When to See an Online Vet: Telehealth for Pets

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7 min read
7 min read

Updated - May 9th, 2024

Key points
  • Online vet visits offer a convenient and potentially cheaper alternative to traditional clinic visits.
  • Behavioral concerns, minor skin issues, medication refills, and senior pet monitoring can all be addressed virtually.
  • Virtual veterinary care should not replace in-person visits for emergencies, vaccinations, or diagnostic testing.

Life with a pet can be incredibly rewarding, but scheduling vet visits can sometimes feel like running an obstacle course blindfolded. Between work commitments, errands, and keeping up with your furry friend’s endless energy, carving out time for a traditional clinic visit can be challenging.

Fortunately, the world of veterinary care is evolving almost as quickly as human healthcare. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, online vet visits have emerged as a convenient and potentially cost-effective alternative to in-person veterinary care in several situations. Many independent vet telehealth services offer both scheduled video calls with veterinarians and a 24/7 chat feature for on-demand consults.

This comprehensive guide will equip you with everything you need to know about online vet visits for your pet.

The rise of telemedicine for pets

Imagine a vet visit from the comfort of your living room — no feeling guilty as you wrestle your cat or dog into their carrier, praying you’ll make it back to your office in time for your next work obligation. Online consultations make this fantasy a reality, allowing you to consult a licensed veterinarian without leaving your couch.

An online vet visit can meet many of a pet owner’s needs, but it’s not always a substitute for an in-person appointment. A licensed veterinarian may be able to diagnose your pet’s health issues or behavioral problems on a video call and even recommend treatment plans via telemedicine. However, your vet will likely recommend a clinic visit for certain diagnostic tests and procedures.

How much is an online vet visit?

Any pet parent interested in seeing a virtual vet has wondered: just how much does an online vet visit typically cost? Is a virtual visit going to help me save money, or is it just a matter of convenience?

Online veterinarian apps and websites typically charge a flat fee per appointment or a monthly subscription rate. Here are a few factors that may affect the price tag on your pet’s care:

  • Cost Per Visit: Some of the most popular virtual vet apps and websites charge between $20 and $150 per consultation. The exact cost per visit will vary depending on the platform you choose, the veterinarian’s experience level, and the complexity of your pet’s issue.
  • Subscription Services: Some online veterinary clinics offer monthly or annual subscription plans that can provide unlimited consultations at a discounted rate.
  • Location: Similar to traditional vet clinics, online vet visit prices can vary based on where you live.

When can I use telemedicine for my pet?

While online vet visits can’t always replace a hands-on examination at your local veterinary clinic, they can be very effective in certain situations. A video call may make sense for handling medication refills or monitoring a senior pet. If it’s a serious issue, remember that your vet may direct you to schedule an in-person visit after all.

There’s also the online chat feature to consider. Online vet services typically offer a 24/7 helpline in addition to scheduled video chats, and the chat services can help with issues you need resolved quickly.

You should use your best judgment to determine whether your pet needs an in-person examination or if online care will clear up your concerns. Virtual vet services do advertise 24/7 consults for emergencies and accidental poisoning, for instance, but you should see an emergency vet first if your pet is showing signs of serious distress.

Some other common concerns that can be addressed via 24/7 chat or video visits include:

  • Possible symptoms (i.e. “Does my dog have allergies?”)
  • Managing chronic conditions
  • Wellness care
  • Medication concerns
  • Dietary changes
  • Behavioral changes
  • Holistic care options
  • Training

When does my pet need an in-person visit?

While online vet visits offer a wealth of benefits, a traditional in-clinic vet appointment remains the gold standard for most care scenarios. Unfortunately, vets haven’t figured out how to give shots via hologram just yet, so certain procedures must be done in-person.

