“I Read On The Internet…”

Whenever I have a pet owner start out saying those words, I try to be ready for anything – because depending on what follows, they may be onto something, or it may be utter nonsense.

I graduated veterinary school from Michigan State University in 1997, back when we used to treat dinosaurs and woolly mammoths and before the internet was the vast wealth of information that it is today.  This means that I have been a practicing veterinarian for close to 19 years and if you count vet school and the years I worked in a vet clinic prior to vet school, I have been actively involved in the veterinary field for nearly 25 years (if one were to use the term “seasoned” I would call myself “lightly seasoned”). Veterinarians have always had to contend with misinformation and generally bad advice, doled out by those with good intentions but very little actual knowledge.  Whether it was Uncle Bob or Aunt Betty or the dog groomer or the guy that ran the local feed store, “old wives tales” and other myths made the rounds and some still persist to this day.  These include believing that all female dogs should have a litter of puppies before being spayed (not true), that motor oil poured over an animal’s skin will cure mange (it does not), and that puppies sick with parvo virus can be treated by making them drink water mixed with bleach (please don’t do this!).  The difference between then and now is that we now have the internet, and any information from anyone on any subject can be found right at your fingertips using your home computer or smartphone.

Believe me, I get it.  It is fast, easy and convenient, requiring minimal effort on our part.  And you can find a lot of very good and reliable information on pet care from various sources online – but the internet is also a huge source of bad information, and it’s easy enough for any individual, however unqualified, to post whatever they happen to believe, regardless of whether it is true or not.  Many a well-meaning a pet owner has been steered wrong by “Dr. Google” and while sometimes it makes for an amusing story, and no harm is done, sometimes it results in tragedy.  An article I read recently outlined the following cases where “Dr. Google” ended up being wrong:

1.  A woman purchased a puppy from a breeder and was told the puppy was female.  After getting the puppy home, she noticed a small bump on the puppy’s abdomen.  A Google search on “lump on female puppy’s belly” came up with the answer that it was an umbilical hernia and nothing to worry about.  When she took the puppy to her veterinarian for it’s first check-up, she was dumbfounded to find out that the puppy was actually male – and the “bump” on the pup’s belly was, in fact, his penis.

2.  A dog was prescribed an antibiotic capsule by the family’s veterinarian.  Upon administration of the first dose at home, the dog began to appear to be “bleeding from the mouth”, according to the owner’s description.  In a panic, the owner did a Google search and came up with “allergic reaction” and that oral administration of hydrogen peroxide would get the medication out of his system.  The hydrogen peroxide caused a good deal of vomiting, but the red-tinged slobber persisted, at which point the client brought the dog back to the veterinarian.  A quick look by the vet inside the dog’s mouth revealed that the antibiotic pill had gotten stuck between the dog’s teeth, causing the red coloring of the pill to get mixed with the dog’s saliva, producing the “blood”.  Dog ended up being fine, but needed to be given IV fluids and anti-nausea medication to counteract the vomiting caused by the hydrogen peroxide.

3.  A snake owner read on-line that he could save money by feeding his pet boa constrictor wild rats that he trapped himself rather than purchasing domesticated rats.  Unfortunately, a rat that he did trap and placed in the cage with the snake decided it was not going to be lunch that day.  The snake sustained approximately 40 bite wounds from the rat, resulting in severe skin and muscle trauma and the loss of it’s eyes.  It made a full recovery, but was permanently blind.

What these cases illustrate is that everyone who reads anything online needs to take most of it with a grain of salt, and not necessarily hold what they read over what their veterinarian may tell them.  This is especially true when reading about so-called “natural remedies”.  I recently saw a dog who had a ruptured bleeding mass on it’s tail that the owner had been attempting to treat with a home-made paste of raw honey and turmeric.  This was after she had gone online and tried to figure out for herself what the mass could be, then read that raw honey and turmeric could be used to help heal wounds. It made the hair around the area very sticky and stained it yellow but it wasn’t doing anything for the mass that really needed to be removed and biopsied.  It’s fairly common for me to be presented with a pet where the owner states “I’ve tried everything!” (except for actually bringing it to the vet until now) and “I just don’t know what it is!” (well that’s our job to figure out, isn’t it?). It’s understandable that many pet owners want a cheap and easy fix, and “natural” certainly sounds better than “dangerous antibiotics” and “poisonous flea medication” (or worst of all, “risky anesthesia and surgery”),  but it’s in your pet’s best interest to at least call your veterinarian first and find out if what you are thinking of trying is really a good idea.  Sometimes we can offer some advice over the phone, or at least tell you that whatever you read is wrong and should not be attempted, but oftentimes it will be recommended that you actually bring your pet in for an exam.  Sometimes pet owners grumble about that – it’s time out of their busy schedule to actually make an appointment or head down to the emergency clinic, and it’s going to cost them some amount of money.  But a Google search can’t replace an experienced veterinarian taking a history and looking at, listening to, feeling over, and yes, in some cases, smelling your pet (we draw the line at tasting), then deciding what other diagnostic tests may be needed or treatment initiated.  We also can get ourselves in some deep legal trouble if we offer incorrect advice or prescribe medication without seeing the pet first.

