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Pets Need Virtual Services Too

April 13, 2020

Bond Vet, a veterinary-care startup with two locations in New York, tried a virtual meetup last month for people and pets who couldn’t congregate in dog parks during the coronavirus pandemic. It wasn’t the same experience.

“I believe since the dogs actually couldn’t interact, it wasn’t as exciting for them,” said Brooke Goldstein, a marketing associate at Bond Vet. “They ran away from the camera and didn’t want to look at the other dogs. It was mostly the humans talking about their dogs to each other.”

Businesses trying to survive while customers and employees follow stay-at-home orders are learning which physical experiences translate to the digital world and which don’t. Adobe Inc. converted its annual developers summit into a virtual conference, Planet Fitness Inc. is streaming at-home workouts, and the National Basketball League enlisted its players in a videogame tournament on ESPN.

But going virtual turns out to present particular intricacies when pets are a key constituency. Animals can’t engage with a screen the same way they would a live event with other pets and owners.

In some ways, however, it is less tricky than digitizing experiences that are just for humans, executives said. People under social isolation are spending a lot more time with their animals and are willing to try activities online.

“People are more open and looking for things to do during this time and it’s easier to plan doing these virtual events rather than a whole in-person type of thing,” said Ms. Goldstein.

Barkbox Inc., a maker of dog treats and toys, used to host monthly stand-up comedy events in its offices in New York, Ohio and Tennessee. Since the novel coronavirus arrived, it has transitioned that experience to virtual “Squeakeasy” events with themes like comedy, magic and party tricks for dogs.

“Once all this started, we threw our marketing and social media handbooks out the window and we have created new ads and content that we hadn’t planned before,” said Stacie Grissom, director of content and communications at Barkbox.

Like many people across the country, dog owners are now likely to be online much of the time. Ms. Grissom, who’s worked on the social media team since 2012, said jokes about the quarantine and dogs are resounding with everyone. “Whether you’re in Indiana, or Washington, or in New York City, we’re all having a similar experience living at home with our dogs, ” she said.

Petco Animal Supplies Inc.’s Petco-branded stores remain open across the country but have canceled services such as dog training. Petco held a remote dog training information session Thursday and plans to roll out telehealth, virtual dog training and more services online. Petco is informing customers about the status of its stores and other services through social media, email and a dedicated Covid-19 site.

“We’re also helping pet parents navigate this new normal with helpful educational information, resources and unique experiences designed to strengthen the human-animal bond, including live Q&As on Instagram with Petco’s Head of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Whitney Miller, tips on how to keep pets engaged at home, DIY recipes and activities for pets, and at-home pet grooming and training tutorials,” Petco said in an email.

Like Petco stores, PetSmart Inc.’s PetSmart shops continue to operate, but without any in-store events like its annual Easter photo shoot for pets. Instead, PetSmart held an Easter photo contest using social media, with participants eligible to win a $100 gift card. Consumers were asked to take photos of their pets and follow certain guidelines to enter.

Boris and Horton, a New York City dog-friendly cafe that temporarily closed its doors March 21, has turned some of its offline events into new online experiences. On March 26, it transplanted its usual Thursday trivia night to the web as a benefit for locked-out employees. The event raised more than $2,000.

For another trivia night, the company teamed up with a nearby liquor store to deliver themed cocktail kits to remote participants.

“It’s just a great way to engage our community and keep people sort of involved in what we’re doing from a safe distance,” said Logan Mikhly, co-owner of Boris and Horton.

Since its virtual dog park attempt, Bond Vet has tried other events, with more success. The company, which usually held two to three in-person events a month before the coronavirus pandemic, held a dog yoga class with 63 people, hosted an illustrator teaching owners how to draw their dogs and offered a training class to teach dogs tricks.

Bond Vet’s clinics remain open because New York state considers emergency veterinary services to be essential health-care operations, but the company has also seen an increase in customers using its newly launched telehealth service, which was rolled out ahead of schedule due to Covid-19. Since March 24, Bond Vet has conducted 85 visits via telehealth. Bond Vet’s telehealth service was originally slated to launch at the end of the year.

Jess Frost, a dog owner who has attended Bond Vet events in person and online, said the virtual programs help her feel connected during social distancing.

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