If your pet needs any of the following care, make sure to schedule an in-person vet visit

  • Emergencies: If your pet experiences a sudden, severe illness or injury, seek immediate veterinary care at an emergency animal hospital.
  • Vaccinations & Physical Exams: Routine vaccinations and comprehensive physical examinations are crucial for your pet’s preventive healthcare and typically require an in-person visit.
  • Diagnostic Tests: Certain diagnostic tests like X-rays, bloodwork, or ultrasounds require specialized equipment that isn’t available for online consultations.
  • Complex Conditions: For complex medical conditions or those requiring intricate treatments, an in-person examination and hands-on assessment are essential.

Can online vets write prescriptions?

While an online veterinarian can likely refill a past prescription, they might not be able to prescribe new medication without seeing the patient in the clinic first. Some states allow vets to write prescriptions via telemedicine only if they have previously seen the patient in-person — in other words, they can prescribe if there is a preexisting veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR).

In other areas, you may be able to get an e-prescription from a licensed vet who solely sees patients online. Pet prescription laws vary from state to state, so check with a local provider if you are unsure of your state’s regulations.

What are the advantages of online vet care?

The landscape of online veterinary care is constantly evolving, and many services offer additional features beyond consultations. Before you choose an online veterinarian or service for your pet’s virtual care, consider whether they offer the following benefits:

  • Prescription Delivery: Some online vet platforms can facilitate the delivery of medications directly to your doorstep after a telehealth appointment.
  • 24/7 Support: Certain services provide access to veterinary professionals 24/7 for urgent questions or concerns you might have outside of scheduled appointments.
  • Emergency Fund: A few online vets also offer access to extra cash in the case of an emergency — if the client pays an additional monthly fee.
  • Educational Resources: Many online vet services offer a wealth of educational resources on various pet health topics, so pet parents can research specific conditions and preventive care on their own time.

How to know if telemedicine is right for your pet

The decision to visit an online vet ultimately depends on your pet’s specific needs and your individual circumstances. Consider your pet’s comfort level, your own busy schedule, and your home internet capabilities before you book a video consultation.

Some pets experience stress from car rides and unfamiliar environments — or they’ve learned to associate their carrier with anxiety-inducing visits to the vet. Online consultations can be a calmer, more comfortable option for nervous dogs and cats who would rather not leave home.

Your busy schedule can also pose challenges for booking in-person visits. For working pet parents, online veterinary care may offer greater flexibility, allowing you to connect with a vet during the evening or over the weekend.

Finally, make sure you have the necessary technical capabilities before you schedule an online vet visit. You’ll need a reliable internet connection and a device suitable for video conferencing, plus some toys or treats to keep your pet in frame.

How to prepare for an online vet visit

orange cat on couch with laptop

Before you book a video visit or online consultation, make sure to consider the strengths and limitations of online veterinary services. Going virtual can make the visit easier on both pet and vet — as long as you come prepared.

Here are some tips to ensure that your online vet visit goes smoothly:

  • Prepare in Advance: Gather any relevant medical records for your pet and make a list of questions or concerns you want to address.
  • Choose a Quiet Space: Find a quiet, well-lit location where your pet feels comfortable and minimize distractions.
  • Have Your Pet Nearby: Keep your pet close by during the consultation so the veterinarian can observe their behavior and demeanor.
  • Be Clear and Concise: Explain your pet’s symptoms or concerns clearly and concisely.
  • Follow Up: If the veterinarian recommends any treatment plan or follow-up care, be sure to understand the instructions clearly and write them down for future reference.

Online vet visits represent a significant shift in the way we approach pet healthcare. They offer a convenient, potentially cost-effective option for addressing a variety of pet health concerns. However, it’s important to remember that they shouldn’t entirely replace traditional in-person care. The ideal approach combines both online consultations and traditional clinic visits to meet your pet’s unique wellness needs.

Andrea Michelson

Andrea Michelson

Editorial Content Writer at Pumpkin
Andrea is an experienced health writer based in New York City. She's also mom to Gina, a tiny cat with a big attitude.
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