By Audrey Campbell
Only a few weeks ago, dogs and owners were gathering for early morning and weekend play dates. Pups were eagerly anticipating weekday afternoon visits from their walkers and likely dreading their monthly grooming appointments. In the span of a few days, all of those routines came to a dramatic halt with the rapid spread of Covid-19. Among the countless local institutions that have had to close their physical spaces and revamp their operating models are pet-centric businesses including behavioral trainers, dog-walkers, and veterinarians. “We’ve started a totally new business, just like everyone else,” said Amanda Gagnon, Founder and Head Trainer at Amanda Gagnon Dog Training. “We switched everything to live webinars and training sessions, and we hosted a quarantine webinar series.”
TruWalks, a dog walking and pet sitting business on the Upper West Side, lost approximately 70 percent of their business in past three weeks. Co-founders Daniel Martins and Madie Polyak spoke about the financial and emotional challenges they’ve faced. Martins noted that the severely reduced amount of business has forced them to effectively lay off 60 percent of staff members who walk dogs on a daily basis.
“It’s been devastating, honestly,” said Polyak. “We were concerned about [the walkers] taking public transportation and we had to make a decision to keep on only those based on the Upper West Side to try and prevent spread and contamination. We’ve sent walkers to work with medical gloves, hand sanitizer, and alcohol spray, and we gave them their own leashes so that they’re only touching one leash.”
Martins and Polyak have spent the past four years working together to grow the small business. In recent months, Martins said he felt the team was finally at a point where it was the strongest it had ever been. “The hardest part for me was to approach these employees and I was just apologizing to them. They didn’t do anything wrong. If anything, they comforted me and said ‘We totally get it. We know where you’re coming from.’”
Ben Chaplin began his own dog walking business, Benterprise, approximately 5 years ago and he, too, has had to make difficult decisions in the past few weeks. “As of right now, I’m still holding on to pretty much everyone, but at a greatly reduced pay schedule,” Chaplin said. “I said to everyone, ‘Whatever I can do, I’ll do’ and hopefully it’s enough to hold people over until business returns.”
But Chaplin is worried about whether the business itself will be able to withstand such a difficult setback. “There’s no corporate safety net. It just isn’t feasible for a business with 14 people on staff to keep a full staff paid for weeks with only 20 percent of the business remaining. I’m okay taking a pay hit. I’m okay surviving for a little bit, but I’d hate to have to restart a whole new dog-walking team.” Chaplin, Polyak, and Martins all noted that clients who wish to support their businesses in the meantime can pre-pay for walks, holding on to the the credit for later and effectively supporting cash flow and staffing needs right now.
In the meantime, many Upper West Siders contend with restless dogs eager to play while their owners are struggling to juggle domestic responsibilities while working from home. For those owners, Gagnon recommends lots of exercise in the morning and mental stimulation throughout the day. “First of all, the best thing people can do now that they’ve canceled dog walkers is to get their dog some early morning exercise,” Gagnon said. While maintaining a safe social distance, Gagnon recommended long walks which will ensure the dog is tired and less likely to demand attention while owners are attempting to keep it professional on conference calls. Gagnon also recommends mental stimulation for dogs in the form of puzzle toys and treats.
The Covid-19 pandemic has sparked so much fear that even seemingly mundane interactions have become a point of stress and anxiety. Dr. Karen Cantor of Westside Veterinary Center noted that she and her staff have been fielding frequent questions regarding the possibility of virus transmission between humans and pets. “Humans can’t give it to their pets,” Dr. Cantor explained. “However, pets could potentially act as a fomite, which means if someone coughs on a dog, the virus could perhaps be on the dog’s fur for 24 to 72 hours, and then if someone pets the dog in that time period, they could potentially catch it. I don’t think it will be common that someone pets a dog and they catch [the virus]. Everyone is keeping their social distance right now and I think that’s helpful.”
The Centers for Disease Control advises that people who do have coronavirus isolate themselves from their pets as a precaution.
If you are sick with COVID-19 (either suspected or confirmed), you should restrict contact with pets and other animals, just like you would around other people. Although there have not been reports of pets or other animals becoming sick with COVID-19, it is still recommended that people sick with COVID-19 limit contact with animals until more information is known about the virus. This can help ensure both you and your animals stay healthy.
When possible, have another member of your household care for your animals while you are sick. Avoid contact with your pet including, petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked, and sharing food. If you must care for your pet or be around animals while you are sick, wash your hands before and after you interact with them. For more information visit: What to Do if You are Sick.
With the health and safety of staff members and clients in mind, Westside Veterinary Center has incorporated new guidelines into their intake and client consultation processes. Gone are the days of owners and pets sitting together in a small waiting room. Since Governor Cuomo’s executive order that only essential businesses remain open, Westside Veterinary Center has been cutting down on their appointments and taking only urgent cases as well as dogs and cats who need to be updated on vaccines in order to remain healthy. “We’re having owners drop [the pet] off outside the hospital,” Dr. Cantor explained. “They walk up to the door, a nurse goes out and gets the pet wearing a mask and gloves and brings the dog or cat in to the hospital. The nurse gets the patient history, the doctor looks over the pet, and then calls the owner to discuss what treatments or procedures need to be done. Then we call them when we’re finished to come back and pick up the pet.” Dr. Cantor said the most difficult part of this new routine has been finding the right balance between supporting clients and sick pets while also maintaining the health and safety of the clinic’s staff.
In need of some good news? Gagnon says now could be a great time to adopt a puppy. “This is an awesome opportunity to get a puppy and have those house-training behaviors in place before you go back to work. It’s also scientifically proven that you can de-stress by focusing on your dog.”