Like most people, I did not anticipate that I would find myself living through a global pandemic. Similarly, when I took the job as VCA’s first epidemiologist, I did not imagine that I would find myself creating YouTube videos about that pandemic from my kitchen table.

My involvement in the COVID-19 outbreak response started with a last-minute local news interview that I did back when we were still travelling into the office for work. The newsman, a longtime VCA client, asked if there was a dog who could be part of the filming. My little dog, Kiki, who regularly went to the office with me, happily obliged (after barking at the cameraman, that is). Soon after that interview, the world started changing rapidly. 

The COVID-19 outbreak quickly grew to a pandemic, with new information coming out daily, sometimes hourly. It became clear that VCA’s hospital teams, clients and the pet-owning public needed trustworthy and reliable information about COVID-19. 

Anxiety about the growing number of COVID-19 cases was rising, and a patchwork of government ordinances were restricting travel and business across the country. Veterinary medicine not only protects the wellbeing of pets, but also safeguards the public health of communities. It was clear that VCA hospitals must continue to provide essential veterinary services. Using my training as an epidemiologist and experience working in veterinary hospitals, I helped create guidelines for personal protective equipment (PPE) use, cleaning and disinfection, and curbside appointments, enabling our hospitals to continue to operate in their essential capacity while keeping associates and clients safe. 

Meanwhile, as the media picked up reports of pets in various parts of the world testing positive for the virus that causes COVID-19, there was growing fear that pets could contract the virus and potentially spread it to other animals and people. Because COVID-19 is caused by a novel virus, we just didn’t know what was possible. The scientific community has worked incredibly quickly to better understand the virus that causes COVID-19, but the scientific method and evidence-based medicine require the aggregation of many individual research studies in order to understand the big picture. 

In partnership with other veterinary professionals across Mars Petcare and Mars Veterinary Health, we began sorting through the vast jumble of constantly changing information about COVID-19, trying to understand what was true, what was partially correct, and what was nonsense. For weeks, I started each day by checking various sources for new information about pets and COVID-19, so we could translate it into a format that veterinarians and pet owners could understand and use. The volume of information and speed with which it was changing was overwhelming, but we knew it was important to help provide dependable and factual resources to people in an otherwise chaotic world.

In addition to a client handout , we developed to-the-point Q&A tiles about pets and COVID-19 for our social media pages. These ended up being a hit, and we started receiving all sorts of questions that ranged from “Can my cat get COVID-19?” to “How do I stop my dog from barking while I work from home?” and “Can I still take my dog for walks with the stay at home order?” We identified the most common questions and started providing specific answers to them online. 

Additionally, we created AskVCA COVID-19 Special Edition YouTube videos. As a veterinarian, I have experience discussing medical conditions and treatment options with clients in an exam room, and as an epidemiologist, I have experience presenting research in front of colleagues, but being in front of a camera is definitely outside of my comfort zone! 

After the first few AskVCA videos aired, and I didn’t look like the complete fool I had felt during filming, I was feeling pretty relieved. However, then I was asked to do an AskVCA Facebook Live event, answering questions submitted by pet owners. Until that point, my screen appearances had been filmed in advance and any stumbles or stutters I made could be edited out. Now, I was going to have to sit by myself in front of a camera and simply go for it! After working through a few technical difficulties, we went live. 

Soon I was on a roll, reading submitted questions and answering them. However, when my colleague popped his head into the room to let me know we were almost out of time, my little Kiki dog that had previously been sitting quietly on my lap, decided she needed to explode in angry barking and chase him out of the room. Here I was telling people how to help their pets adjust to staying quiet for Zoom meetings, and I couldn’t even keep my own dog from disrupting my work! Later, I was comforted to learn that viewers found Kiki’s outburst cute. The truth is, as every veterinarian knows, working with any animal (even your own) can be unpredictable, but pets are great at adding levity and humor to otherwise stressful situations.

I am so grateful that I was able to be a “voice of truth” and provide much-needed reliable and practical information about the COVID-19 pandemic, veterinary medicine and pets. While I still don’t particularly like being in front of a camera and will never attempt to be a YouTube star, I have a new appreciation for the way that social media and video can engage an audience. I have enjoyed practicing a new skill and am proud to think that the information I provided has helped people and their pets navigate a new, strange and ever-changing world. 

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“It became clear that VCA’s hospital teams, clients and the pet-owning public needed trustworthy and reliable information about COVID-19. ”