Pets, Paws, Pandemic, Oh My!

Edith Holmsten, Staff Writer

Austin Pets Alive (APA) is currently taking care of over 200 dogs, with 85% of them currently in foster homes in order to adapt to the constraints of COVID-19, according to APA PR and Events Manager Katera Berent. Berent said the increase in the number of animals in foster care represents one of the many changes that Austin animal clinics have been forced to make in the past year.

Austin Vet Hospital, Windsor Park Veterinary Clinic and APA have all experienced changes in their pickup of pets for appointments and communication with pet owners due to COVID-19. However, many technical aspects of animal care have not changed.

Currently, all staff members at the clinics are asked to wear masks during in-person work and conduct curbside visits where pet owners drive up with their pets, and staff members take them inside, allowing veterinarians to do their work while owners are not inside. The new system has ensured safety for staff and clients during COVID-19. 

Windsor Park Veterinary Clinic Technician and Practice Manager Sarah McCobb said curbside appointments, their new COVID-19 strategy, have not affected their communication with pet owners. Before curbside visits, a staff member talks to each owner either outside or on the phone to learn about each pet’s health. 

“I wouldn’t say that that’s changed too much because when we go outside, we just socially distance, but we still go over everything with the owner,” McCobb said. “We ask some questions about how they’re doing, what are the symptoms that they’re seeing.”

McCobb said that she was glad the clinic has been able to keep communication with pet owners. According to McCobb, surgery procedures have also not had to change at their clinic due to COVID-19.

“We, already, for surgeries, have to glove up and be careful and make sure that we’re sanitizing, so we already take those steps, and we did that before COVID happened,” McCobb said. “Now, really the only addition is just trying to distance as much as we can and wear the masks.”

Austin Vet Hospital Practice Manager Doug Warden also agreed that major surgeries have not changed due to COVID-19. However, the clinic has enforced social distancing in break areas for their staff. 

“Because most procedures require staff to be within six feet of each other, i.e. blood draws, taking x-rays, the only place where we have taken direct measures to ensure social distancing is in the employee break areas,” Warden said.

Warden also said that the clinic has seen its largest adaptation around curbside pickups for pets. Warden said that, at first, communication was harder over the phone, but Austin Vet Hospital has since used email reminders to make sure their clients understand the procedures.

“Alerting clients to the changing protocols has been a challenge, but we typically send emails when they make their appointments with what they should expect at their upcoming visit,” Warden said. “It also allows them to refer to that document as opposed to describing the procedure each time over the phone.”

Similar to how Austin Vet Hospital used online communication regarding appointments, Berent said that APA has found methods which don’t require going into physical buildings for pet adoptions. 

“We’re doing car appointments when possible,” Berent said. “Then we have our adoption building, so instead of doing in-person adoptions in an indoor building, we’ll either do them outdoors, or we’ll do a Zoom call or FaceTime.”

For animals that are not adopted yet, Berent said that APA worked to get their pets into foster care to compensate for reduced staff. The weekend of March 13, 2020, APA got the most animals into foster homes that they had ever had in the history of their shelter. 

“We knew that with COVID-19, we would have reduced staff on site and reduced volunteers on site, so we had to make sure that we are getting pets into homes so that we weren’t losing any quality of care with those dogs and cats,” Berent said. “We did that first and foremost.”

Foster volunteer Camille Kilday said that part of the reason that so many people, like herself, were able to foster for APA this year was that more people were home. Extra time and increased availability at home helped her foster three kittens during COVID-19.

“People who hadn’t ever had the time to foster kittens before, especially people who had to go to work outside home every day and couldn’t take care of kittens but really wanted to,” Kilday said, “suddenly everybody has the availability and opportunity to get them, and it was just really the perfect time.”

In addition to the benefits for new foster families, Kilday said that she hopes increased fostering during COVID-19 will be positive for APA and that it continues. 

“I think it’s going to have a positive effect long-term on Austin Pets Alive because so many people have been introduced to fostering and to volunteering with APA this year,” Kilday said. 

Austin Vet Hospital, Windsor Park Veterinary Clinic and APA adapted their animal care with curbside appointments and fostering programs, yet many technical procedures maintained high quality, according to Warden and McCobb. Berent said that in March, after the majority of their pets were transferred to fosters, the staff were touched by the number of pets in loving homes. 

“There were a few of us who were just walking through the kennels and catteries, and we all started crying because we have never seen the shelter so empty and knowing that also, rather than being in these kennels, they were in warm foster homes that give them love,” Berent said. “That was a really, really beautiful moment, despite a scary time in the world.”