Imagine a doctor that diagnoses medical conditions and dispenses medical advice for FREE! You don’t even have to leave the house. Where do we sign up, right? BUT, the doctor is never available for an appointment to follow up on what they told you; they won’t even pick up the phone when you try to call with additional questions. In fact, they don't really care if you follow their advice or not—or if said advice actually causes harm. This has widely become known as consulting "Dr. Google", as many people fall victim to using the internet to "solve" their own health issues as well as their pet's problems. The danger isn't Google but, rather, having your search guide you to a website that doesn't verify its information or, worse, blatantly shares the dreaded fake news.
We can understand the appeal of searching the internet before picking up the phone to call your veterinarian, as the tendency is to think it will save you time and money. And you wouldn't be alone in this either. As many as 75 percent of pet parents have Googled symptoms before picking up the phone to call their vet. We certainly encourage dog and cat owners to educate themselves, but your pet's life could be at risk if you don't seek the help of a veterinarian.
We explore the pivotal and, quite frankly, dangerous ways "Dr. Google" loses its value in comparison to proper veterinary services in this post.
The Scary Cyber Consultation
Websites dedicated solely to pet health have risen in number over the past years and, while there are some credible sources that educate on general pet health - such as AVMA and the ASPCA (especially their info on household products, foods, and plants that are poisonous to pets) - many sites are unvetted (Pun intended...un-"vetted"...get it? We're veterinarians) and some even contain harmful advice.
For instance, if you Google, “Is aspirin safe for dogs?” you will find that the answer ranges greatly. Some sites advise only giving it if your veterinarian approves, while others say that it is safe for use and will even give the dosage based on weight! But aspirin comes with a high risk of GI ulceration and prolonged bleeding—which not all websites warning against.
What about that aforementioned diarrhea that you’re sure your dog got from raiding the litterbox? Easily treated with Pepto-Bismol, right? And there’s the dosage again, so conveniently located on the internet. But what Dr. Google didn’t tell you is that dogs can contract hookworms, roundworms, whipworms, and Giardia from eating fecal matter, so no amount of Pepto is going to cure what ails your faithful friend. What’s more, “the pink stuff” can turn your dog’s stool black, making it difficult to tell if blood is present, masking an important symptom that could indicate far more serious diseases like parvovirus or intestinal cancer. Even worse, Pepto-Bismol contains an ingredient that is a form of aspirin so, again, there is a risk of GI ulceration with a potential for a perforating gastrointestinal ulcer. Perforating ulcers require emergency surgery and come with a very high mortality rate.
The Dangerous Digital Diagnosis
Allowing Dr. Google to make a diagnosis based on what you can see and then attempting to treat with information found on the internet is a gamble, with your precious pet paying in the end. Can Dr. Google tell the difference between a problem like a mild cause of conjunctivitis that may resolve itself on its own or a serious problem like glaucoma, uveitis, or corneal ulcer that may result in permanent blindness if not treated appropriately within 24 hours? The answer is a resounding NO.
Dr. Google Cautionary Tale
One pet parent Googled her lethargic puppy’s symptoms and, along with red bruising on the puppy’s abdomen, assumed it had been bitten by a spider. When she finally brought the puppy to the vet, who was able to determine that the puppy was hemorrhaging internally due to eating rat poison, it was too late.
How Does a Veterinarian Visit Differ From Google?
A veterinarian needs to look at many factors when diagnosing an animal after a thorough exam, taking into consideration your pet’s medical history, necessary laboratory tests, and outside influences such as environment and pet nutrition. This is why, when clients call us with a list of their pet’s symptoms, we cannot diagnose over the phone. (Well, that and it’s unethical and illegal.)
If the variables are too many for your veterinarian to diagnose and treat without examining your pet, imagine risking that with Dr. Google! It’s possible a new puppy passed its case of kennel cough onto your older dog, but it’s also possible that cough is a symptom of heart disease or heartworms, and diagnosing a serious health problem sooner rather than later will not only save you money in treating your pet—it may actually save his or her life.
While it may relieve your mind to research on Hill’s Pet Nutrition’s website (a great site not just for pet nutrition, but also general pet health) and find out that it’s normal for your dog’s nose to sometimes be warm and dry without it indicating that he’s sick, there are some physical signs in your pet that should never be ignored.
Here are some symptoms that you should always see your vet for:
- Bleeding coming from the mouth, nose, or ears
- Blood in the stool
- Difficulty breathing
- Refusal to eat or drink
- Difficulty urinating
- After being hit by a car or attacked by another animal
- Obvious signs that your pet is in pain
- Any eye issues
- Vomiting that lasts more than a day, or frequent bouts within a few hours
- Diarrhea that lasts longer than 48 hours - The first signs of diarrhea, if not in large volumes or containing blood, can be managed at home with a bland diet, although appropriate treatment from your vet will often result in quicker resolution
The Viral Pet Advice You Should Actually Use
Along with the websites for general pet education mentioned earlier, there are some other great websites available for pet health care - such as the American Red Cross - that explains how to perform basic emergency first aid and CPR. For your non-emergency pet care needs, consult your veterinarian's pet care library.
We also understand that, in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, the desire to stay at home is strong. We also know, though, that you don't want to risk your pet's life by doing so, which is why nearly all veterinarians have set up safety precautions in light of the coronavirus, including curbside service.
The safest approach to diagnosis and treatment when it comes to your pet’s health is professional veterinary care. Only trust your pet’s heartbeat to a doctor who has a heartbeat. So, if you’re tempted to treat your pet with information found on the internet, please, step away from the search engine and call your primary care veterinarian first.