COVID-19: how the veterinary profession can help

March 23, 2020

The dean of Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University explains how and why veterinary professionals are vital in the fight against the novel coronavirus.

Editor’s Note: As COVID-19 disrupts life and work around the globe, veterinary practices of all kinds are adjusting their protocols to ensure the safety of clients, staff and patients alike. This letter from Alastair Cribb, DVM, PhD, FCAHS, dean of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, was posted today on the Tufts University website and is used here with permission. It outlines what those changes look like in a veterinary school setting, from promoting social distancing to conserving vital medical supplies to providing needed resources to human healthcare facilities. These actions are indicative of what is being done throughout the country and around the world to help flatten the curve and prevent further illness and death. It is only by working in unison that we will defeat this unseen enemy.

Alastair Cribb, DVM, PhD, FCAHS (Alonso Nichols/Tufts University)

The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic makes these unprecedented times for global health. It reminds us that infectious disease does not respect borders nor, in many instances, species. Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University remains committed to keeping people and animals in our community healthy and safe through this crisis. We have made numerous policy changes to help protect and serve our community.

In order to protect our students, staff and faculty and to act responsibly in the face of a growing pandemic, we have transitioned to an online curriculum and asked our students to return home. Faculty and staff who do not need to be on campus to fulfill essential functions are required to work remotely. They are delivering our educational programs, continuing their research, and providing guidance to animal owners over the phone and internet. All these activities help to support social distancing that can reduce the spread of COVID-19 and the associated strain on our health care system.

Our clinics have moved to providing only essential and emergency care for pets, horses, wildlife and farm animals. For example, in the Foster Hospital for Small Animals we are no longer performing elective or other procedures that can be delayed without a significant risk to the patient. This has been done to conserve and reduce demand on medical supplies, such as masks and gloves at a time when they are in great need. We have changed our admission practices in our clinics so that clients no longer enter the building but drop off their animals to a client “concierge” service to limit person-to-person interaction. Finally, we are making available Cummings School’s specialized equipment—such as mechanical ventilators—to human healthcare centers to support severely affected patients.

In times such as these, maintaining our mental health and dealing with the challenges of social isolation are key to ensuring our collective wellness as we grapple with this highly infectious disease. We only need to look back at natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina to see how people will choose to risk their own lives when pets are not accounted for in an emergency. There are also consequences for human mental health and increased suicide rates when crises lead to the loss of animals. We continue to have a societal responsibility to care for animals in order to support the human-animal bond and the mental health of animal owners in a time of great stress.

We all need safe and nutritious food. Veterinarians care for food-production animals to ensure their welfare and good health, as well as food safety. The care provided by veterinarians helps support agricultural livelihoods and the viability of our farms. Through Tufts Veterinary Field Service, we continue to provide essential and emergency services to New England farms.

We also have capabilities for infectious disease research, using the New England Regional Biosafety Laboratory on our campus. We already engage in research to understand the ecology of emerging diseases that are transmitted between animals and humans. We will expand this work to help us understand COVID-19.

Veterinarians are trained in animal and public health, with skills and knowledge that are critical during the COVID-19 pandemic. We are trained in principles of biosecurity and biocontainment that can support a broader public health workforce through training or direct service. We provide medically necessary care for animal patients at a time when many people are relying more than ever on their pets for critical emotional support. The veterinarian’s role in ensuring the integrity of our food supply and the livelihood of our nation’s farmers is also essential for public health and economic viability. And as a profession we continue to research emerging diseases that transmit from animal to human populations.

Veterinarians’ contributions to global and public health include and go beyond the necessary care of animals. We must—and will—do our part.

Alastair Cribb, DVM, PhD, FCAHS, is dean of Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.