Pet telemedicine
A veterinary telemedicine session at the University of Arizona. Courtesy of the university

When telemedicine technology began in the late 1960s, the goal was to deliver healthcare to geographically disadvantaged and medically underserved populations. Its popularity soared during the pandemic, and now California pet owners may get a shot at virtual medicine.

Legislation proposed in the state Assembly would enable pet owners to connect with their veterinarians the same way we humans can connect remotely with a doctor when needed. Assembly Bill 1399 would allow a veterinarian to decide whether an animal needs an in-person examination or if telemedicine would be satisfactory.

“During the pandemic, we saw how effective telemedicine can be for human healthcare, so why not apply this working model to veterinary care where there is a huge shortage?” said the bill’s author, Assemblymember Laura Friedman, a Democrat from Burbank. “With this bill, we can prevent thousands of animals from needlessly suffering.”

This has some powerful allies, including the Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals, as well as locally the San Diego Humane Society.

“It is illogical that outdated veterinary regulations prevent California pet owners from accessing veterinary virtual care,” said Brittany Benesi of the ASPCA.  She urged state lawmakers to “pass AB 1399 to enable veterinarians to use technology to protect the pets who need it most.”

But there is powerful opposition to the bill from the California Veterinary Medical Association and the California Veterinary Medical Board, which regulates the largest number of veterinarians in the world.

The board sees its role as protecting both consumers and animals. “Unlike human patients who can speak for themselves or human infants who cry out when something is wrong, animal patients instinctively hide pain,” the group wrote in a letter to Friedman.

Well-intended animal owners, the letter noted, “may miss certain signs or symptoms” that a trained veterinarian can recognize only “through a hands-on physical examination.”

Pets and their owners can connect with their vets via telemedicine in Idaho, New Jersey, Virginia, and as of this month, Arizona. Friedman believes it’s a proven and safe way to deliver care, in particular for some parts of the state and some demographic groups.

She argues the existing Veterinary Medicine Practice Act has “unreasonably prohibited veterinarians from giving simple advice and direction to pet owners” unless they bring the pet to the vet’s office. She said the state is having a “crisis in veterinary care” with low access to care in many counties.

Friedman said research that helped prompt the legislation found that 75 million pets in the United States could be without veterinary care by 2030 and that California is the most restrictive state with respect to telemedicine .

Dr. Gary Weitzman, president of the San Diego Humane Society, said the wait time for care is getting longer locally, with pet owners here feeling the impact of a national veterinarian shortage.

“It is increasingly challenging for pet owners to access veterinary care for their animals,” he said.

And he expressed concern for shelter animals in remote parts of California. “For many shelters, there are no veterinarians within 50 or more miles,” he said.

Weitzman added that many families do not have access to a veterinarian because of logistical, financial or geographic obstacles, so their pets may well end up in shelters. “Collectively, California shelters are spending millions,” he said, to provide for pets that need health care.

Since the bill was introduced in February it has been amended three times. Friedman expects the bill to be taken up in the Assembly early next week.