Athena Lee had always wanted a pet, but when she finally got a cat she realised how little she knew about caring for one, and how difficult it was to find reliable information on pet healthcare. Hence, she created ZumVet, a telehealth service for veterinary care.
As an inexperienced pet owner, Athena was in for a rude shock upon getting her first cat. Besides trying to juggle her career and being a new pawrent, Athena was also faced with many uncertainties on how best to take care of her new pet.
“It wasn’t just about… spending time with your cat and feeding them. There’s also a lot of behaviour that I really wasn’t sure how to handle,” she shares. Her cat was exhibiting strange behaviours such as peeing outside the litter box, but she was unable to figure out why.
It was only a year later that Athena realised her cat had actually been suffering from an undiagnosed case of urinary tract infection all this while.
“That’s really what led me to start thinking about creating a better solution,” she muses.
ZumVet: A solution for lost pet owners
Drawing on the wealth of experience she has gained in the digital health space over her career, Athena started ZumVet in 2020.
ZumVet’s mission is simple – enable pet owners to get “accurate, reliable, professional advice” from qualified vets online barrier-free.
While seeking a solution for her own pet troubles, Athena realised that resources for pet care were not centralised. Most pet owners research online, but the sheer vastness of the net meant that it was difficult for them to decipher what was accurate and what was not.
Furthermore, she noted that pets were idiosyncratic, with each animal having its own temperament and personalities, even if they were of the same species or breed. These factors made it difficult for pet owners to truly understand their pets’ behaviour without contacting a professional.
Yet, a consultation with a vet is not the first choice for many pet owners. In fact, Athena’s research prior to launching ZumVet revealed that a whopping 70 per cent of pet owners were not going to the vet.
“They just don’t know any better,” Athena clarifies. “This basic education isn’t ingrained in them… it’s not that they don’t want to put their pet’s health at the forefront of their mind, it’s just that they didn’t know they had to.”
She adds, “A lot of [pet owners] were looking online and trying to find answers, but a lot of times, you don’t really get the full picture. What we’re trying to do [at ZumVet] is to encourage them to just step out of their comfort zone and make that first contact… there are no silly questions, right? Really, talk to a professional, try to figure out what the healthcare regimen should be, and then go from there.”
A complement to traditional veterinary medicine
“Telemedicine does not replace your normal clinic visits,” Athena stresses, “More than half of the cases that come through to our platform are actually referred to clinics in person.”
By leveraging on technology, ZumVet is able to help pet owners triage emergency situations and can serve as a first point of contact for owners to decide if a physical consultation is required.
Encouraging a more proactive approach to pet health
As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure, and Athena is a firm believer.
“If you know firsthand more about your pet’s health and [can] prevent anything from happening, that’s really the best thing to do.”
But she has observed that many pet owners prefer to take a wait-and-see approach if their pets exhibit any unusual symptoms.
“A lot of times, that’s already too late,” she explains. “[Pets are] very small, they don’t necessarily tell you or show you that they aren’t feeling you, and so once [symptoms] do start appearing, a lot of times, surgery is required or lots of medication is required.”
To illustrate her point, Athena gives an example of how animals get up to no good during the year-end festive season and steal food. In such instances, what they have eaten can make a massive difference in the level of danger posed to the animals. While consuming bits of fatty pork might only cause temporary discomfort for the animal, ingesting foods like a durian seed can result in surgery if prompt action is not taken.
While the above example is a more extreme case, the bottom line remains. By providing pet owners with a more convenient and direct avenue to consult a vet, Athena hopes that people will learn to ask questions more early on and become more perceptive about their pet’s daily needs, allowing them to intervene before more drastic action is required.
Addressing concerns around telehealth
Athena also addresses potential concerns regarding teleconsults, such as the possibility of a misdiagnosis without physical examinations and implementing stringent protocols to prevent such incidents.
There are certain conditions that ZumVet will not diagnose and treat through a teleconsult; instead, these pets will be referred to a clinic or a house call will be advised. Some of these conditions include prolonged or severe vomiting and/r diarrhoea, the ingestion of foreign objects, dental issues, and most ophthalmic issues. When it comes to emergencies such as trauma or paralysis, ZumVet will also advise owners to proceed straight to an emergency facility.
Further, telemedicine tackles another pain point for pet owners: the stress faced by both pet and owner during pet visits.
As a furmum to three cats herself, Athena empathises with owners whose pets are uncooperative during vet visits.
“When I bring [my cat] to the vet and she’s trying to do a physical examination, [my cat] starts purring… out of fear,” she shares with a laugh. Consequently, this prevents the vet from carrying out a thorough examination.
“I’d say that the stress of going to a physical clinic can sometimes reduce what you can get out of it.”
For doubters, Athena revealed that much like human medicine, oral history is actually the most important factor when it comes to diagnosing pets, as opposed to a physical examination.
She likens telehealth for pets to paediatric medicine, “If you’re diagnosing a child or a baby, it’s usually about what the parents are telling you and what they’re articulating. Most diagnoses are put together based on oral history as opposed to a physical examination.”
A social mission beyond revolutionising an industry
Armed with a heart for animals and a vision for change, Athena is well on her way to revolutionising the traditional veterinary care industry in Singapore.
She has lofty goals for her budding start-up: To make healthcare affordable for all pets within the next three years, at a cost of a dollar a day to cover common conditions such as skin-related issues, recurring gastric issues, or mild infections of the ears, eyes, and nose.
While a worthy goal, Athena’s heart for animals drives her and her co-founder, Grace Su, to pursue a mission that extends beyond the pet owners – palliative care for older pets.
“Elder cats don’t often get adopted just because they tend to be more skittish, they have existing medical conditions, and they’re just harder to take care of,” observes Athena, “but we have a soft spot for them.”
Grace herself had adopted an older cat, who was already seven by the time she brought it home. Prior to that, the cat had spent its entire life in a shelter. It had been caged and its legs had weakened considerably, due to the lack of opportunities to walk around and exercise.
For elderly cats and others like them, Athena and Grace hope to create a hospice in Singapore, where they can provide palliative care and chronic disease management to pets and ensure they live out their best lives in their silver years.
Says Athena, “This is definitely something we want to focus on because it’s going to become an increasing problem, both from a public health perspective, but… also just from a humanity perspective.”