Finding Reliable Internet Sources for Pet Care Information

By Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Are you like millions of pet owners who want to know everything you can about keeping your cat or dog healthy? Where do you get your information? Do you go to your local library or ask your veterinarian? Or do you open your computer or mobile device and Google it?

The internet covers a lot of terrain and includes vast amounts of knowledge. Unfortunately, copious amounts of information do not always equate to accurate information. While we know that the internet is a great source of information, we must also realize that it can be a source of misinformation. So how do you know what internet sources you should trust when it comes to finding information on pets and pet care?

"Copious amounts of information does not always equate to accurate information."

Finding Reliable Information

As a pet owner, you need reliable, correct information to make informed decisions on your pet’s care and health needs. The quality of information you receive can have a direct effect on the health and well-being of your pet. Make sure that you are able to tell the difference between reliable and unreliable information, and know the right places to look when you are in need of an answer for your pet. If pet care is unfamiliar territory for you, here are a few tips to help you navigate and find reliable online information sources:

Visit the sites of accredited veterinary organizations such as CAPC (Companion Animal Parasite Council), AHS (American Heartworm Society), AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association), AAHA (American Animal Hospital Association), or the AAFP (American Association of Feline Practitioners); governmental sites such as the CDC (Centers for Disease Control—Healthy Pets Healthy People); or well-known non-profit organizations, such as ASPCA (Poison Hotline).

Frequent familiar sites. Search for the sites of known veterinary schools or your personal veterinary hospital’s web site. Both are names you recognize and know will have good information. They can often direct you to other reputable online resources as well.

Visit independent sites that contain content written by veterinarians such as WebMD Pet Health Community, LifeLearn ClientEd, PetMD, Merck Veterinary Manual online and more. You can also look for the sites of major pharmaceutical companies. Pharmaceutical sites may also present unbiased information that is not too commercial. The goal here to educate, not sell products.

Find a site with an easy-to-use search engine. You should find your answer in a couple of clicks. Be specific when entering search engine data to more accurately target your pet’s needs. This is especially important when using a general search engine such as Google.

Scrutinize the site. Do you recognize the company or individual? How modern is the site, and how often is information updated? You want the most current information for your pet. Who is the intended audience—doctors or pet owners? Is the information easy to understand? You can’t use what you can’t decipher.

Find a well-organized site. Can you find topic headings that steer you in the right direction? Look for sections that are broad (i.e., behavior, immunizations, parasites, organ systems) and have drop down menus that are more specific (i.e., house training, kennel cough, heartworms, heart disease).

Avoid sites heavily weighted with personal opinion. Chat rooms are good at offering suggestions based the experience of other pet owners, but should not take the place of grounded medical information. You don’t want advice from someone who may not know as much as you do! You want information from qualified individuals and well-established companies that use facts and studies to back up their information.

Internet Precautions

After finding a site, be alert for caution signs. If you see any of the following, leave that site location and drive to better destination.

Avoid sites that tell you how to treat your pet’s specific problems based on electronic dialogue alone. You should not engage with a diagnosis or treatment plan founded on e-mails, online chats, or phone conversations. Accurate diagnosis and treatment require a hands-on physical exam and sometimes, lab tests. In fact, medical ethics dictate that a valid veterinarian-client-patient relationship exist to protect your pet. No matter how detailed you try to be, if the information you provide is incomplete or inaccurate, the prescribed medication or treatment may actually harm, rather than help your pet. One exception to this involves poison hotlines that advise emergency treatment. If you are in this situation, be SURE you are using a reputable service like the ASPCA Animal Poison Control line or Pet Poison Helpline.

As well, there is a new trend in the veterinary field towards offering telemedicine services. This may be done through an internet company, or may be offered through a veterinary hospital. In these cases, the service will be provided by a licensed veterinarian (you can check the vet’s credentials on these sites if you are not sure). Remember, however, that the veterinarian is only able to go by what you describe or send by video, and is unable to perform a physical exam or offer diagnostic tests. Depending on the situation, they may advise seeking in-person treatment for your pet.

Be wary of sites that advise “home-made” remedies. Approved alternative therapies are helpful, but trying “home-made” remedies to treat serious illnesses like heartworm, parvovirus, bladder stones, etc. could be fatal for your pet. Only give your pet medications that have been approved by the FDA to ensure safety and efficacy. Do not trust an internet site that claims their kitchen-variety product is as effective as an approved drug. Making this claim is illegal. And discuss everything you plan to give or do to your pet with your veterinarian before giving or doing it!

Avoid sites that do not require veterinary approval for prescription medications. The website may sell you a drug that is inappropriate for your pet’s condition. Or they may be selling unapproved or counterfeit medication that could harm your pet. Prescription medication sources that bypass your pet’s veterinarian are highly suspicious.

The best source for information about your pet is ALWAYS your veterinarian

Information sources have evolved with time. Years ago, inquiring pet owners read a magazine, or talked to a neighbor while walking the dog, or questioned the person with a cart full of cat food in the grocery line. Today we may rarely pick up a magazine, do not have time to talk to our neighbors, and may have our groceries delivered. But one thing has not changed. Even in the mobile age where searching the internet is easy and productive, the best source of pet care information can be found at your local veterinary hospital.

"Your veterinarian should be your number one source of pet care information."

Your veterinarian should be your number one source of pet care information. He or she is familiar with your pet’s individual needs and can answer your questions directly. Plus, the degree hanging on the hospital wall proves that your pet’s doctor has the training to provide you with accurate information. So, it is OK to look for online information resources for your pet, as long as you still take the time to go to your local veterinary hospital, especially if you are unsure or the condition may be serious. The internet should never take the place of your trusted veterinarian.

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