In lieu of a statewide veterinarian shortage, local animal advocates are calling for legislative changes to increase access to virtual pet care for pet owners.
The effort is garnering support from business leaders, including Joe Spector, the former co-founder of telehealth pioneer platform Hims & Hers Health Inc. (HIMS). Oakland-based Spector has since launched Dutch, a telemedicine company for pets. The company’s clinical director is Brian Evans, DVM, of Encinitas’ Coastal Animal Hospital.
Spector has spent the last few years focusing on the issues contributing to California’s veterinarian shortage and addressing the pain points of pet care. “I want to make sure that the service I’m building is providing real value and solving real problems,” Spector said.
Simply put, the population of vets is drying up because, for many, the education just isn’t paying off. The average debt accumulated during vet school is about $160,000, according to 2020 data published by the American Veterinary Medical Association.
And graduate debt for vets is growing by about $6,000 a year. Graduates going into private practice had an average salary of $90,000 while graduates going into public practice earned less.
The San Diego Humane Society and the ASPCA are sponsoring AB 1399, a bill to increase access to vet telemedicine services. If passed, AB 1399 would allow licensed vets to establish a relationship through video technology to assess whether pets need to have in-person exams or receive care virtually.
Current California law requires vets to conduct new in-person exams each time animals have new problems, resulting in pet owners waiting for hard-to-get appointments.
Proponents of the bill say it’ll break down physical and financial barriers for pet owners, especially if they live in remote or underserved areas with logistical challenges for accessing clinics.
“Shelters with veterinarians on staff may face situations where their veterinarians can’t be on the premises but can still provide care through telemedicine,” said San Diego Humane Society President and CEO Dr. Gary Weitzman. “For animal shelters without veterinarians on staff, third-party veterinarians may be able to provide valuable, lifesaving services through telemedicine.”
“Given the critical shortage of veterinarians, it is unconscionable that outdated veterinary regulations prevent California pet owners from accessing veterinary virtual care. As we have seen in human healthcare, safe and convenient telemedicine technology can help bridge gaps in care caused by workforce shortages, but in California, red tape blocks California-licensed veterinarians from providing telemedicine services,” said Brittany Benesi, senior director of state legislation for the ASPCA Western Division.
“People think of California as liberal and progressive, but it’s the most conservative state when it comes to veterinarian health. It’s so conservative that – at least the way the law is– you must take your dog to the vet every single time there is an issue,” Spector explained. “I think there’s a lot of fear – just like there was on the human side—around telemedicine. Fear that there will be bad actors and there’s going to be a pill mill of prescribers, but we haven’t seen that. Frankly, the typical vet story is that it’s someone who – at maybe 5 years old – was passionate about pets. It’s a career of passion. These professionals are not going to suddenly become terrible human beings on a virtual platform.”
“[Through HIMS,] I helped lead a lot of the change in human telehealth,” he added.
On Dutch’s platform, pet parents can speak to a local vet through a video call within an hour of requesting help. Membership starts at $15 a month and allows for unlimited video calls for up to five pets. The average in-person vet visit is about $75 plus the cost of medication, he explained. “So, ours is definitely the best deal in town.”
Dutch has so far raised $30 million. “I think change is scary but it’s going to do wonders for access and affordability in California,” Spector added.
CEO AND FOUNDER: Joe Spector
HEADQUARTERS: San Francisco
NOTABLE: The first veterinary telehealth company to connect licensed, independent veterinarians directly with pets and their parents nationwide. The company has grown to treat more than 150 conditions and serve over 40,000 customers. In 2022, Dutch began offering prescription services.