Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Precautions for 'Net-Surfing Pet Owners

Pet Column for the week of May 12, 2003

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ann Marie Falk
Information Specialist

With so much information available on the Internet, many pet owners are going on-line to learn more about pet care issues. Unfortunately, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can post a Web page. Not all the information found there comes from reputable sources, and some of it is plain wrong.

"The Internet is a great resource for pet owners interested in general health issues such as owning, training, basic behavior concerns, and breed information. It also offers supplementary information about a previously diagnosed problem. However, it does not take the place of veterinary care," says Dr. Christine Merle, a veterinarian at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana.

The biggest on-line pitfall for pet owners is trying to diagnose the pet's problem. Pets with a medical problem need to be seen by a veterinarian so thorough diagnostics can be performed. Doing a search on common signs of disease, such as vomiting or diarrhea, will match for thousands of diseases. You cannot pinpoint a diagnosis accurately on-line.

"Trying to treat your pet with on-line advice can do more harm than good. Always consult your veterinarian before implementing a course of treatment," says Dr. Merle.

Once a veterinarian has diagnosed your animal with a disease or a condition, an Internet search can be helpful. Now that you have a specific disease to research, you can use the Internet as a resource for more information-taking care to find reputable sources.

"Before reading a Web page, take the time to look for the author. What are the person's credentials? What qualifications make the author a credible source? By looking critically you can determine how trustworthy the information is," advises Dr. Merle.

You should also be aware who sponsors the site. Is this a company or business trying to sell a product? Commercial Web sites tend to offer one-sided information. Like most things in life, there are at least two sides to issues related to recommendations for pet care. The burden is on you to look into both sides.

"For example, if an article states that all dogs should be fed Brand X diets, try to find out the benefits of a variety of diets so you can make an educated decision about what to feed your dog," says Dr. Merle. "Believing what you read without looking at the issue from different angles can lead to wrong conclusions."

Backing a claim with scientific research adds to credibility. Have experiments been done to support these findings? Stay away from anecdotal stories, when someone begins with "in my experience this has helped dogs ..." The outcome may have just been a coincidence, and there is no evidence to support it.

Web sites created by large national organizations and veterinary college Web sites (typically these end in .org or .edu) are good places to start a search. Veterinarians have input into most of the information posted there.

Ask your veterinarian to suggest reputable Web sites and consult your veterinarian about the information you find on-line. It's helpful to print out what you find on-line with the full reference and have it on hand when discussing the matter with your vet.

Veterinarians are the best source of information; they can clarify contradictions you find, discuss diseases, provide comprehensive advice, and care for your pet.