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An Essential Veterinarian Keeps Working Because 'Pets Don't Know There's a Pandemic'

Unlike most medical offices right now, the Mill Valley Veterinary Clinic in Belchertown, Massachusetts, is busier than ever.

“Pets don’t know there’s a pandemic,” veterinarian Helen Spiegel Lee said.

But that doesn’t mean it's business as usual for the practice. Spiegel Lee is spending more time with animals and less time with humans. 

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, pet owners stay in their car. A clinic staff member, wearing a mask, brings each animal inside for the appointment.

In some ways, Spiegel Lee said, that simplifies the job. But it also means she has to do a lot of guessing.

“A lot of veterinarian medicine is somewhat intuitive. So when the owner comes in with a pet, you sort of figure out what's going on with how the pets interact with the owner, what the owner is feeling,” she said. “So I feel like I'm missing out on that part.”

And the pets themselves — mostly dogs and cats — are confused.

“Because when they come into the clinic, they're not with their person. So they’re a little bit leery,” she said. “It’s like a kid going to the principal office. 

Spiegel Lee said it’s also hard to comfort the owners, though she does her best to talk them through problems over the phone, usually while they sit in the parking lot.

“So I just took a look at Dozer and I see that he does have that lump on his right side. How long has that been there?” Spiegel Lee asked one pet owner on the phone. “I see it's on his ribs. It probably is trauma, so I'm going to put you on speaker phone.”

Spiegel Lee performed a needle biopsy while the owner listened in.

“I’ll take a little needle into the little pocket,” she narrated, just before the dog jumped up and a technician tried to help.

After they calmed the dog down, Spiegel Lee did her best to reassure the owner — and the dog: “Dozer, you're a good boy."

Sometimes, if a pet seems especially nervous, she'll summon the owner over Facetime, like in the case of a kitten she treated recently.

“The cat was concerned why her mommy's voice was coming from me and my hand,” she said. “But I think it helped.”

Initially, Spiegel Lee had wondered if money would keep people away from the vet. She thought if they're losing income, pet care might fall off the priority list. But that's not been the case. 

“Maybe I've heard it once or twice that people are having trouble with COVID and their finances, [but] they still want to take care of their animals,” she said.

In fact, she thinks people are actually bringing pets in more often for minor ailments they might not have noticed before the lockdown. 

Since the pandemic started, Spiegel Lee has also been doing more physicals for new puppies and kittens that families are adopting to make lockdown more bearable.

And as for the mental health of the pets?

Veterinarian Helen Spiegel Lee, shown with a litter of puppies she delivered by caesarean section.
Credit Courtesy of Helen Spiegel Lee
Veterinarian Helen Spiegel Lee, shown with a litter of puppies she delivered by caesarean section.

“I have less appointments with animals that have separation anxiety now,” she said. “I think they don't feel stressed. They’re happy because their owners are home all the time. The kids are home and they get to be played with and get long walks. If you actually ask the animal — and not the veterinarian — the animal would say COVID is the best thing ever.”

The American Veterinary Medical Association has said it's extremely unlikely a pet will catch the coronavirus, and there's no evidence they can give it to humans. Since the public is not allowed into the clinic, Spiegel Lee said she feels pretty safe.

But there is one procedure they've chosen to do while the owner holds their pet: euthanasia. Spiegel Lee will come to their car, wearing a mask, and sometimes sit in the back seat while she gives an injection. 

“You have to break the rules sometimes,” she said. “I can't do the procedure 6 feet away and the pet’s on the owner’s lap. So I have to be careful and prudent. But you have to also be human.”

The 7 o'clock clapping in some cities for frontline hospital workers doesn't happen for animal doctors.

Spiegel Lee said vets are used to getting less respect. That's not new to the pandemic.

“We're like the poor cousins of the medical profession,” she said.

And some people question if the vet clinic even needs to be open right now. 

“I have friends that don't have animals and [are] like, ‘Why are you going to work? You're not essential, it's just a dog,’” she said. “And then there are other people [for whom] the dog is their baby.”

Spiegel Lee herself has no doubt her job is essential. If pets provide us comfort during this anxious time, someone's got to keep them healthy.

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