Partly due to the national shortage of vets, some North-West vet clinics have reduced hours and no longer open weekends. However, pet owners can now use veterinary telehealth services to talk with vets 24-7. Dr Claire Jenkins, the founder of VetChat, has just launched a first-time service in Australia called VetChat Plus, providing unlimited 24-7 telehealth consultations with vets available within minutes, for the cost of a monthly subscription. The VetChat service has also partnered with several North-West clinics, including the Burnie Vet Clinic, Devonport's North West Animal Hospital, Spreyton Vet Services and the Forbes Street Veterinary Clinic to take after-hours calls. Burnie Vet Clinic's practice manager Sarah Heathcote said that the clinic, which is closed on public holidays and weekends, partnered with VetChat for a year to use their telehealth service for triaging out-of-hours calls. When a client calls outside of business hours, they receive a message from VetChat to advise that if they have an emergency, they can escalate the call to the VetChat triage service. A registered vet will then determine whether it is an emergency and if the client needs to come to their regular on-call vet. If not the vet can provide advice and instructions over the phone, and the client will pay VetChat for the service. However, if the client needs to be seen by their on-call vet, there will be no charge apart from the after-hours clinic fee. "It's quite stressful for our vets to do on-call weekends because unfortunately, we don't have an emergency service clinic in our area," Ms Heathcote said. "Our vets work five days and then have to be on-call for the weekend, which means they end up working seven days straight. "If they get hit with a lot of phone calls day and night, they can become exhausted and this helps filter out some of the less urgent calls, which is really helpful." Dr Jenkins said pet owners using VetChat can speak with an experienced Australian vet any time, from any location, as often as they like and it potentially saves having to drive for an emergency after-hours vet clinic visit that isn't required. She said it alleviates some of the burden on vet clinics' after-hours calls, especially over the festive season when they peak with the high number of public holidays. Dr Jenkins said, on average, about 70 per cent of after-hours vet calls did not require emergency care. "Our service allows vets to be freed up to provide care for the pets who require urgent in-person care, rather than those who don't," Dr Jenkins said. While vet telehealth can provide instant connection to a qualified vet, it is not a replacement for regular vet visits. Telehealth vets can't diagnose or prescribe medication without an in-person exam, but can advise on the urgency and suggest over-the-counter treatments. "No question is too silly you can ask anything," Dr Jenkins said. Pet owners have the option of an annual or monthly VetChat Plus subscription for the launch price of $12 per month that normally costs $20 a month. Visit vetchat.com.au.