If you’re caring for a toddler or a tabby or a toy poodle, you’ve probably faced what Jim DeMarco calls “a fundamental rule of parenting.”
“That rule,” says DeMarco, the father of four children and one cat, “is children and animals seem to get sick or get hurt after 5 o’clock on Friday afternoons, when the doctor’s office is closed.”
Those episodes can mean painful waits with whiny little ones at urgent care clinics. For parents without health insurance, such visits typically cost $100 to $200. But for pet owners, a trip to the emergency vet may run $1,500 or higher.
Not long ago, DeMarco faced that very dilemma. His cat, Mr. Darcy, had started scratching himself nearly nonstop, causing his skin to bleed. The family’s regular veterinary office was closed. But DeMarco happened to be part of a team developing a health and wellness app for pets.
As it turned out, that solution would spare his wallet, save his weekend and soothe Mr. Darcy’s itch. Soon, it would solve similar issues for thousands of other pet parents.
DeMarco, director of industry digital strategy at Microsoft, had spent months collaborating on the app with Microsoft engineers and with technologists and executives at MetLife, a New York City-based financial services company that provides insurance for people and pets.
Among the app’s features is a digital library stocked with hundreds of articles about pet care – like how to relieve fireworks fear or the lowdown on dog lumps. The library uses Azure Cognitive Search, an AI-powered search platform that helps each user uncover content for the precise needs of their pet, based on species, age and breed.
As Mr. Darcy scratched furiously and meowed in misery, DeMarco prepped for a pricey ride to the emergency vet. But when he grabbed his smart phone, the answer was right on his screen.
“Ah! I have the MetLife Pet app!” DeMarco said at the time. He had recently purchased a MetLife Pet insurance policy for Mr. Darcy – and downloaded the pet app – to trial the features as part of his job.
“I searched the knowledge base on the app and found out we were dealing with cat anxiety,” DeMarco recalls. His wife bought a bottle of pheromone spray at the pet store that calmed Mr. Darcy within minutes. Not seeing an emergency vet saved the family about $200, they estimated.
Launched in 2022, MetLife’s digital pet ecosystem offers a one-stop shop for all things fur baby. App users can submit and track insurance claims, maintain vaccination records, and find nearby vets, groomers or trainers.
The app, which is available to people with MetLife Pet insurance policies, has amassed more than 120,000 active users. Users can sign up for MetLife pet insurance through their employee benefits (if available) or purchase a policy directly.
“We focus on nose-to-tail wellness,” says Brian Jorgensen, CEO of MetLife Pet Insurance. “The app does that in a way core pet insurance never could.”
Where pet insurance provides consumers with a tool to financially withstand big-dollar items like accidents and serious illnesses, the MetLife Pet app is built to make daily pet care even easier, Jorgensen says.
“We want to simplify the process wherever we can and reduce any level of concern, any level of challenge that the pet parent might face,” Jorgensen says.
“With the app, we try to take as much pressure off pet parents and give them confidence that the only thing they need to do is focus on their pet.”
At home, Jorgensen and his family care for Baxter, a pit bull mix, “who is the sweetest boy in the world,” and Sally, “a small, yellow dog of unknown provenance, who is the pack leader of the family,” he says.
For years, pet parents like Jorgensen and DeMarco have shared a common headache: tracking their animals’ health records.
Moving to a new city means finding a new vet, which may require multiple communications with the former vet to obtain those records. Worse, current records are typically unavailable when pet parents are forced to whisk their animals to an emergency clinic after hours.
The MetLife Pet app enables users to upload and access pet health records, ensuring they’re always at the ready. That feature relies on Azure Form Recognizer, an AI service that applies advanced machine learning to automatically extract key text from documents.
Making pet records portable follows a trend that consumers enjoy in their own health care – the rise of electronic health records, which can be shared among various providers, says Mike Dorris, a principal customer success account manager at Microsoft. He served as the project manager during the app’s development.
Recently, Dorris’ daughter, Makayla, 21, purchased a MetLife Pet policy, following her adoption of an 8-month-old kitten named Cosmo. Makayla downloaded the MetLife Pet app and took Cosmo, a Chantilly-Tiffany, to a local vet for spaying and vaccinations. She then used the app to upload her claims and the vaccination records.
No doubt, it’s easier for families (especially the animals!) if veterinary advice can be administered remotely. In fact, about 70% of vet visits made by pet parents can be effectively addressed via telemedicine calls, according to data collected by AskVet, a California-based company offering virtual health and wellness care for pets.
MetLife also gives app users the ability to communicate with vets around the clock through their mobile devices. The app connects pet parents to the AskVet global network of more than 80 vets and veterinary technicians plus trainers, behaviorists and nutritionists.
Some people use that feature to get free veterinary advice or to obtain second opinions following their pets’ diagnoses. Others use it to ask quality-of-life questions about older pets.
“Vets and animal hospitals are overwhelmed and overbooked. So if we can reassure someone that what they’re describing doesn’t sound like an emergency, that they can call their vet in the morning, we will do that,” says Crissy Allstott, AskVet’s chief veterinary officer.
“Of course, if someone feels strongly that something is off, that their pet may be having an emergency, we would never tell them not to take their pet to the ER. Because you know your pet best,” she adds.
The MetLife Pet chat is crucial for people who live hundreds of miles from the nearest vet’s office. In some cases, virtual vets have stayed on the line with pet parents during long, stressful rides to the closest animal ER.
“It’s such a hard time for them. It’s very emotional. It is for us as well. But it’s so rewarding to be able to go through that with them, to help somebody at the lowest point,” Allstott says.
“It’s amazing how, even via a chat, you can make a bond with someone,” she adds. “But it happens. And it happens pretty quickly. It’s powerful.”
Top photo courtesy of MetLife.