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Saturday, May 25, 2024

The Best Veterinary Telemedicine Services for Your Pet

The worst part of having a pet is not being able to ask them what's wrong. As pet parents, we can usually tell when something is off, but it's not always clear (unless your pet communicates with buttons). If you're anxious like me, this means a lot of expensive vet visits. Veterinary telemedicine services are a great way to deal with problems that don't warrant an emergency visit. If you've ever fallen down a Google rabbit hole trying to figure out if your pet's actions are normal, you should give a virtual vet visit a try.

With veterinary telemedicine, you talk to a vet over text, phone, or video chat to get real-time advice on what you should do for your pet. It's not a replacement for regular in-office visits, and most vets on telemedicine services can't diagnose or prescribe medications for pets they haven't previously seen in person, but they are able to give helpful advice. After trying a number of these services, here's what we recommend.

Be sure to check out our other pet guides, like the Best Gear for Newly-Adopted Pups and Kittens, Best Cat Toys and Supplies, Best Dog Tech Accessories, and Best Pet Cameras.

Updated August 2023: Chewy chat is now free for everyone. We've updated links and prices throughout.

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Table of Contents Telemedicine vs. Tele-TriagingBest if Your Vet Is in Network: TeleVetBest Free Service: ChewyBest For Continous Care: PawpThis Service Can Prescribe Medication: DutchAnother Instant Service With an Emergency Fund: AirvetWhen You Need Another Pet Parent: Buddies by Blue BuffaloOther Great services: PetDesk, AskVetHonorable MentionsTelemedicine vs. Tele-Triaging

It's important to know the distinction between veterinary telemedicine (sometimes called televet) and tele-triage. We have recommendations for both.

A vet-client-patient relationship (VCPR) is required for a vet to diagnose and prescribe medication, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, but each state is responsible for setting the regulations for telemedicine. “Many states do allow establishing the vet-client-patient relationship remotely,” says a representative for Dutch, the first company we've seen that diagnoses and treats remotely (within reason, more on that below). Some services require that an animal be seen by a vet in person, usually within a certain number of months, before they can diagnose and prescribe medications via a televet service.

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If you have an in-person vet you love who hasn't made the jump to telemedicine, there's still a lot that can be done virtually. A tele-triage service can help you decide whether to make a midnight run to an emergency animal hospital or wait until the morning. It's also useful for the general pet ownership questions you might usually search online: Should I bathe my cat? Is that food my dog stole going to make him sick? What's normal litter box behavior?

Laura Berg, vice president of business development at AskVet, says her team frequently fields medical questions, but they also get (and happily answer) less pressing questions, like how to figure out the size of dog clothing. "We provide the ability for a pet owner to ask a question they might think is dumb but they still want advice on," she says.

Several experts I spoke to say cats rarely, and in some cases never, get veterinary care because of how hard it can be to put a cat in a carrier and how stressful the experience can be on them. Cats still need to go to the vet, no matter how much of a struggle it is, but telemedicine opens up a world for cat owners to show a veterinarian what's going on when they're in their own home. As Dutch puts it, “Telemedicine acts as a front door to health care and brings more pets into the health care system—especially those that otherwise don’t see a veterinarian at all.”

"Pet owners want more and more information about their pet when they’re at home," says Jeannine Taaffe, head of digital health at Kinship, a company using emerging technologies to improve the pet care space. "At-home diagnostics will be transformational for cats. Because they’re so stressed out at the vet, their blood work and urine levels can be inaccurate. Vets don't always have an accurate baseline. It’s really challenging."

Best if Your Vet Is In-NetworkTeleVet

Best for: People with vets in-networkAvailable on: iOS, AndroidCost: Varies by practice

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TeleVet's app is among the easiest to navigate if your vet is in-network. Just create a profile for your pet and connect it with the veterinarian your pet already sees. It shows exactly how much your vet charges for this service and what hours they are responsive. To request an appointment, fill out a few fields—summary, details, any videos or pictures—and select if you'd like to video chat or talk on the phone. Add your method of payment, and submit. Your vet will then reach out to schedule an appointment.

Hannah Lau, a vet at the Adobe Animal Hospital in Los Altos, California, uses TeleVet and says her appointments usually involve walking clients through mini exams—asking them to show a pet's gums, counting respirations per minute, letting the pet trot so she can see them move.

