Campus News

UK Alumni Veterinarians Adapting to COVID-19 Challenges

LEXINGTON, Ky. (April 24, 2020) — Veterinarians are essential and open for business in Kentucky, but the way they are interacting with clients has changed. Regardless of practice size or whether they service large or small animals, all practitioners must limit human-to-human contact and maintain proper distancing, following all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kentucky Veterinary Medicine Association recommendations.

Although the University of Kentucky doesn’t have a veterinary school, many complete bachelor’s degrees in the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment prior to moving on to veterinary school. Some of those UK alumni recently shared their challenges and experiences in this “new normal.”

“Farms have been practicing biosecurity for years, so a lot of these new recommendations were already in place in our clinics and field locations,” said Natalie Heitz, field veterinarian for Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington. “Not a lot has changed for me. I’m out in the field, right in the middle of breeding season.”

Heitz is a 2012 graduate of UK’s Equine Science and Management program and a 2014 graduate of the Goldophin Flying Start program. She earned her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from Auburn University in 2018 before joining Hagyard. She said the biggest change for her has been prioritizing client calls.

“I’ve been doing urgent and essential field calls,” she said. “For other needs, we are using a lot of telemedicine and phone calls with clients and then going into the field when necessary. We do have to be more mindful of our resources like alcohol and gloves. Some medicines are on backorder. Equine vets have dealt with contagious respiratory diseases that pass easily from horse to horse in comingling situations for years. So, in a sense, the way we are operating hasn’t changed.”

When the focus turns to small animal veterinarians, things have changed a whole lot more. Dan Bowling and his partner Stacy Burdick both attended UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment before completing veterinary school at Auburn. Together they own Animal Hospital of Nicholasville. They’ve also been using telemedicine and video conferencing to communicate with clients. A major change is that they no longer let their non-animal clients into the building, and they’ve paused routine procedures for now. 

“We have someone in full personal protective equipment meet our clients in the parking lot. They remove the animal’s personal collar and leash, replace it with one we have sanitized and then they enter the clinic through what we call our decontamination room,” said Bowling, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in animal and food sciences in 1981. “We wipe the animal down with a safe, non-toxic product that kills viruses. We treat them and communicate with people in the parking lot through phone or video apps to make sure we address all their concerns.”

The pets go back through the decontamination room and then back to their owners, who pay their bill with a secure app over the phone. Bowling said the most challenging part is that animals can’t tell you what’s bothering them, and appointments take at least twice as long. They miss the interaction with the pets’ owners.

"We’ve been serving in this community for the past 35 years, and it’s like a big family," he said. "When you all the sudden don’t have contact with all those people, it’s certainly different for sure."

Bowling’s practice had extra personal protective equipment and donated it to local emergency medical services in Jessamine County.

In Barbourville, Mark and Tammy Smith own Knox County Veterinary Services, a small animal practice. Mark graduated from UK with a bachelor’s degree in animal and food sciences in 1986. Tammy earned a bachelor’s degree from Western Kentucky University but is a loyal UK supporter, and she serves on the board of the Kentucky Veterinary Medicine Association. They were the first veterinary practice in Knox County when they started their mixed animal practice in 1996.

“We limit foot traffic and limit the services we provide,” Tammy Smith said. “We do mostly sick and emergency care. We were actually starting to do telemedicine just as the pandemic began, so it was pretty timely, but there’s only so much you can do without your hands being on the animal.”

“Some clients get frustrated because they are really used to coming in and seeing us,” Mark Smith said. “Our younger clients have said they appreciate the online options, but some of our older clients are having a bit of an issue with online services. Most people are very willing to work with us.”

He said their employees have really stepped up and done a lot of work that they weren’t having to do before. He’s been so amazed at their ability to adapt during the pandemic. ‘

“A lot of our clients, all they have is that pet,” Mark Smith said. “Pets are a huge part of an owner’s well-being. They keep people going. We’re happy to be able to continue offering essential services to pet owners.”

The Bluegrass Stockyards is an essential part of the food chain, and animal health is an important part of that. Food animal veterinarian Chris Jolly works with cattle there a couple days a week. Jolly was also an animal and food sciences student at UK before going to vet school at Auburn. He agreed with Heitz in that much of the large animal work is already done at appropriate social distancing requirements.

“We were social distancing before it was cool,” he said. “We are naturally spread out when we are working cattle. Farmers are still buying cattle during this time. They are buying light weight feeders and turning them out on grass.”

Jolly said they are not doing a lot of surgeries and have had some delays in obtaining nitrile gloves, but otherwise it has been business as usual. They do pregnancy checks on all the cows arriving at the stockyards and work the cattle who are headed to pasture after they sell.

“We don’t have much contact with the public,” he said. “If a farmer purchases cattle at the stockyards, they deal with the office staff. For other clients, we visit them on the farm.”

Dr. Mark Smith, Knox County Veterinary Services, right, examines a patient.
Natalie Heitz examines a foal
Animal Hospital of Nicholasville patient goes through a decontamination room.
Chris Jolly at the Bluegrass Stockyards

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