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The Internet Has Created a Generation of Amateur Veterinarians

I began this work week – literally my first case – with a cat owner and her kitty in a yearly visit telling me that she learned on the internet that dry cat food is the kiss of death for cats and is responsible for most of what goes wrong with them, so she took her cat off of the high quality kibble he had been on in exchange for canned food.  She made it a point to tell me that I really should take a look on the internet to learn what dry cat food does to cats, as I would most certainly stop recommending it.  Interestingly, she had to resort to a low grade, grocery store sold food, because her cat actually prefers to eat dry cat food, and the low grade brand was the only canned formulation he would eat.

The cat is 5 years old, and the last time I saw him, he was in very good health.  This time around, has had grade 3 out of 4 dental disease with gingivitis.  I explained to the owner that most veterinarians favor a kibble type diet for its dental health benefits, and that with modern kibble technology that is applied to higher quality kibble type diets, we really do not have to sacrifice species appropriate nutrient balance for the sake of the kibble texture.  I also pointed out that her cat is a case in point, as he gone 4 years on kibble in good health without a hint of dental disease, and suddenly one year of canned diet and he has advanced periodontal disease and is badly in need of a dental cleaning and possibly tooth extractions.  Regardless of the fact that I am an actual licensed and practicing veterinarian and with the proof with right in front of her, she still did not want to believe me and told me that before she decided on anything, she was going to go back to her internet “sources” to double check.

The next day, a lady brought in her Labrador retriever who had been urinating in her sleep for the past month.  Despite having to constantly clean the dog and her bed (and despite the fact that the dog had a bad case of urine scald on its inner thighs an groin area) for an entire month, she had held off on bringing her in all this time, because the internet told her that her dog had a urinary tract infection and all she had to do was feed her dog cranberry juice.

As it turns out, the dog had no infection at all, not that cranberry juice would have helped for an actual infection anyway, but instead had a hormone deficiency that led to her unconscious urinary control becoming compromised.  It is easy to treat, the dog is going to be fine, but she could have had relief weeks ago if her owner had not decided to self-treat using the internet as a guide.

However, the mother of all internet base self-treatment near disasters this week came in yesterday, when an owner brought her little dog in for itchy skin.  I determined that the dog had a case of seasonal allergic skin disease that led to inflammation and infection of his hair follicles.  Before I gave him the injections I intended to treat with, I asked my standard question about whether the dog was currently being administered any medications…even though there was no record of it in our patient history, in this day and age, I must still ask!  And the patient should thank his lucky stars I did.

She proceeded to tell me that she gave the dog a daily dose of aspirin for treatment of TIA, which stands for Transient Ischemic Episodes, which are mini-strokes.  Knowing that strokes are really not something we see in dogs, I asked her what had brought her to this conclusion.  She told me that he began having episodes last year where his head would tilt to one side and he would occasionally fall.

I told her that those signs are not really consistent with any kind of stroke, but instead indicative of vestibular disease that often results from unchecked ear infections that reach the inner ear and the spatial orientation center housed there.  With this patient having a history of past ear infections, that fit far more readily than any sort of stroke, which we know happen at an exceptionally rare rate in canines.

The greater problem here was that aspirin, an anti-inflammatory that has a 15 times greater risk of causing gastrointestinal ulcers in dogs than in people, and is therefore a big no-no for use in dogs, had been being given every day for the past year.   Not only coudl this have spelled disaster for this dog at any point he was being given aspirin all this time, I could not give him one fo the injections I wanted to give him, as it would have a high likelihood of reacting badly with the aspirin on board.  Good thing I asked, right?

So here she was, treating the dog for a condition he does not have, with a medication that could make him sick or even kill him, for the past year, all based on information that she got from the internet.  And now, I had to wait one full week to begin treatment as we pulled the dog off aspirin and waited for it to wash out of his system.  I thought my head was going to spin!

The owner defended her decision stating that she was certain that she was going to lose her dog if she didn’t do something.  But the most perplexing thing about all this was why she had been willing to bring her dog in for a skin condition yesterday, and for eaar infections a few times in the past 2 years, but back when she thought the dog might die, she felt that rather than bring him in to a full service veterinary hospital for assistance, the more effective way to go was to consult the internet and treat it herself.  I never quite got to the bottom of that discrepancy.

What is going on?  Why has the internet suddenly become the go to place to figure out what ails one’s pet and to determine the best manner to treat?  Why are people so willing to put so much faith in the internet over an experienced veterinarian, even when the proof is staring them right in the face?

I have just cited three different cases where people were completely off base about their pet’s health care, based on information that they had gotten off the internet, but that is merely an infinitesimally small sampling of the bigger picture.  Statistically, a recent study has shown that 38% of pet owners visit the internet when their pet is sick before calling their vet, and this number is expected to increase in coming years.

So if you are an internet addict who thinks that the internet has all of the answers you need for life’s problems, please think again.  There is no replacement for a hands-on, patient-doctor-client relationship.  Your veterinarian who has gone through 8 years of rigorous schooling, passed all manners of tests and certifications, and has likely practiced medicine for many years (in my case, almost 12) doing required continuing education hours along the way, remains your single best source of information regarding the health of your pet.

Internet “sources” often lack oversight or accountability, and thus provide information that is more opinion and innuendo than fact, in many cases, outright fabrications.  As a result, I I have to debunk internet generated nonsense day in and day out:

The treatment for heartworm is more likely to kill your dog than the disease itself. 

You should let your female dog have one or two heats before having her spayed to properly develop. 

Feeding garlic prevents fleas.

Dogs and cats don’t need vaccines.

Corn is a toxic food ingredient and responsible for most disease in dogs and cats.

The Swiffer mop causes liver failure in dogs.

A warm nose means a dog is sick.

Pregnant women cannot own cats.

Feeding olive oil supports healthy skin and hair coat.

Please Lord, make it go away!

Dr. Roger Welton is the President of Maybeck Animal Hospital and CEO/Chief Editor of the veterinary information and blog online community, Web-DVM.

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