Canine and Kitty Care in the Time of COVID

Dr. John Lupo stands at the reconfigured entrance of the Malibu Vet Clinic. The clinic’s waiting room has been moved outdoors since COVID-19 rules went into effect in March of this year.

Both of Malibu’s brick and mortar veterinary practices—Malibu Coast Animal Hospital and Malibu Vet Clinic—say they’ve been swamped with patients ever since the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown began. And it’s not just a trend in Malibu—it’s happening with veterinarians throughout the region. Pet owners say it can be difficult to get appointments, and they sometimes have to wait for hours.

“It’s definitely been busier the past six months with COVID,” Dr. John Lupo of Malibu Vet Clinic said in a recent interview. “It’s busier because people are home more and paying more attention to their animals, plus the number of people adopting rescued dogs and puppies during the pandemic has skyrocketed. Pets are stress relievers during these times and people find comfort in them.”

Both vet practices reported a much larger than average number of dogs coming in for emergency and urgent care services. 

“People are home more and doing more things with their pets and not always making the best choices,” said Dr. Dana DePerno of Malibu Coast. “There have been so many urgent care cases, we had to hire another vet just to handle walk-in emergencies in Malibu, and we’ll be adding another doctor in the next few weeks.”

For the first few months of COVID, the practice was so busy, they no longer had time to see healthy pets that were only coming for check-ups or inoculations, but DePerno said that issue has since been resolved.

Lupo posted a sign asking customers to be patient in the event he needs to deal with a walk-in emergency, which might include things like a dog attacked by another dog or a coyote, a bleeding injury, twisted stomach or constant vomiting. He has had to do triage and set priorities at times.

“I’ve heard of eight- to 10-hour waits at some of the 24/7 emergency pet clinics in the [San Fernando] Valley,” Lupo said. “I’ve heard some horror stories. The vets over there say the waits are always longer now.”

DePerno said that much of their emergency uptick came from residents and visitors taking out-of-shape dogs on strenuous hikes in the mountains during recent heatwaves. 

“We were seeing a fair number of heat strokes and rattlesnake bites, as well as paw and pad injuries—even some fish hooks in the mouth,” she said. “I remember driving near the hiking trail on Winding Way one day and seeing dog after dog with their tongues dragging, looking for shade.”

Malibu Coast has a sister vet clinic that opened in Pacific Palisades at the beginning of 2020, and DePerno said the two practices have been busier for different reasons during the pandemic. 

“In the Palisades, there has been a crazy surge of new puppies—both purchases and rescues—by people who never had pets before,” she said. “It’s so important for people lacking human contact, and a lifesaver for those who live alone.”

DePerno said she understood that a number of vet practices throughout LA were “struggling with having to set up curbside service and being flexible with their process,” but Malibu Coast, in the interest of keeping their staff safe and employed, almost immediately made a number of operational changes due to COVID.

For example, their boarding facility suddenly had no customers because no one was traveling during the pandemic. So they “re-purposed” that team of employees to be greeters in the parking lot where customers now wait in their cars with their pets until their appointment. 

“Everyone has grown in their new positions,” she noted.

Lupo said he misses the more personal contact with clients and pets that he used to have by seeing them in an exam room, now that pet owners have to stay outside while the pet is brought inside “But we’re at least lucky to have a front outside area that allows some personal contact.”

“As we got more comfortable going outside to the cars, I think it’s really helped keep our service at the best level we can,” DePerno said. “As vets, we’re trained in zoonotic diseases. Our clients have been quite receptive and positive to our changes, are happy they can continue to get care for their pets, and feel safe in the process.”