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Collage of dog standing in-front of a laptop with a veterinarian's hand coming out of the screen with a stethoscope
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No comment yet from the patients, but pet owners are increasingly connecting their dogs and cats to virtual vet care. There's even a subscription product now that combines telehealth and pet insurance in an intriguing, if limited, way.

The rise in medical advice for pets by phone, text or video call is yet another consequence of COVID-19. "At the start of the pandemic, veterinary clinics had to quickly adapt to new ways of serving their clients and their pets. We saw more providers offer telehealth services, especially for non-emergency cases,” says Katie Blakeley, vice president of pet insurance at MetLife.

Telehealth from individual vets is now being joined by several new all-virtual services, including Pawp, the hybrid healthcare and insurance offering. From pet insurance, Pawp takes a monthly charge -- of $19 to cover up to six cats and dogs in a household -- and the promise of reimbursement, to the tune of an annual payment of up to $3,000 for a medical emergency.

In contrast to other pet insurers, though, Pawp also provides care itself. Your subscription gets you unlimited 24/7 access, via phone, text and video chats, to company veterinarians who furnish advice and diagnoses -- though not yet prescriptions.

Pawp was born after co-founder and CEO Marc Atiyeh perceived a gap in the pet-care market as he cared for his pups Chelsea and Fluf. Contacting a vet with every question or issue he had was expensive and impractical, he realized, and yet reliable guidance was scarce elsewhere.

“As a new pet parent, I felt there was a real dearth of vetted information you can trust. I wanted true expert advice, not an anecdotal blog post," says Atiyeh.

We haven’t tried Pawp, but here’s our take on what it promises, along with a few potential pitfalls -- and a quick primer on virtual animal care.

How telehealth for pets works

Few expect pet telehealth to entirely replace in-person care. Instead, the option is best-suited to ailments such as “ear infections or skin lesions,” for which diagnoses “are often straightforward and fairly visual,” says Dr. Rebecca Greenstein, a veterinary medical advisor to pet-care service Rover. In addition, Greenstein says, “telehealth appointments can be particularly useful for anxious pets or those with poor mobility, since they can potentially receive valuable medical help without leaving their homes.”

And sometimes, she adds, “telemedicine can be useful in managing a patient’s mild symptoms, even if a firm diagnosis isn’t found. For some patients with minor tummy upset, for instance, a little supportive care may be enough to make them feel better until the signs subside on their own, says Greenstein.

An in-person follow up to a virtual appointment may be needed, of course, for practical or regulatory reasons. Not every provider is willing or legally able to diagnose and treat every condition, or to write a prescription for it, after only a virtual visit. Diagnosis or prescribing, or both, may be disallowed for problems that require direct examination, and prescriptions need to be licensed by the telehealth provider for the state in which care is provided.

The promise of Pawp

Pawp is not the only dedicated pet telehealth option. Another subscription service, Dutch, has also launched in select states at a higher monthly fee ($39) and a focus on allergies and anxiety. Ask.Vet provides telehealth at a flat $19.99 per appointment. But as an early, inexpensive, subscription pet telehealth service, Pawp has several appealing features.

Fast access to a vet around-the-clock

Atiyeh says you’ll connect to a Pawp vet within two minutes of initiating a call, on any day and at any time. Assuming that promise is met, that makes the service dramatically faster and easier than to bundle your cat or dog into the car and drive to the clinic. And it likely beats the speed of calling your vet for a quick phone or video consult, too -- especially if it’s the middle of the night or a similarly inconvenient time.

Relatively low monthly cost

Pawp’s $19 monthly fee is less than the typical cost of insurance for a cat, and far below the premium to insure almost any dog with any insurer. The average cost of accident and illness coverage -- which does provide a wider array of benefits than Pawp -- for a cat is about $30 while premiums for dogs average about $50, according to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association (NAPHIA).

In addition, the Pawp plan allows coverage for up to six dogs or cats in the home, where each would require its own plan with a standard pet insurance coverage

Also, where pet insurance requires spending a certain minimum in any year before coverage for vet consultations begins to be reimbursed, Pawp has no such deductibles.

Valuable emergency coverage -- but with caveats

The Pawp Emergency Fund "is essentially a safety net for emergency vet bills," Atiyeh says. It allows you, once a year for any one of your pets, to have the immediate cost of treating an unexpected “life-threatening emergency” covered.

The perk comes with caveats, and plenty of them. They begin with the requirement that the problem indeed poses an immediate threat to the pet’s life. You must also seek approval to have the emergency covered before treatment begins at the clinic to which you take the pet -- and, depending on the problem, getting that in advance might endanger the pet’s life. You’re also out of luck if the medical issue was previously diagnosed, but you failed to get it properly treated.

Still, the fund may indeed be a money saver that provides protection against a sudden and serious medical crisis, such an accident or a heart attack from undiagnosed heart disease.

Taking stock of Pawp’s pros and cons

For its several pluses, Pawp falls short as a comprehensive veterinary option, and not only because of the limitations of telehealth in diagnosing any and all problems. Even if your Pawp vet diagnoses the problem, "at the moment, our vets cannot write prescriptions during a telehealth visit; they can only do so in person," Atiyeh says.

However, a company customer service rep said the company should be implementing Rx service in at least some states in the coming months, albeit only for conditions that can be reliably diagnosed without an in-person examination. Other enhancements are planned too, including the ability to book a particular vet with whom you have spoken before.

Pawp provides easy, helpful consultation on medical and other issues, such as nutrition. That could be useful, especially if you own multiple dogs and cats and like to seek advice on various aspects of their care. The Emergency Fund, too, may provide peace of mind against the worst happening to one of your pets, and fast -- even if its conditions may hamper you in actually using it.

If those features add up to $19 in value for you in a month, Pawp might be worth a try, especially if it implements those service improvements soon. Alternatively, those with pet insurance already -- and deep pockets -- might even consider getting the service on top of insurance, to complement what a typical pet policy offers.

Keep in mind, though, that you’ll likely still need to have an in-person vet if you get this service, given Pawp's limitations for diagnosis and prescriptions