Can You Trust Dr. Google With the Health of Your Pet?

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 he told you; he won’t even pick up the phone when you try to call with additional questions! In fact, he doesn’t really care if you follow his advice or not—or if his advice actually causes harm. We are, of course, talking about “Dr. Google.”

Many years ago, our own Dr. Klemawesch almost needed a corneal transplant due to inappropriately treating herself (wrong species!). She thought she didn’t have the time for an appointment to see a doctor, but in the end, to save her sight she ended up going to multiple specialist visits per week for several months. She is fortunate that she still has normal vision, but you can imagine the toll it took in time, expense, and stress!

We can understand the appeal of searching the internet before picking up the phone to call us; who wouldn’t want to save the money they would spend on a veterinarian consult if the reason Fido has diarrhea is simply because he ate “treats” from the cat box? You’re not alone either. As many as 75% of pet parents have Googled symptoms before picking up the phone to call their vet. We certainly encourage pet parents to educate themselves, but here’s where Dr. Google loses value:

The 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 (no pun intended) and contain even 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 cure what ails Fido. 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 GI ulceration with a potential for a perforating gastrointestinal ulcer. Perforating ulcers require emergency surgery and come with a very high mortality rate.

The 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 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 treat appropriately within 24 hours?

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.

A veterinarian needs to look at many factors when diagnosing an animal after a thorough exam, taking into consideration your pet’s medical history, any necessary laboratory tests, and outside influences such as environment and diet. 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, how much more so for 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 your pet.

While it may relieve your mind to research on Hill’s Pet Nutrition’s website (also a great site for not just pet nutrition, but 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, 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
  • Seizures
  • 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 Advice

Along with the websites for general pet education mentioned earlier, there are some other great websites available for pet health care like the American Red Cross, that explain how to perform basic emergency first aid and CPR. For your non-emergency pet care needs, Northeast Animal Hospital has a number of blogs on topics such as improving your pet’s quality of life and health through nutrition, exercise, parasite prevention, hazards to watch out for, and having fun with your pet. We hope you’ll take the time to explore our extensive library here.

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 us first.