MUTTerings: Long Distance Dog Diagnosis

You can do anything online these days, even get medical advice for your dog --but should you?

golden retrieverThe Internet has afforded dog owners all kinds of useful and increasingly essential resources, from forums where we can chat with each other about common problems, to learning about the latest dog food recalls, to finding the dog of our dreams. But the Internet has also become a substitute dog trainer and veterinarian, which can lead to some hairy problems (pun intended).

Trial and error in dog training can be part of the fun of learning about your dog’s preferences and learning capacity, so I’m not completely opposed to long-distance “ask the trainer” websites, but trial and error in a veterinary situation can have fatal consequences. The common wisdom in dog circles is that a dog should have a yearly check up, at minimum, with your local veterinarian, ideally the same doctor who will see your dog if there’s ever an emergency.

These days, there are loads of “ask the vet” websites springing up, where you can have a veterinary question answered for $25 to $50 or so, depending on the complexity of the question and the urgency in which you need the answer. These fees are far less than a veterinary visit, but is it worth the cost to your dog’s health?

Yes, going to the veterinarian can be pricey. No one is going to argue that. And trying to “cut canine corners” is understandable in this economy, but the veterinarian is not the place to start chopping.

“You can get some initial advice, but this should not replace going to your veterinarian and having a full history of your dog taken, where the veterinarian will perform a physical exam of all of your dog’s body parts,” says Dr. Patrick Mahaney, a veterinarian practicing in Los Angeles.

“These sites might be useful if you have a pet that is otherwise healthy but has a minor health issue, and you’re perhaps in a location or it’s a time of day when you can’t contact your vet or an emergency vet hospital,” continued Mahaney. “Maybe your pet has a bump on the skin or a skin rash – if you can upload a photo, that’s useful. The question you might want to ask is, ‘Is this something I have to deal with now, is it an emergency, or can this wait till I can contact my vet in the morning?’”

Dr. Mahaney makes a point – perhaps these services are good for very minor things, and maybe they can save you a trip to the vet (or postpone it, so you don’t have to go the emergency route), and the expenses that come with it. I perused six of these “ask a vet” sites and found that some of the questions were what I would consider to be reasonable for a vet to answer in this type of forum, such as “Are tomatoes bad for my dog” (they are fine), and “My dog ate chicken poop, is this a problem?” (don’t make a habit of it). I know that I wouldn’t want to rush to my local (and expensive) emergency veterinary hospital if my dogs ate chicken poop – in this case, it would be useful to know, from an online expert, if I was dealing with a life-threatening situation, and what to look for in case the chicken poop had an adverse reaction of them. But when should you not login, and instead head straight to your vet?

“Your pet has collapsed, may not be breathing, your pet has had a seizure, your pet is vomiting or having diarrhea – these are symptoms that you shouldn’t be typing into a website, you should be going to the vet,” says Mahaney. “If your pet has ingested something you think might be toxic, there are better places to contact right away, such as The Pet Poison Helpline (24/7 Animal Poison Control Center, 800-213-6680, $39 per incident fee) or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control hotline (888-426-4435, $65 consultation fee). Yes, you pay a fee, but you connect directly to a veterinary toxicologist.”

Another aspect of “online veterinary medicine” is the legality of treating a patient a vet has never seen.

“From a legal perspective, in California, it is illegal to diagnose, treat, or prescribe anything to a pet if you haven’t done a physical exam on the pet within a 12-month period,” says Mahaney. “There’s typically a disclaimer on these sites that says that ‘this does not replace going to your veterinarian.’”

Dr. Mahaney is right. I found a disclaimer on each of the six sites I perused. Most of them say that the site was for “entertainment purposes” only, and that the site was not held responsible for any medical, legal, or financial outcomes attached to the answers it provided. The disclaimers also say that the sites are not a substitute for emergency veterinary medicine, nor a substitute for a hands-on veterinarian. One of the sites had its disclaimer buried so deep in its pages, it took at least 10 clicks to find it.

One of the sites’ legal disclaimers was so long and complex, it looked like a team of lawyers had drawn it up. One of the clauses was about their “experts,” and stated that they were not responsible for the veracity of their experts – in other words, the site did its due diligence to find out whether or not the person answering your question was indeed a veterinarian, but they aren’t 100% sure.

“One of the things about these services is that you’re not actually always asking a vet,” said Dr Wendy McCulloch, a veterinarian in New York City who answered questions for one of these sites for a short time. “The way it works is that you can register as an expert. People who have been on there longer, whether they are a vet or not, have seniority, so when someone posts a question, that person can override everyone else, and now the vet tech who has always thought that he knows more than the vet, can answer. I tried this for a couple of days before I realized what it was all about. I thought it might be a good thing to help someone with their pet on the other end, perhaps someone with a simple question, rather than clogging up an emergency room. Some questions would be too complex, though, and there are certain conditions that this doesn’t work for. I gave up because it became very snarky rather than helpful. I would look at some of the “expert” profiles and realize that the person wasn’t a veterinarian.”

Despite her experience with the site, Dr. McCulloch says that she believes that these sites may OK for certain questions, like basic nutrition questions, but not for emergency situations.

“Someone might write in and ask, “I’ve noticed that my pet started doing something strange, is this something I need to follow up on, or is it normal?’” says McCulloch. “In terms of trying to make a diagnosis, it’s not going to work. Taking a good history is a key part of the consult as a vet – using your eyes, ears, and hands. The physical exam is really important. People forget that we do put our hands on their pets and that’s a huge part of veterinary medicine. Use these sites with a bit of common sense.”

Have you ever used an “ask a vet” site? What was your experience with it?

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Dogs · Health and Care