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Is Your Vet Dr. Google?

Jay-jay was a happy, healthy beagle puppy. While he was very young, his owners observed an occasional twitching or jerking…

Jay-jay was a happy, healthy beagle puppy. While he was very young, his owners observed an occasional twitching or jerking movement in his limbs, lasting only a fraction of a second or so. When asked, Jay-jay’s parents said they had read online that the twitches were involuntary muscle spasms and of no real concern. Over time, Jay-jay’s twitching became more frequent, the jerking more pronounced. As years passed, they evolved into more generalized seizures, with symptoms of muscle stiffening, drop attacks, and rapid muscle contractions. Still short-lived, thank goodness, but occurring more often and affecting Jay-Jay’s enjoyment of life.

“Dr. Google” had convinced Jay-Jay’s loving parents that his slight jerking movements as a puppy were nothing to be alarmed about. Had these involuntary jerks/twitches been reported to his veterinarian when they were first observed, could they have prevented them from escalating? Perhaps. Fortunately, modern anti-convulsive medicine is quite effective and less intrusive than seizure medicines in the past. Thankfully, Jay-jay is doing quite well.

Not mentioning Jay-Jay’s twitching to his veterinarian was obviously not the best decision. It’s no excuse, but Jay-Jay’s owners are not the only ones who, unwisely, have relied on the internet to make decisions about their pet’s health.

Unlike human medicine, very little is reported about the influence of the internet in veterinary medicine. A study published by BioMed Central in 2018 concludes that the most frequently used source of health information is the internet, and the second most frequent is healthcare providers (Wow!). As these findings are more related to human health care, it is reasonable to assume that the internet is being used by many pet parents to help them make decisions about the health of their pets as well.

The up-and-coming generation actually prefers online pet health to seeking out a medical professional. A new survey of 2,040 millennials (ages 23 to 39) by Harmony Healthcare IT found that 69% of respondents searched online for health and medical advice instead of going to the doctor, and a quarter of respondents trust Google to accurately diagnose their symptoms. Also, a huge majority (83%) are doing their own research, even after hearing advice from their doctor, and 42% trust their own research more than that of their doctor.

Is researching online pet healthcare “bad”?

Admittedly, I am guilty of referring to the internet for pet health information – usually before even consulting my veterinarian. In my defense, my dependency on the internet rests on the severity of what is happening to my pet… I would not dream of choosing the internet over his veterinarian if he were in dire need of medical attention. Additionally, I would not act solely on the advice of the internet.

Referring to the internet for medical information is not necessarily a bad thing. It is good to be an informed consumer. From my own experience, any prior research regarding Jesse’s health conditions has resulted in a more effective conversation with my veterinarian during his visit. Educating yourself about your pet’s health issues helps to bridge the patient-doctor communication gap.

In truth, there are advantages to consulting the internet for pet health care information. Instant availability is probably the most attractive aspect. In just a few minutes, you can find pet health care answers online. This is particularly helpful in an emergency situation. Additionally, there is also a plethora of information on the internet! You have the advantage of consulting any number of online veterinarians and health professionals. It’s like getting a second opinion…and third, a fourth…!

There are obvious problems associated with using the internet for health information as well. With the vast amount of pet health information online, there is a huge risk for inaccurate or incomplete information. The potential for your own misdiagnosis, or that of your pets, is possible. While the internet is a great source of information, it’s also a great source of misinformation. The quality and validity of health information vary widely by website, and health is not something you want to take any chances with. Furthermore, the discrepancies in information can be frustrating. Believe me, as a blogger, I know that from experience.

Use caution when referring to the internet for pet health information

When using the Internet to research healthcare for your pet, there are several things to keep in mind:

• First, internet advice should never take the place of your veterinarian, nor of an office visit when necessitated.
• Secondly, never attempt to diagnose your pet without guidance from your veterinarian.
• Likewise, never follow a treatment plan as prescribed solely via a website.
• Be particularly cautious of the dangers of “homemade,” or “natural” remedies for your pet. Natural is nice, but it could be deadly for your pet.
• Never use a chat room for healthcare information.
• Use only reputable sites and professional sources. Accredited veterinary organizations such as AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association), the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) (yes, they have a pet section), and the ASPCA are suggested. I personally like WebMD Pet Health, and Merck Veterinary Manual online. Don’t be afraid to ask your veterinarian for their recommendations of online pet health resources and information.

The benefits of online vet consultations

Referring to the internet for information is different from telehealth or virtual visits. Skype, Zoom, or other video, telephone, or online veterinary visits are actual appointments to exchange medical information electronically from veterinarian to pet owner. It is permissible for veterinarians to offer clients telemedicine services if they have established a Veterinarian-Client-Patient Relationship (VCPR) as defined in the applicable state’s veterinary practice act. In Virginia, VCPR may be established via telemedicine as long as there is real-time, face-to-face interaction.

COVID 19 accelerated the use of telemedicine out of necessity so that we did not have to venture out of our safe homes and risk contracting the virus. There are many advantages to online vet appointments. First, it’s easy. Secondly, it tends to be less expensive. Not to mention just plain ole convenient. There is no waiting room wait period and no transportation expense. A study by The American Journal of Managed Care shows that telemedicine patients have reduced stress and anxiety, and surprisingly, 38% fewer hospital admissions. It’s a win-win for the physician too as it can reduce no-shows and eliminate the need for expensive overhead.

Modern technology makes online vets more accessible

Times have certainly changed. Our preferential use of, and overall popularity of the internet for healthcare has spoken for us as consumers. We want the convenience of instant pet health advice. We want to be able to avoid an office visit when possible. We want to be able to use the internet for pet health (and our health) information. Furthermore, when necessary, we want the ability to make vet appointments online and avoid a phone call – often with its layers of automated responses. We want to order prescription drug refills with a phone call. We also want at-home self-diagnostic tests. BUT we also want good relationships and pleasant experiences with our veterinarians and health care providers.

Final thoughts

Dr. Google may not always be wrong, but your veterinarian is the very best and most reliable source of information. Period. Nothing can take the place of that face-to-muzzle visit. To make a proper diagnosis, your veterinarian must be able to observe your pet, interact with your pet, and examine by manipulation and touch. Also, your relationship makes them familiar with your individual pet’s particular needs. That is invaluable. It is certainly smart to do your own pet health research, by internet or elsewhere, but it should never take the place of your trusted veterinarian.

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