"You get clients really involved and engaged in their pet's health," she says. "I think it makes them feel like an advocate for their pet, and that way they can see what my thought process is as well."

Best Free ServiceChewy Connect With a Vet 

Best for: Answers to general questionsAvailable on: WebCost: Free for chats; video calls free for Autoship customers, $20 for others

Chewy is one of my favorite companies. It's convenient and has excellent customer service—what other company randomly sends out paintings of your pet?! When Chewy launched Connect With a Vet, it was free only for Autoship customers, but now chats are free for everyone. 

If you automatically get food or other goods shipped to your doorstep every few weeks or months, you're a Chewy Autoship customer. It doesn't cost anything to start Autoship, and you can edit or cancel whenever you need to. Video calls are still free for Autoship members only, and $20 for everyone else. It's also free for most of Chewy's CarePlus insurance plan members.

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The service is available every day from 6 am to midnight ET, so it's not for middle-of-the-night emergencies, and it's not yet available in Alaska or Hawaii. But if it's available in your state and you want a quick chat, it's a nice option.

Best for Continous CarePawp

Best for: All-year care and emergencies—when you need answers to general questions instantlyAvailable on: Web, iOS, Android Cost: $99 a year + optional $19 per month for emergency fund

Pawp's service has changed since I first tried it and is now focused on continuous virtual appointments in between your in-person ones. You'll be able to build relationships with the vets, just like you do when you visit an office, and they can help you build a care plan and purchase medications through Pawp's pharmacy—the company says that each pet will soon be matched with their own “care coordinator." Now you can follow up on general health concerns, ask basic questions, or call up a vet in an instant in case of an emergency. 

Unfortunately, the $3,000 emergency fund isn't part of the yearly price, so you'll have to opt in to the additional $19 per month charge. It still ends up being cheaper in the long run than most of the other services. If you decide to go that route, the fund is available after 14 days of use to cover unexpected (i.e., emergency) vet bills for up to six pets. You'll have to start a virtual call with a Pawp vet first to confirm your emergency—still, it's more than is offered by most other services and even some pet insurance companies. The fund can only be used once a year, even if the emergency costs less than the fund. You can read what's covered by the emergency fund here.

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You'll have to sign up for the free trial first in order to get access to this $99 option.

Best for Prescription Medication (If Your State Allows It)Dutch

Best for: Treating a chronic condition; regular video chatsAvailable on: WebCost: $132 a year ($11 a month) or $35 a month without commitment

Dutch was one of the first telemedicine services to get your pet prescription medications. Dutch connects you with Dutch-affiliated but independent veterinary dermatologists and behavioralists to treat conditions like allergies and anxiety, or for regular tele-triaging and advice. Anything that would require blood work or other lab tests, or physically feeling something like a tumor, can't be diagnosed this way.

If you live in a state where remote VCPRs are legal, you can get a treatment plan within 48 hours that includes prescription medications, as well as training and behavioral exercises, as necessary. The company recommends that you still see a regular in-person veterinarian, as there are things pets need that can only be administered that way—think blood work and vaccines. 

If you live somewhere that doesn't allow this method of prescription or you don't need the service, you can still take advantage of Dutch to chat with vets about non-emergency issues you've noticed. I talked to a vet who recommended Feliway, which is not a prescription, for my cats after we moved, and she was able to put it in my cart I could purchase it if I wanted to. The service did not feel like a sales pitch—my in-person vet recommended the same thing. 

An Instant Service With an Emergency FundAirvet

Best for: Emergencies—when you need answers to general questions instantlyAvailable on: iOS, AndroidCost: $35 a month or $75 for one video chat

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You can talk to the vet your pet already sees if they're part of Airvet's network, or talk to any of the licensed vets listed in the app through video or chat. You can also switch between the two options as needed, which is handy if you're trying to connect when your vet isn't available. The goal is to get you connected with an expert immediately, be it for emergencies or to get a question answered. Airvet now has a $3,000 emergency fund like Pawp. The terms are the same: It can be used once per year and is available after 14 days of membership. You'll have to contact the team through the Airvet app to be sure the emergency qualifies. 

