CAMP ZAMA, Japan -- Staff at the Camp Zama Veterinary Treatment Facility have always worked diligently to gain the trust of their clients, and today under COVID-19 restrictions, those efforts are paying off.
“I trust them,” said Carolina Chong, shortly after handing over her two dogs’ leashes to Cpl. Madison Green, an animal care specialist, so they could go in for their appointments without her Aug. 25.
The facility’s waiting and exam rooms are too small to accommodate proper social distancing under COVID-19 restrictions, so staff members check in pets at the curb and bring them in without their owners, said Dr. (Capt.) Mary McLean, the officer in charge of the facility.
McLean said she understands why some owners may have reservations about separating from their pets, but the facility’s team does everything possible to make patients feel comfortable.
“We utilize low-stress handling techniques, have a wide variety of special treats to offer, and have been known to just sit on the floor and cuddle with a dog for a few minutes until we gain their trust,” McLean said.
Chong said she felt no anxiety letting Layla, an 8-year-old beagle, and Roxy, a 7-year-old shepherd mix, go in without her because they have been visiting the clinic for about a year and have bonded with staff members.
“Layla absolutely loves it here,” Chong said. “She comes in and she tries to jump out of the car. They’ve just been great. You can tell that the staff really love the pets.”
Not all pets, however, are happy to visit veterinarians, and Luna, a 5-year-old Lab mix, is one of them.
Josie Salcedo, Luna’s owner, said Luna’s behavior has nothing to do with the clinic itself—she just gets anxious.
“Every time we come it’s an ordeal, but [the staff are] always really good with her … and just giving her as much love as they can while she’s here,” Salcedo said. “They make her as comfortable as possible.”
Maryn Nakasone, a veterinary technician, did exactly that with Luna during her visit, petting her and spending time with her, which allowed the dog to calm down.
McLean said the clinic has remained open throughout the pandemic, but for safety reasons, personnel made evolving adjustments to some services based on staff and equipment availability.
“When a majority of our staff was forced to work from home, we began offering telemedicine appointments when appropriate,” McLean said. “Because our patients can’t tell us what’s wrong, veterinarians rely heavily on a physical exam, so veterinary telemedicine may have more limitations than our human counterparts.”
The best way to accommodate physical exams was the curbside check-ins and pet-only visits inside the building, McLean said, and they have worked well.
The clinic is a part of Public Health Activity – Japan, which falls under Public Health Command – Pacific and Regional Health Command – Pacific, McLean said. The clinic’s primary mission is to provide full-service veterinary care to Military Working Dogs across all branches of the Department of Defense.
Usually, however, MWDs are a healthy population, so for the team to keep their veterinary skills sharp, the facility relies on military pet owners to trust them to care for their animals, McLean said.
“The more experience we can gain from treating a variety of ill animals, the better prepared we will be to care for our MWDs if they become sick or injured,” McLean said.
The facility offers a variety of services, including routine preventative care through annual exams and vaccinations, health certificate exams, quarantine exams, laboratory services, surgery, radiology, acupuncture and dental care, McLean said.
Personnel see pets by appointment only on a space-available basis, McLean said, and since the clinic operates through non-appropriated funds, or revenue other than taxes, clients must pay standardized fees so the clinic can operate.
Three Soldiers and three civilians staff the facility, McLean said, and two staff members, including herself, are veterinarians. The other, Dr. Isao Yoshikawa, is a Japanese local national.
“Dr. Yoshikawa has been a huge help finding specialists to refer some of our patients to,” McLean said. “Most commonly we make referrals to oncologists for chemotherapy or radiation therapy, or cardiologists for an echocardiogram if a heart abnormality is heard.”
While the facility mostly treats dogs and cats, occasionally they will see a rabbit or exotic pet, McLean said.
“Veterinarians are trained to treat all species, but our clinic does not always carry the gold-standard equipment and medications some species require,” McLean said. “We will always try to help, but may have to refer some pets to one of the better equipped, more specialized veterinarians in the community.”
The team also includes military food inspectors who are responsible for ensuring a safe and wholesome food supply by performing inspections of food vendors, such as commissaries, child care centers and dining facilities, McLean said.
Although the main offices are on Camp Zama, personnel also provide support to Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Sagami General Depot, Sagamihara Family Housing Area, and Camp Fuji, McLean said.
Gloria Maxwell, who has been visiting the clinic for three years with her 13-year-old Shih Tzu named Puaiki, said if she has any reservations about letting her dog go inside without her, it’s only because she would like to be there for educational reasons.
“The staff has been really, really great,” Maxwell said. “Dr. Mary [McLean] is great; she really cares for the fur babies.”
McLean said she particularly enjoys working at the clinic because of the connections staff members get to make with members of the community from every unit on base.
“From the joys of a new puppy to a heartbreaking diagnosis, we have to be ready to help our clients through a variety of emotions,” McLean said. “Every day offers unique challenges, and I love watching the Soldiers and civilian staff work together as team to accomplish our unique mission.”