Pet Connection: How to evaluate pet information on the Web

05/31/2014 12:00 AM

05/29/2014 4:50 PM

When you think something’s wrong with your dog or cat, the first thing you do is Google the symptoms. Am I right? I bet I am.

Studies show that three out of four people go to the Internet before calling their veterinarians or taking their pets to the clinic. I understand. If you’re worried about your pet, you want to have an idea right away of what might be wrong. But “Dr. Google” isn’t always the best source of information for what’s going on with your pet or how to treat it.

I’m not just saying that because I think you should take your furry friend to the veterinarian if he’s sick (although I do). The Internet is an amazing source of all kinds of knowledge, but it’s also full of unreliable, out-of-date and just plain wrong advice. The fact is, some information is more equal than other information. More important, nothing on the Internet beats an in-person exam by your veterinarian.

I say that after seeing at least five instances in the past couple of years of pets dying because well-meaning owners relied on information found on the Web and brought them in for help when it was too late. I don’t want you to stop going to the Internet for information. I think it can be a valuable resource. I do want to help you learn to find and evaluate the best information. Here’s what to look for.

•  Authorship: Who wrote the article? What are his or her credentials? Knowing the writer’s background or affiliation with a particular institution allows you to judge how knowledgeable he or she is on the subject. You should also look for evidence of bias. Is the author pushing a particular viewpoint? Does the page belong to a company selling a product?
•  Source: Is the information from an academic institution or university, a government agency or a professional organization? Those are generally reliable and authoritative sites. Other good sites have articles that are written or reviewed by veterinarians. Some of my favorites are Vetstreet.com (where I write), PetHealthNetwork.com, WebMD Healthy Pets, PetPlace.com, VeterinaryPartners.com and PetMD. A personal or commercial page may have good information, but it’s important to look carefully at the writer’s credentials and documentation of that information.
•  Evidence: What’s the proof behind what you’re reading? Does the author refer to other sources to back up the information? Who or what are the sources? If a study is mentioned, the writer should include where and when it was published. Then you can look up the summary and find out what kind of study it was. For medical evidence, randomized controlled trials – meaning that the study participants were randomly assigned to treatment or control groups – provide the most reliable results. Does the study appear in a peer-reviewed journal – meaning that impartial scientists who weren’t part of the study evaluated it before publication? You can check the journal’s website to see if studies are sent out for review before publication.
•  Reliability: Is the information similar to what you’ve read on the subject elsewhere, or is it way out in left field? That doesn’t necessarily make it wrong, but it does mean that you should cast an extra-critical eye on the ideas presented. It’s always a good idea to look at several sources so you can have a well-rounded understanding of the topic.
•  Currentness: How old is the information? What we know can change quickly in this field. Beware of undated information. Look for sites that are updated regularly. Dr. Google makes it easy to find information, but if you want to be really knowledgeable, you still have to put in the hard work of making sure it’s accurate. And remember that you have a primary source just an appointment away: your veterinarian.

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