Internet Research

The Internet is viewed by most veterinarians as a marvelous tool. Like you, we Google away with impunity, intent on attaining superior accessibility to subjects that span the spectrum of our interests and pique our curiosity. We’d be loath to lose it.

Yet when it comes to our clients, some among us would rather not be asked to deal with it. Who needs reams of printouts on the dubious benefits conferred by mega-dosed vitamins, snake oil preparations, and juiced-fruit cancer cures? Who needs diagnoses and treatment regimens second-guessed based on questionably sourced online outlets?

In fact, for all my work as an “Internet vet” populating sites like this one with engaging, well-founded and fully vetted content, you can nonetheless count me among those veterinarians who look askance at a thick sheaf of papers that represent recently downloaded content I “should definitely read before we proceed with Cookie’s treatment.”

I’ll confess: Such requests typically fill me with dread. Call me lazy, but I do not relish the prospect of examining what too often amounts to kooky, pseudo-medical information owners are understandably drawn to for the hopefulness they offer pet owners who are at their wits' end. That doesn’t mean I won’t read them. Indeed, I usually will. But it’s no fun — more so given that I usually find myself explaining why x, y, and z probably won’t work and why it’s most likely a very bad idea. (All of which makes me feel like a great big meanie.)

Other Veterinarians Cringe Too

I’ll also confess on behalf of my profession: It’s true that, as a profession we tend to recoil when our clients bring forth the fruits of their online labors. In case you’re thinking I might be overstating things, these conclusions are well documented in peer-reviewed research published in 2003 and 2008 in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

The 2003 paper conducted a search for “canine” and  “osteoarthritis,” then ranked the validity and utility of Internet information. The veterinary surgeons involved in the study were clearly not impressed by their surfing escapade, given this scathing conclusion:

“Results suggest that the quality of information currently available on the Web that addresses [osteoarthritis] in dogs is questionable. Although most of the sites conveyed some conventional information with reasonable accuracy, the information was incomplete, of minimal use, and often considered counterproductive.”

The 2008 article came to similar conclusions. The anesthesiologist authors found what they deemed to be an unreliable cache of misinformation about breed-based anesthetic sensitivity, concluding with the following words of warning:

“Information available on the Internet regarding anesthesia in dogs is generally not complete and may be misleading with respect to risks to specific breeds. Consequently, veterinarians should appropriately educate clients regarding anesthetic risk to their particular dog.”

Still, I would venture that the situation may have improved since these studies, despite the burgeoning amount of information available on the Internet, because of the advent of more responsible information outlets.

Directing Owners to Better Sources

As a veterinarian who writes for online outlets with the veterinarian, veterinary staff and client in mind, I’m offended by the assertion that much Web-based veterinary information is inherently inaccurate. Yet as a veterinary clinician, I completely understand how easy it is for my clients to be led wholly astray by bad information online.

So what’s a responsible veterinarian-slash-Internet-writer to do?

Hmmm… Given that any client who arrives with reams of printouts in tow must be a curious, conscientious one, my approach is threefold:

1. Regardless of the quality of information, I’ll gratefully acknowledge my client’s desire to learn more: “What an excellent way to seek supplemental information and acquire tools to improve your ability to become a better steward of your pet’s care.”

2. Noting the pitfalls of Internet research is especially important if the information is not so good or the pet owner has already undertaken a not-so-recommendable course of treatment: “Of course, you understand that not all websites are created equal and that misinformation can do more harm than good.”

3. In conclusion, I always offer very specific recommendations for websites I consider more appropriate: “I’ve been doing a lot of veterinary website surfing over the past few years and I’ve put together a list of my favorite websites. Here’s a printout for you.”

Sifting Out the Good From the Bad

In fact, it’s my opinion that the Internet currently offers far better information than the kind many of our clients formerly gleaned from Dr. Trainer, Dr. Mother-in-Law or Dr. Breeder — if you know how to find it.

To help pinpoint legitimate veterinary advice on the Internet:

1. Cast a critical eye on any site that appears to be selling a particular product. There's a good chance you're not getting unbiased information.

2. Be suspicious of medical claims devoid of research studies to back them up.

3. For medical advice, articles authored by veterinarians should carry more weight than those penned by people without medical degrees. If the veterinarian is board-certified, the information may have even more credibility. And if the article is peer-reviewed, all the better.

And, as I always tell myself whenever I’m faced with yet another stack of dubious online advice, there’s no better long-term solution to the problem of misinformation than to enjoin my laptop into service. As they say, if you can’t beat ’em… you have no excuse not to add your voice to the mix.