The Internet: a pet’s friend or foe?

The World Wide Web – it has broadened our ability to communicate beyond ways imaginable. It has embedded itself in our personal lives, our businesses, in the relationships we have with friends and family. In the veterinary world, the Internet has significantly altered both owners’ relationships with their pets and with their vets. No longer do owners have to call the vet to ask for help when their pet has an abnormality. Owners can jump on line, and with the click of a mouse, find causes for common and not so common clinical signs that their pets may be demonstrating. They can “Google” methods of diagnosis, means of treatment, even drug dosages. The veterinarian is no longer regarded as the only trusted source of pet care information; pet owners can now surf the Web and diagnose their pet’s condition without ever even seeing their vet. And if owners do actually take their sick pets to the veterinarian, they often have researched their pet’s clinical signs and have a tentative diagnosis and possible treatment plan in mind even before they walk through the clinic door.

For veterinarians, the Internet has forever changed the way they practice, as well. General veterinarians can now refer cases to specialists through a simple email. Vets can share any number of x-ray images with the stroke of a keyboard. They can attend continuing education meetings without ever leaving their workplaces. On the one hand, vets can now share information with clients without their having to bring their pets into the hospital or even without having to speak with them on the telephone. They can provide clients with reams of educational material or with their pet’s medical records without ever having to print a page.

While the Internet certainly has been hugely helpful in bringing veterinary care to people in remote places or who have very limited funds and who might not be able to go readily to an animal hospital, it may not always provide the best care available for a sick pet.  As any good veterinarian will tell you, there really is no substitute for a complete physical examination of an ill pet by a well-educated, up-to-date veterinarian. Plus, just because something is in print on the Internet doesn’t mean that it is necessarily the correct or most current information.  Veterinarians constantly have to learn new and better means of treatment to provide the best care possible for their patients, and in fact, most states now have continuing education requirements that vets must fulfill in order to keep their licenses valid. In contrast, once something is written on a website, it is imprinted there forever unless the website is taken down, and readers often have no clue that what they are reading may be outdated or invalid information.

So, the question is, with all the communication now available over the Internet, with more pet owners relying on the Web to help them solve their pets’ medical issues, are pets receiving the same quality of medical care that they have in the past?  And now that more pet owners are emailing their vets with questions about their pets’ health and not always allowing their vets to examine these pets, are vets able to provide the same kind of good medical care that they have traditionally? And how do vets respond to owners who come into the animal hospital after researching their pets’ illness on line and insist that very specific tests or treatments be performed on their animals even before the vet has had a chance to do an examination?  Is the Internet really a pet’s friend or foe? What do you think?

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