary video-chats


Rep. Laurie Pohutsky’s cat Delilah has used telehealth services. Image: Courtesy photo

By Alex Walters

Delilah, the 13-year-old cat of Rep. Laurie Pohutsky, D-Livonia, had to visit a veterinarian every time it got a respiratory infection.

That is, until emergency orders by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer during the COVID-19 pandemic allowed a broad expansion of veterinary telehealth, where owners and pets see their vets through video calls.

The appointments were easy. Pohutsky didn’t have to take her cat to the vet’s office each time she needed another course of antibiotics for its chronic infections, she said.

Those emergency orders expired, limiting the use of telehealth once again. A pending bill that Pohutsky sponsors would reverse that.

Rep. Laurie Pohutsky, D-Livonia, is sponsoring legislation to allow veterinarians to use telehealth. Image: House of Representatives

“There was a lot of expansion of telehealth through COVID that we found really beneficial,” she said. “Obviously, it’s a little complicated with animals because they can’t talk.”

“Communication is an issue, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon it,” Pohutsky said.

Currently, vets can employ telehealth only if they’ve established a “client-patient relationship” with prior in-person appointments.

Pohutsky’s bill would change that, allowing vets to offer limited care via telehealth without any in-person appointments.

“The most ideal situation is that people are able to go to the vet in person,said Kevin O’Neill, the vice president of state affairs at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals based in New York City.

But the organization recognizes that socioeconomic factors or living in rural areas may preclude convenient access to a vet, O’Neill said.

Pothutsky’s bill would allow veterinarians to “make the decision as to whether or not they want to use telemedicine, but they don’t have to,” said O’Neill, who lobbied for the bill.

But vets already have that discretion under current rules, said Larry Letsche of Plymouth who was the 2023 president of the Michigan Veterinary Medicine Association and now serves on its board of directors.

Current regulations allow use of telehealth without an in-person visit in “emergencies.” If circumstances preclude someone from getting to in-person appointment, a vet can deem that an emergency and conduct a telehealth exam, Letsche said.

“We already have the ability to practice telehealth without an exam, but it’s up to the vet to decide if they also need to get the animal to the hospital after that to make sure they’re diagnosing correctly,” Letsche said. “Without the in-person exam, you might be missing things.”

During the pandemic, Letsche said his organization observed a wave of lawsuits and formal licensing complaints against Michigan vets who used telehealth.

Plymouth veterinarian Larry Letsche is a past president of the Michigan Veterinary Medicine Association. Image: Facebook

“We’re not against telehealth. We just think that telehealth has to be done properly to prevent issues,” Letsche said.

Pohutsky’s current bill is a revised version of one that died in the Senate last year. It’s pending in the House Agriculture Committee.

Among the cosponsors are Reps. John Roth, R-Interlochen; Reggie Miller, D-Van Buren Township; Kelly Breen, D-Novi; Carol Glanville, D-Walker; Noah Arbit, D-West Bloomfield; and Abraham Aiyash, D-Hamtramck.

The former version drew opposition from some lawmakers and experts who argued it could lead to over-prescription of drugs.

To ease such concerns, the new version limits the length and types of prescriptions available via telehealth, Pohutsky said.

Vets would be able to virtually prescribe a maximum of two 14-day courses of medication and couldn’t prescribe any controlled substance without an in-person appointment.

The new bill also stipulates that telehealth would be available only for “companion animals,” a designation that differentiates pets like cats and dogs from livestock that could enter the food chain.

The use of telehealth for livestock was the primary concern of the state veterinarian, who expressed doubts about the earlier proposal, Pohutsky said.

The state veterinarian, Nora Wineland, has talked to lawmakers about the updated legislation and is “reviewing it” before taking a stance, Pohutsky said.

Alex Walters reports for Capital News Service

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