Myth 9: The internet will clear things up

This is not a rant about the evils of the internet. It is a fantastic resource. But there are also traps and dangers, as I will share.

As the internet has mostly been a very positive development I’ll start with the good things.

Knowledge On Tap

The most obvious has been the increase in quality of information in all areas. Once upon at time, if you wanted good information, there were only books. Then came the net, and in the early days, the information was poorly organised and often dangerously wrong. Now, search engines mostly deliver the good sites at the top, and you can choose from a range of good pet specialist websites.

It’s now common for our clients to research their pets illnesses so effectively that they can know more detail than the vet. They are able to know their pet’s condition up to the most recent breakthroughs in understanding. This means the level of conversation between vet and owner has been raised and treating their pet is more like a partnership. It is a pleasure to be able to talk on an equal footing with someone who genuinely understands the advice and can ask intelligent questions.

Read how to research your pet’s illness here.

Modern Pet Care

Similarly, pet owners can learn about other options available for their pet. For example, it’s very gratifying to meet a client who has spent the time reading everything they could before getting a new puppy. Most of the information they come across is positive and useful and allows them to make the most of the short time available to best socialise and train their puppy.

For some complex areas, such as behavioural problems, there is never enough time to give clients all the information they may find useful. Net-based resources can really help here, as long as you know which ones to avoid.

Rescue Shelters & Lost Dogs

Apart from information, the internet brings us together in ways we could not do before. A great example is Lost Dogs of Adelaide on Facebook. If a dog is lost or found, this is a great place to go to alert the network.

If you are thinking of taking a dog from a rescue shelter, the best way is probably to look at online sites such as petrescue.com.au, rspca.org.au, animalwelfare.com.au and the others run by individual shelters. Surely it is easier to rehome a rescue dog now than ever before.

Awareness

And then there is the ability to promote causes, such as campaigns against animal cruelty, or puppy farming, or awareness campaigns. I have never seen Facebook work better than in the recent rabbit calicivirus outbreak in Adelaide. Yes, it went viral.

So before I seem to go on forever about the problems of the internet, it is on the whole a very positive, helpful advance for pet owners. Even we vets have our own resources on the net.

Here are the problems as I see them:

It’s Global Not Local

Global information means the local detail is hard to find. English language vet information is dominated by the USA, and the UK. As animals are the same the world over, this is mostly OK, if you want to look up things they share such as heart disease or pancreatitis. It’s not OK for:

  • Infectious disease
  • Product availability
  • Cultural differences

Let me explain. Infectious disease is very regional, depending on many factors such as whether the disease is present at all in Australia, or if it is, whether it is found in our local community. So if you are trying to find out what might be wrong with your pet, the list will more often than not include diseases which are not relevant to pets in Adelaide. This can get very misleading. See the appendix for a list of diseases we almost never see.

Product availability is another big problem. Australia has a relatively small list of veterinary products available, due to the small population and high costs of registration and licensing. We often look with envy at options available overseas but we cannot just order them online. If we do, they will be stopped at customs as legally they cannot be sold into Australia.

Cultural differences are harder to see but often underpin the reasons why certain things are done in certain ways. A good example is dental disease, where vets in both the USA and the UK would regard the feeding of raw meaty bones to pets as tantamount to malpractice. Therefore, if you research dental care for pets you will only get other recommendations, usually product-based. Other examples will include opposition to desexing in Scandinavia, meaning advice on reproductive problems will include other surgery or medications only.

Diagnosis Is Hands On

Diagnosis is a human act, because to name and categorise the disease requires a complex interplay of factors including:

1. Historical, breed, age and gender clues

2. Type and severity of symptoms (vets call these ‘signs’)

3. The relative probabilities of each disease

4. A healthy dose of intuition (which is probably a subtle form of pattern recognition)

5. Testing and either confirmation or reassessment

Of course, a broken leg is not a difficult diagnosis. But most things are much more tricky than they appear. Assessing the symptoms is fraught with error. Even vets confuse spinal and abdominal pain at some time.

Have a look at the screenshot for the list which appears in a popular web diagnostic tool after you’ve identified the problem is abdominal. You can see why a lot of animals have had large doses of laxative before they visit, despite constipation actually being an uncommon cause of illness. Most of the other symptoms require an experienced vet to detect, and some, like pain, or regurgitation can be near impossible at times.

Then there is knowing which animals are going to rapidly deteriorate, or need urgent intervention, versus those we can happily wait and see or send home with treatment.

This tool is still a vast improvement on just entering symptoms in Google.

Impartiality Is Hard To Assess

Obvious as it is, all the information on the net has to be paid for somehow. Some, like most vet or university sites, have stable, independent funding and should not be biased. However, many sites rely on advertising and some are actually set up to promote specific products without saying so. I cannot imagine a site receiving advertising funding is going to criticise that company’s products, and could be tempted to feature them more prominently.

I personally have seen several clients buy expensive ‘snake oil’ remedies promoted as wonder cures for their pets with terminal diseases. These sites, and the people behind them, lie in wait for desperate people.
The products to the left are all found on the top ranking site for the search terms ‘dog cancer cure’. All have no proven efficacy whatsoever against cancer.

A second issue with bias is where the author has strong and dangerous beliefs. Because the net is unfiltered, anyone can publish their opinions as fact, and with a bit of care it can look very convincing. We have the greatest problem in this area with people who believe vaccinations are harmful.

Another good example is food fads, where whatever might be wrong can be blamed on the food.

Then there are the scams. Overseas sites selling medications at knock down prices are simply too good to be true. We have two patients whose health was seriously affected by buying counterfeit medication, which turned out to be worse than useless. One of these dogs has gone blind as a result.

OK, enough bad news.

What can we do to make the net a safer place?

It’s easy:

Get your information from trusted sources, and as local as possible. Make sure they are affiliated with vets or have vets as advisors. These sites should be large, and not make their money selling pet products. Preferably, they are published by institutions such as universities, or vets themselves. Wikipedia can be OK, but remember anyone can write on these pages so check the information elsewhere as well.

Try to avoid searching for what could be wrong before seeing the vet. You’ll only see a large scary list of possibilities. The net is an excellent search tool if you have a specific keyword, so once the condition has a name, search on this. Using its full technical name will give even more accurate results (eg canine mitral insufficiency, not dog heart disease).

Don’t be afraid to ask us our opinion of what you have read. We won’t laugh. I personally always enjoy a sentence starting with “I read on the internet…” as it’s like a vet lucky dip. You never know what’s coming next.

Never buy pet products from non-Australian sites. Consumers are protected by Australian law if buying from Australian-based companies. Otherwise, you’re on your own.

When searching for information, search the species not the breed (e.g. dog itchy skin, NOT vizsla itchy skin). Searching by breed bypasses most of the better sites and throws you into the realm of individuals with strong and highly unreliable opinions. Avoid chat forums and blogs by dog owners or breeders, which are depressingly inaccurate.

Read our guide to getting the facts using scientific literature here.

Appendix of diseases. Not a complete list!

Diseases not present in Australia

  • Rabies
  • Lyme disease (controversial but certainly not SA)
  • Leishmaniasis
  • Blastomycosis, coccidiomycosis

Diseases present in Australia but rare in Adelaide

  • Tick paralysis
  • Distemper (currently)
  • Feline leukaemia virus
  • Leptospirosis
  • Histoplasmosis

Diseases present in Adelaide but not always elsewhere

  • Heartworm disease
  • Snake bite

By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These blogs are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!
Have something to add? Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours of lodging.

Andrew

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