Using Airvet is pretty straightforward. You create profiles for your pets with their breed, age, and weight, and you can note things like prior or existing health problems. If you have your vet connected, it will tell you if they're available at that time. If not, you can choose the "Need Help Now" option to start a video call. From there, you're asked to select a problem from a list of 10, ranging from general medical questions, ear infections, and throwing up to behavioral problems. You can also attach photos. I was connected in less than a minute with a vet who has been practicing for more than 45 years.

You can go through your case history to refer back to vets you've spoken with, which is a nice extra. It also tells you which practice each vet works in.

When You Need Another Pet ParentBuddies by Blue Buffalo

Best for: General pet questions and supportAvailable on: iOS, AndroidCost: Free

Sometimes you don't need to speak to a veterinarian. You may just want to chat with other pet parents for advice on how they got their dog to tolerate snow booties or get tips for moving across the country with cats. That's where the pet food company Blue Buffalo's Buddies app sits. 

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The Connect tab is like a much better version of Facebook, where people only share animal pics and ask questions about pet behavior. You can also chat with a Pet Buff, pet owners employed by Blue Buffalo (these are not vets) who can answer on-demand questions about general care or provide more info on the brand's ingredients and products. This is good if you want to bounce a thought off someone. There's even a cute meme generator if you want to share funny pics of your pet to your office Slack and a timeline to keep track of vet appointments, history, and milestones.

If you already use Blue Buffalo products, you can redeem points—earned by doing basic things in the app, like setting up a pet profile or speaking with a Pet Buff—for treats and food. If you're considering switching, talk to your vet and be aware that there is a class-action lawsuit against the company for falsely advertising its ingredients as healthy. (The company couldn't comment on the ongoing case. I do not feed my cats Blue Buffalo food, but we still like this free service.) 

Other Great ServicesPetDesk

Best for: People with vets in-network, for organizing your pet's medical informationAvailable on: iOS, AndroidCost: Varies by practice; app organization features are free

PetDesk is a telemedicine app with a perk. Not only does it connect you to your pet's vet via video chat, but it also offers an easy way to keep track of your pet's medications, appointments, and other needs.

All of your pet's information is in one spot, including name and contact information for vets, preferred emergency animal hospitals, and groomers. From the homepage, you can see what's open, make calls, visit respective websites, and in some cases request an appointment directly in the app or start a video call.

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Once you create a pet profile, you can save health records and prescriptions. In the To-Do tab, you can create reminders for giving your pet medication, restocking food and supplies, and scheduling checkups. You can also request birthday notifications. While you will need to have an in-network vet to make virtual appointments, anyone can use the service as a free medical dashboard for their pet's records.

AskVet

Best for: Emergencies—when you need answers to general questions instantlyAvailable on: Web, iOS, AndroidCost: $10 a month

AskVet follows a similar formula. I connected in less than a minute to a vet tech, who then asked me a follow-up question and routed me to a veterinarian. The whole process took less than two minutes. That holds up with the company's claim that the average time to be assisted is one minute. The app has been updated since the first time I used it, and it includes connecting with pet parents (like Buddies) and other informational articles. There are also now options for training, along with behavior and wellness coaching.

Chat sessions can go as long as you need. The longest, according to Laura Berg, vice president of business development at AskVet, was four hours, when a pet had to go to the emergency room. The vet found a nearby emergency room, called and prepped them for the patient, and then switched from chat to phone call with the owner to stay with them while they drove to the ER and waited. Once your chat is over, you'll get a transcript of the conversation emailed to you. You can also refer back to it on the site's history tab.

Another perk? You can access an emergency fund of up to $1,000. Your fund grows by $45 a month until it reaches the $1,000 cap. It's not as convenient as Pawp or Airvet, which give you a $3,000 fund after 14 days. 

Honorable Mentions

If you still haven't found something you like, try one of these services.

Whisker Docs is pricey at $40 for an instant call or chat, but you can opt to pay $17 a month or $130 a year for unlimited support. If your question isn't pressing, an email costs $5.Fuzzy costs $25 a month for a subscription. The service has 24/7 chat support that's quick and helpful, but I didn't like how product-heavy it is—it recommends products via a pet health quiz without having you actually speak to a vet. If you use Fuzzy, take its product recommendations to your in-person vet to make sure they're suitable for your pet. This goes for any vet telemedicine service.

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