Occasionally, when I talk to pet owners about why I recommend a particular vaccine, or the importance of heartworm prevention, or why I don’t think feeding a raw diet is a good idea, the response I get back from them is that they are going to “do some research”.  Now I am all for owners getting more information that maybe helps them feel more comfortable with their decisions, and ultimately keeps their pet healthier.  If someone tells me they are interested in feeding a home-cooked diet, or they are having issues with their pet’s behavior, I am happy to provide them with websites that I know will provide the legit unbiased information that they need (I never said all internet was bad!).  However, all too often, I have found they have already formed an opinion or belief based on what someone else has told them, or what they would like to be believe, and their “research” consists of going online and finding whatever tidbits of information they can find that will support their position – regardless of the qualifications of those providing said tidbits.  It seems people these days tend to be more skeptical of conventional medicine in general, are looking for alternatives, and so may be more apt to grab onto whatever falls in line with what they already feel – they are already leaning that way and whatever they find that is in congruence with their beliefs helps them feel more justified in their position.  You can find all kinds of folks on the internet that will tell you that heartworm prevention is a scam, that you can prevent fleas with garlic, that the Leptospirosis vaccine will kill your dog, that veterinarians are in cahoots with the big name pet food companies to keep pets sick so they have to visit us more often and make us more money.  Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s true. (And believe me, if I wanted to be wealthy, there are easier and more effective ways to do that then being a veterinarian!)

I recently came across the website of a dog breeder that was essentially a manifesto of her own personal beliefs about what it takes to keep dogs healthy and in it she stated that vaccines weaken a dog’s immune system and as long as the dogs were fed an “all natural raw diet” and a laundry list of magical herbs and spices, their immune system would be strong enough to not need “toxic medication”  to prevent heartworms and other parasites.  Problem is, first of all, this woman is not a veterinarian and has never worked in the veterinary medical field in any capacity. Secondly, the information she cited to support her beliefs simply consisted of quotes from other equally unqualified individuals.  Using so-called anecdotal information to bolster your position does not change your opinions into facts. Real research consists of having a hypothesis, and then doing actual scientific controlled studies to prove or disprove the hypothesis – this is the basis for what is known as “evidence based medicine” and is the approach the majority of veterinarians utilize in practicing their craft.  It means we are going to look at these claims with a more critical eye and not just fall for the latest too-good-to-be-true scheme.  Just because coconut oil is currently being touted as the latest and greatest cure-all, for everything from psoriasis to allergies to cancer, doesn’t mean I am going to start recommending it across the board to all my animal patients – show me the hard data that it actually works first.  Just because your aunt believes she cured her dog of parvo virus by giving it apple cider vinegar and Gatorade doesn’t mean it actually happened that way.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying that all veterinarians are right all the time.  Or that all of us practice at the same level or all pay attention to what the latest research tells us or attend continuing education on a regular basis.  If your veterinarian is still treating every animal and every condition with antibiotics and corticosteroids, or believes that pain medication after surgery is not needed because “a little pain is good” and keeps the pet from being too active, or a dental cleaning should not be done on your senior pet because they are “too old”, you should probably think about getting a different vet.  If you are not sure about what your vet is telling you, by all means seek a second opinion from another vet.  And I welcome pet owners’ inquiries from what they have read online and the questions they may have – I see it as my opportunity to educate them a little and share my knowledge, that I have worked so hard to earn, with them in order to help keep their pets healthier.  If they are looking for something else I don’t offer or don’t personally believe in, maybe I am just not the right vet for them – and I’m okay with that.  I just ask that pet owners, in their effort to find out more about their pet’s health, whether it is from the internet, a breeder, or their neighbor up the street, to consider the source – most likely whomever they are listening or reading to has never worked in a vet clinic, or attended veterinary school, or does not hold a veterinary degree.  I ask them to still look to their pet’s veterinarian, and their knowledge and experience, with the respect they deserve.  Because while looking up information online may be quick and easy, getting through and graduating vet school, passing the required exams to get licensed, then accumulating years of experience “in the trenches” is not.  I’ve already done the hard work so you don’t have to. The internet may be a useful tool in our tool kit, but your veterinarian will be one to actually know which tools to use.  And they will be able to tell a girl puppy from a boy puppy.



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