We all want answers fast, so it's tempting to look for clues online. In fact, AAHA receives many, many private messages through Facebook requesting medical advice for a pet. But the response is always: "Ask your veterinarian." Why?
It isn't a cop out. Seeing your veterinarian about an issue your pet is having is the best way to care for your dog or cat, says Heather Loenser, DVM, AAHA's Veterinary Advisor for Professional and Public Affairs. Loenser practices in several specialty, emergency and general practices in the New York metro area, and lives with a number of rescued dogs, cats, turtles and five pampered hens.
"Without examining a pet and carefully questioning an owner, the advice given over the internet could be inaccurate and potentially life threatening", Loenser says. "Although many pet owners are experts in their pets' day-to-day routines, favorite activities, foods, and toys, they are not experts in their medical conditions. It is not uncommon for a pet owner to make misdiagnoses and ask questions based on said misdiagnoses."
For instance, pet owners often send messages asking AAHA to recommend a shampoo for a "stinky dog." Often, the dog's problem is not a "stinky" body, but a painful--and smelly--ear or dental infection that needs to be treated by a veterinarian.
"Another common question is what medication is best to treat a pet's seizures. Diagnosing a seizure can actually be quite difficult and there are many other causes, including fainting from heart disease, serious liver disease, or difficulty regulating blood sugar", Loenser says. "Veterinarians are trained to identify the many causes of a problem that is noticed by a pet owner, make an accurate diagnosis, and communicate the treatment options."
When you consult the internet, aka "Dr. Google", instead of your veterinarian, it can be a challenge to find recommendations based on fact rather than fiction. Online health "remedies" could be ineffective, costly, or even dangerous.
There are also important ethical and legal reasons why a veterinarian shouldn't give medical advice about a dog or cat they've never examined. In fact, AAHA requires a strong veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR) in order for practices to provide quality care for animals.
"Veterinary medical ethics require veterinarians to have a valid veterinarian-client-patient relationship", says Loenser. "Currently, our profession does not consider online consultations a valid way of establishing a VCPR. Once a veterinarian has examined a pet and is familiar with their care, it is not uncommon for communication to occur over the phone and via the internet."
Until that relationship is established, veterinarians cannot respond to online questions about a pet. As Loenser pointed out: "without a valid VCPR, it is unethical and in many cases, illegal, for a veterinarian to dispense advice".
If you have questions about something you read on the internet, don't hesitate to ask an expert who is truly invested in the health and happiness of your pet, Loenser says.
"It's what we were trained to do", she says. "It's why we went to school. It's why we get up every day. It's why we become bonded to our patients and clients, grieving and celebrating with them, throughout a pet's life."
When you don't have an urgent medical situation or a question specific to your pet, but want general information about pet health care, here are some reputable sources to consider:
- AAHA's Pet Health Library
- Veterinary Partner
- ASPCA Poison Control
- Pet Poison Helpline
- AVMA Pet Care
- American Assoc. of Feline Practitioners - Cat Care
- Cornell Feline Health Center
- Indoor Pet Initiative - The Ohio State University
But of course, when in doubt, make an appointment to see your veterinarian.