Chewy is doggedly trying to expand into pet telehealth

Experts think the company could be barking up the wrong tree when it comes to online vet visits.
Golden retriever sitting on couch in front of laptop

Maybe a bit too on-the-nose. Deposit Photos

Among an overwhelming number of other life changes, over 23 million Americans adopted new pets during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. Since then, the country’s influx of animal ownership has frequently strained veterinarians’ availability and resources, causing some states such as Michigan and Indiana to ease restrictions on veterinary client patient relationships (VCPR) laws previously requiring an initial in-person, hands-on animal examination before prescribing many medications or treatments.

Now that pandemic restrictions are largely lifted, however, expert groups including American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) have begun urging a return to traditional VCPR regulations, arguing that telehealth can’t replace at least early in-person examinations from professionals. One of the country’s most popular online pet suppliers, however, is leading a concerted push to change that—despite many critics’ concerns. 

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What Amazon aims to do for human telehealth, Chewy hopes to accomplish for your pets. Enter their Connect with a Vet feature, which allows pet owners to speak with professionals on a variety of issues and concerns, although the feature doesn’t allow for actions like prescription orders. Instead, the portal’s experts can advise pet owners on conditions, and help determine if an issue is an emergency requiring more immediate, in-person vet visits.

The feature launched two years’ ago, hasn’t been able to expand as widely as it could if regulations modernized for telehealth, Chewy CEO Sumit Singh argued earlier this week on CNBC.

“Why? Because when you research pet health, you’ll find that there’s a specific term called VCPR,” he says. As such, Chewy has donated untold sums of money to a lobbying group called the Veterinary Virtual Care Association, which urges states to ease their remote animal examination laws. 

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Medical care for animals requires vastly different regulations and guidelines, and while many veterinarians aren’t opposed to telehealth in very certain circumstances, some remain staunch in the beliefs that it simply is no substitute for in-person examinations and treatment. To some veterinary experts, such as Linda Isaacson, a veterinarian in Brooklyn, New York, speaking with CNBC, the potential costs outweigh the benefits. “I think it works better for human medicine, but for animals, you know, it wasn’t ideal,” Isaacson said of her experiences with similar online services. “It’s not like a person that can tell you how they’re feeling or sit still or show you something.”

Still, it’s unlikely that companies such as Chewy will abandon efforts to garner larger footholds in the animal telehealth industry—in some instances, it could feasibly be an alternative for pet owners already constrained by a lack of options. 

But for now, many professional vet organizations remain committed to traditional methods of treatment.“Without a VCPR, any advice provided through electronic means should be general and not specific to a patient, diagnosis or treatment,” reads AVMA’s current telemedicine guidelines.