Internet advice: The good, the bad and the ugly

The internet can be a strange place at times. You can find great, reputable and unbiased information right next to complete garbage. Often, the garbage is pretty apparent, but sometimes it's dressed up well or mixed in with some good information. That's a problem with veterinary advice and information sites.

Among the creative myths identified in a couple of minutes of searching:

- Metronidazole is a proven treatment for parvovirus: No. Metronidazole is an antibiotic that doesn't have any effect on viruses. Antibiotics are sometimes used in the treatment of parvovirus, but they are drugs that are used to prevent or treat problems caused by bacteria from the gut entering the bloodstream as a result of the intestinal tract disease. Metronidazole won't do that.

- MRSA is a virus: You can't make much more of a basic mistake than confusing a virus and a bacterium. Anyone who says this when purportedly writing medical advice is completely clueless.

- If your dog gets an MRSA infection, your veterinarian will likely prescribe vancomycin: Only in extreme circumstances (if ever) should this ever happen. For more information on vancomycin and its use in treating animal and human infections, see our archives. (This gem is on a page that says it's information from infectious disease specialists).

-MRSA in dogs can easily become resistant to vancomycin so linezolid may be required: Fortunately, vancomycin resistance is extremely rare, having been found only a few times in people, in specific circumstances. It's never been found in a dog. Hopefully it will stay that way. (This site didn't even spell vancomycin correctly.)

- Cats can easily get a urinary tract infection if their litterboxes are not cleaned: No. There is no evidence of this and no reason to think it's an issue. Poor litterbox maintenance can lead to urinating outside of the litterbox or other problems like idiopathic cystitis, but not infection.

- In order to have a very healthy dog, it is often required to supplement your pet's diet to provide a high amount of probiotics: Nope. Certain probiotics might be useful in certain animals in certain situations, but we have no proof of this in dogs and cats, and they are certainly not needed for all animals.

There's no way to guarantee that a website is reputable or that the writers are knowledgeable, but here are some things I consider when scrutinizing information on the internet:

  • Who set up the website? Is it clear who's in charge?
  • Who wrote the information? Is it someone with actual credentials? For veterinary medical advice, is it a veterinarian? If it's a veterinarian, is it a specialist? If it's not a veterinarian, what expertise does the person have? Some people without veterinary degrees have expertise in some fields, but try to determine whether they truly have the qualifications to give advice on a particular topic. That's harder to do these days given the proliferation of mail-order "PhD" degrees, something that's not uncommonly encountered in unqualified people making poor veterinary recommendations. 
  • Why is the website there? Is it an educational site or is it there to make money? Commercial sites aren't necessarily bad but you have to consider any conflicts of interest or ulterior motives. If there is an article about something, and the last sentence tries to sell you a product to fix that problem, be careful.
  • Does the information make sense and is it consistent with other websites? You can probably find a site somewhere to support any notion that you have, but does it really make sense?
  • Is the site relevant to your geographical area? This is particularly important for infectious diseases since they can vary greatly between regions. A disease may be a big problem in one area, and a website might provide excellent advice... but only for that area. It may be completely irrelevant or inappropriate for other regions.
  • Can they spell? The odd typo probably isn't a major issue (I do it myself). However, rampant and blatant abuse of the English language and an inability to spell important words properly should be red flag.

Searching the internet for pet health information is certainly not a bad thing to do. But, you have to critically assess what you read and remember that it's not always right. Use the internet as a resource but make sure that it's to supplement advice from your veterinarian, not to replace it.

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Comments (1) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Tomcat - July 17, 2010 8:41 AM

I agree wholeheartedly with you Dr. Weese. It's one of the reasons that the Veterinary News Network has started two new websites that will help address these kinds of issues.

First and foremost, we have started the American Society of Veterinary Journalism (asvj.org). This group will certify and credential individuals who hold themselves to be pet health "experts" and who provide any advice/information in any media (traditional or new). Soon, seeing the "CVJ" (Certified Veterinary Journalist) credentials or the ASVJ seal of approval will be a flag that the information can be trusted.

Second, VNN also started PetDocsOnCall.com, a consumer website forum where pet owners can ask questions of actual practicing veterinarians.

Like you, we hate to see the influx of misleading or even patently wrong information on the Internet when it comes to our pets. Hopefully, with all of us working together, we can help provide a higher level of education.

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