Why Doctor Google Isn’t the Best Bet for Your Pet

When you’re seeking answers about your pet’s health, it can be easy to rely on “Doctor Google,” but there are many reasons to start with your own vet first.

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“Doctor Google” can give you bad advice. By: Linda Dannhoff

What are you doing right now? You might be telling your kids to stop putting nail polish on the dog or making sure your toddler doesn’t get any closer to the litter box.

You are also on the Internet reading about pets.

More and more of my clients are going online to seek help for their pets. What they find can be of great help, but it can also really mess with their heads. Reliable information is not guaranteed if searches are undirected.

Veterinarians and physicians must accept that their clients/patients are going to look things up on the Internet. We call this “Dr. Google.” On my screen, there’s a right and a wrong way to use the Net to your advantage: Get your diagnosis first from a doctor you trust, and then do some browsing on the Internet to increase your knowledge.

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The Internet reminds me of the arguments my grandmother and grandfather used to have when I was a child. Nana was a 5-foot house of fire brought up in a Boston orphanage. Pop would tell Nana something he heard that night tending bar on Wall Street. Nana would take a big drag on her cigarette and tell him he was full of malarkey. Pop would stand by his story until Nana said, “Where’d you hear that bunch of stuff? In the bar, no doubt.”

Pop would try to defend his story until Nana won out. Nana always won.

Well, if Nana and Pop were alive today, I can hear Nana saying, “Where’d you hear that bunch of stuff? On the Internet?” The Internet is like Pop Pop behind that big old mahogany bar.  On any 10 bar stools, there can be reliable dudes with solid opinions firmly seated next to whack jobs spouting off after sipping on the nutty juice.

Approach your websites as if they are a bunch of bar stools. The information you get can be good or bad, sober or stupid.

The Uninformed Client

The worst-case scenario is a person who tries to diagnose himself or his cat on the Net without the help of a health professional. Many people will look up a set of symptoms and be convinced that they or their pets are suffering from a specific disease. They are usually wrong.

Example 1: Thirst. Say a kitty is drinking more water than normal, or so the caretaker thinks. They self-diagnose diabetes from their search online, even though there are literally dozens of reasons a cat may be thirstier than normal.

This sets some folks up for panic when it may not be necessary. A 2-second test on the kitty’s urine can tell us if there is glucose (“sugar”) present in the urine. Although more diagnostics must be done, the vet may think diabetes is highly unlikely in this cat.

The pet parent may have been worrying needlessly about needles and expense and possibly not being able to treat his cat for diabetes because he convinced himself of a wrong diagnosis on the Internet.

Example 2: Scratching. Your dog is scratching excessively this October and you self-diagnose that your dog has a food allergy from what you’ve read online. You spend a good deal of money on different foods and over-the-counter herbal sprays sold to you by the 4-year-old stock boy at Pets-R-Us.

By late November, after countless hours on the Net, buying some online products and visiting the stock boy with the after-school job numerous times, your dog is still suffering with no relief, and you are frustrated because of the money you’ve spent on various expensive diets and supplements.

You finally give in and make a vet appointment. Your vet thinks food allergy is highly unlikely based on Pup Pup’s skin lesions and your clinical history. Because you misdiagnosed Pup Pup, he’s is in pretty bad shape. Getting him the relief he deserves is now more complicated than if he had been given the right treatment in the first place.

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Beware of Bias

There are reliable websites out there, and there are lunatics out there. Beware of sites that look like they are giving unbiased, general information, but are actually selling something or have a bone to pick with a certain profession, product, etc. Of course, be wary of personal testimonials, comment lines and chat rooms. Don’t just take these discussions with a grain of salt. Dump the salt shaker on these sites.

Recently, I prescribed a drug for a young healthy dog. The client called to say Minny was still having the same problem.

“So the medication I prescribed didn’t help?” I asked.

“Oh, I didn’t give that to her. That kills dogs.”

Where do you think my client heard this?

On the Internet.

I looked up what he read on the net. If he had read further or talked with me, he would have found out his information was wrong, or at the very least, highly misleading. We spoke at length, and Minny is taking the medication and is cured.

All drugs and procedures come with risk. Just think about the ads on television for certain drugs. Tuberculosis, cancer and death are some side effects, just to name a few! But will you or your pet suffer or die without the drug? How common are these side effects?

These are valid discussions to have with one or more vets or specialists, but don’t make the decision by yourself.

The Web Vet Is Not Looking at Your Dog

You can “buy” veterinary advice on the web. I think this is a bad idea. An Internet consultation cannot replace the physical exam — and usually wastes your money. Typing out symptoms in a box will usually not get you a reliable answer, unless that answer tells you to seek veterinary help in person.

If you are afraid you may have an emergency on your hands, don’t post a message online and pay for a consultation. Call your veterinarian or your local emergency veterinary hospital. Their advice is free. If you cannot get your pet to a vet, consider house call vets or services that will help you with pet transportation.

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Reliable Websites

There are many reliable pet sites out there. Here are a few of my favorites:

Veterinary Partner is one of the best. This site is supported by VIN, the Veterinary Information Network, which is the veterinarian’s most trusted professional source of information on the web.

Another is Vetinfo. Their mission statement clearly states:

“Please do not use our site to attempt to diagnose or treat your pet. Your veterinarian is the best source of health advice for an individual pet.”

“Please do use our site to become better informed about the medical problems your pet may have…. Remember that veterinarians often disagree about the best treatment for pets.”

The vet school sites such as vetmed.wsu.edu are always reliable. The Ohio State Indoor Pet Initiative is also a great resource, just to name 2 of many.

There are lots of veterinary blogs and other fun stuff to read out there. Yes, that includes Petful! Just take everything in, and talk with a vet you trust about what you have read and ask questions. Your pets are individuals.

Nothing you read on the Internet can tailor a plan that fits your pets’ needs better than your own veterinarian can.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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