OVC Community Outreach Club member Alejandra Ceballos providing volunteer veterinary care at Kettle and Stony Point First Nation in April, 2018.

A University of Guelph program dedicated to animal care in Ontario First Nations continued to provide that service despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the past eight years, the Ontario Veterinary College’s student Community Outreach Club has organized and hosted animal wellness clinics on two First Nations in southwestern Ontario  — Kettle and Stony Point First Nation — for all eight of those years, and Walpole Island First Nation for the past four years.

The program is in collaboration with the First Nations as well as local veterinarians and pharmaceutical companies.

“We were gearing up for our largest clinics when COVID-19 struck and it became very apparent that in-person clinics would not be safe or possible this year,: said Prof. Shane Bateman, who helps run the program.

“We elected to proceed with offering some services, including parasite prevention. We used telemedicine to ensure members of the community — human and animal — would be protected.”

Internal parasites, as well as fleas and ticks, can transmit disease from animals to people, he said.   “Parasite prevention was deemed to be a public health priority this year.”

Tracy Bressette, a resident of Walpole Island First Nation and dog owner, said the virtual care was important to the continued health of her pet and others within the community.

“They were able to provide medicine for my pets, which they desperately need because we have lots and lots of mosquitoes and wood ticks in this area,” Bressette said. “So they really needed the heartworm prevention and so on.”

After the virtual appointment, medications were carefully labelled and packaged for individual animals. They were then bundled together and shipped to the health centres in both communities, where they were distributed by local teams.

Bressette said the service is very beneficial because many people in the community are unable to transport their pets to the veterinary clinic in nearby Wallaceburg. Even the reduced service due to COVID-19 was a big help to many pet owners, she added.

“The fees are great compared to what a veterinarian would charge and I think that’s where a lot of people really benefit.”

Pharmaceutical manufacturers generously support the program, keeping costs for families at a minimum.

Regulations preventing veterinarians from prescribing medications through telemedicine have been relaxed during the pandemic, said Bateman.

“Our pharmaceutical partners, Boehringer Ingelheim, Elanco and Merck, all stepped up and allowed us to deliver this important care in a unique way. It allowed our students the opportunity to learn so much about not only telemedicine, but also how to work with First Nations people in providing healthcare for their companions.”

Under normal circumstances, the clinics offer members of the communities an opportunity communities an opportunity to get an overall health check for their pets, as well as vaccination, microchipping and protection against various parasites.

Since it began, the program has seen 1,000 pets from 665 families. This year’s telemedicine effort served more than 130 pets.

Christina Jobson, who is going into her third year at OVC, worked on the project this year from her home in Guelph.

“It’s very different than the clinics we’ve run in the past,” Jobson said. “Not being able to run the clinics in the First Nations this year, but still being about to find a way to provide support to the communities, has been a really great experience.”

The medications and preventative care provided remotely will help in the short-term, until the team can get back into the communities, she added.

Supported through the Kim and Stu Lang Community Healthcare Partnership Program (CHPP), the program not only provides care to animals in First Nations, but also ensures OVC students have the specific knowledge and skills to extend animal health care to these communities, said Bateman.

“Going forward, this type of work will be a core activity of the CHPP and we will be expanding our impact in other communities.”