During the height of the Pandemic lockdowns, some people ordered a lot of takeout. Others became fitness buffs. And nearly everyone knows someone who decided a once-in-a-century Pandemic was the best time to buy a pet.
Amid so much Turmoil, Canadians turned to fur therapy – or fuzz, feather and even scaly therapy – for comfort. Pet ownership soared, as one Star Reporter found out firsthand. So, too, did the demand for veterinary care, especially when public health restrictions made Clinic visits nearly impossible.
Vetster, a Toronto-born pet wellness platform, launched in November 2020 as a way for worried dog people or perplexed feline staff – or, in one notable case, a duck owner – to connect with vets online.
Owners can arrange video appointments with experts to get the lowdown on whatever troubles their pets are facing.
The concept has been a success. Vetster boasts triple-digit growth and tens of millions of dollars in investment capital, not to mention a recent partnership with US-based PetMeds.
And Cerys Goodall, Vetster’s chief operating officer, says their model doesn’t just address the Pandemic-related surge in pet ownership – it also takes the pressure off vets at a time when the profession is stretched to its limits.
Goodall spoke to the Star about Vetster’s partnership with PetMeds, caring for ducks, and why the company won’t make vet Clinics obsolete.
I wanted to start with an important question. Are you a dog person or a cat person?
(Laughs). I’m an equal opportunity, but I currently have a 16-year-old black cat named Orange. The name is a Stanley Kubrick reference to the movie “A Clockwork Orange” gone horribly wrong. When I adopted her, she was the runt of the litter, and I was sold on her as a black cat with one row of white eyelashes. Turned out that was just dirt. But the name Orange stuck.
I’ll be honest, I had no idea pet telehealth existed before I heard about Vetster. How big of a market is it right now?
It’s really advancing and growing. This is a global problem and an opportunity to solve. We see it everywhere. Access to care doesn’t just impact urban environments where we’re seeing veterinary shortages. You can imagine people who live in rural or remote areas where getting to a vet could be a three-hour road trip if you live up north in Canada. You may not have access to care. The veterinarians that you need may not be readily available. Maybe you need to speak to a specialist. That’s where telehealth is going to come in and start to change the conversation.
Some of the bigger pet Giants, like PetSmart, are stepping into the pet wellness industry and launching online services. How does Vetster compete with these retail giants?
That’s a great question. Unlike a call center-type model or an e-Commerce retail model, we’re really centered on a Marketplace model that not only empowers the consumer with a choice around budget, their vet, or the specialist they want to work with, but also Empowering the veterinary community to really participate in the telehealth movement. There’s a huge shortage around the world – a shortage that isn’t expected to even reach its Peak until 2040. We’re going to be in this for a while. And we want vets to have more opportunities to practice veterinary medicine outside of the Clinic.
Vets leave the profession at a dramatic rate. They face a lot of debt, hardship in practice, and a lot of mental health issues. We want people in the veterinary community to be able to practice for much longer. And the Marketplace model lets them do that. They set their own prices and their own schedules. If they’re taking a maternity or paternity leave, they could continue to practice. If they’re traveling, they can continue to see their clients. So we really believe the power of Vetster is in its Marketplace.
I would have thought the shortage was because a lot of people bought pets during the Pandemic, but it sounds like there’s more to it.
The Pandemic absolutely shone a light on it. So many people adopted pets. For the first time, so many people had time for pet ownership that they may not have had otherwise. People were also seeking companionship and routine, especially when they were at home and didn’t always have the excuse to get out. That certainly exacerbated the situation.
But the reality is the number of veterinary professionals coming through the school system has been really flat to down in many regions. There’s a whole system of change that needs to happen, and technology is stepping in – as it often does – to help advance the whole industry forward.
Would Vetster consider services for livestock owners or working animals?
Yeah, absolutely. We do have a few large animal vets on our platform. It’s certainly an area that we’re going to continue to grow – for agriculture and farmers. Someone recently needed help with their duck through Vetster. It was a really special case where someone couldn’t get the help they needed in the moment. Remote care turned out to be great in terms of not having to travel with a duck.
But certainly, also, when you’re thinking about pathogens, telehealth is a really great option. It will keep everybody safe until you can assess the situation and determine what the next steps of care might be.
Are there any pets that might have problems getting an examination on Vetster? I’m thinking rats, tarantulas, otters, maybe.
We’ve treated more than 20 different animal species on Vetster – which is something that’s also very unique to us. Most other platforms only manage dogs and cats. We treat the full spectrum. We’ve had Goldfish and Birds and spiders. Some animals are more difficult to transport just because they need an environment that is stable. It’s pretty difficult to travel with your Aquarium.
We’ve talked a bit about how the COVID-19 Pandemic accelerated pet telehealth. Was it a long time coming?
The planning for Vetster was already in place before the Pandemic, and we’re certainly not the first to enter the space. I think it’s a natural evolution as we’ve seen the success and adoption of human telehealth. I think it was bound to happen.
Certainly, the Pandemic really shone a spotlight on what pet parents need, but the need for convenience in our very busy lifestyles is also a factor. People are much more comfortable with technology-first solutions. Consumers are very savvy at seeking out the information that they need, and now they can do it in a way that gets them out of Dr. Google and into the hands of a licensed Canadian veterinarian.
I wanted to chat about price points for a second. What’s the price range you’ll find on Vetster? How does it compare to a walk-in clinic or a typical veterinarian’s office?
It Ranges. Veterinarians choose their own pricing. You’ll see veterinarians ranging from about $ 50 Canadian for a 15- to 30-minute appointment all the way up to hundreds of dollars, depending on their availability. I think what’s helpful for consumers is cost confidence. They can have an appointment for 30 minutes and know exactly what the price is going to be in that environment.
That’s helpful to a lot of people, especially those who have questions about whether their pet’s condition is normal. How could we do a Nutrition review with you? How can we talk about flea and tick medication and get you the right solutions? Being able to know that, for $ 50, I’m going to get the answers I need is really helpful. Looking at it as a cost comparison is not really the right way to look at it because they are different offerings.
In your Clinic is where you’re going to do your blood work, your annual exams, perhaps spaying and neutering. There’s always going to be a need for a clinic, no question about it. Having a great relationship with your Clinic is absolutely paramount. Telehealth can supplement all of the in-between.
If Vetster is offering all of these digital appointments, it might add to a vet’s workload. How does the platform address the issue of workload if it is acting as a Marketplace for vets to find more work?
We see a lot of vets now balancing how they want to work. Having the appointments that maybe don’t need to be hands-on handled by telemedicine gives them a lot of flexibility. The biggest thing, too, within the industry is helping veterinarians who are potentially considering reduced Clinic hours or even leaving the practice to go into another field of veterinary medicine. Now, they have options.
We’re seeing many vets who maybe have gone to part-time Clinic hours, or who are semi-retired, or who are thinking about different avenues of veterinary medicine such as research – now, through telemedicine, they can continue to practice. That’s really appealing to people who have such a passion and a love for taking care of animals. At the end of the day, they’re veterinarians. They want to practice medicine.
Vetster got its $ 30-million Series B funding round recently, and it seems like you’ve expanded quite rapidly in the last two or three years. Where do you hope to see yourself in the next five years?
The sky’s the limit. Really, we’ll be expanding globally. We’ve expanded into the UK, the US and Canada. We’re in every state and province across North America. We’re now moving into Europe, which is very exciting. We also announced a partnership with PetMeds in the United States to combine telehealth with appropriate pharmacy solutions for pet parents. It’s an all-in-one experience.
We’ll keep going to really build out the Ecosystem of how we serve veterinarians and pets, and their owners.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.