A news article in Horse and Hound last week focused on something that has been niggling at me for the last couple of years – the rise of the internet veterinary ‘expert’. The internet, and particularly internet forums, is a great place to share experiences and seek advice but latterly I’ve noticed more and more people using it as a substitute for qualified veterinary opinions, to diagnose problems or to question the (usually eminently sensible) plan of action proposed by their own vet. Now, I have to declare an interest here. I am a horse vet. I make my living from lame, sick, injured and also healthy horses. Of course I’d rather people called me out than asked for advice on-line. However looking at it from a dispassionate standpoint I am increasingly concerned by the advice given online, usually in a totally plausible fashion by someone who sounds like they know what they’re talking about, but who is often dispensing guidance which varies from at best useless to at worst dangerous and occasionally potentially fatal.
This raises a dilemma for me. Most often I try not to read anything veterinary-related in online forums and blogs, in the interests of preserving a full head of hair and to prevent me inducing brain damage by repetitive head-banging against my office wall. Sometimes I am tempted just to have a wee peek and other times I stumble upon it by accident. Mostly I manage to sit on my hands as it is generally unprofessional to offer an opinion on a horse that I have never seen and which is the client of another vet. However on the odd occasion where I see advice given which is plainly dangerous or just wrong I do step in to try to prevent a disaster. Whether the original poster gives any more credence to my viewpoint that that of the other online know-it-alls is up to them, but at least I’ve salved my conscience.
The pearls of wisdom that I’ve read have ranged from the almost accurate to the truly bizarre. For instance a long and detailed reply to the owner of a horse newly diagnosed with Cushing’s Disease on a convincingly positive blood result which starts with ‘I’d be very suspicious of your vet for choosing to test for this disease [the pony was showing classic symptoms] – what’s their agenda?’ continues with advice to try some unproven herbal remedies instead and finishes with ‘although I don’t know much about this’. At least the last statement’s accurate!
Some people want advice from others who have horses with similar problems and I can agree that there are benefits to discussing management with someone in the same boat. However it is important to remember that there can be huge variances even within the same condition and differing, but equally valid, ways of treating things. For instance a superficial digital tendon tear will never be identical from horse to horse and only your vet who has seen the scan pictures can give you an exact recommendation for a rehab programme. Just because another person’s horse had to have 12 weeks box rest and yours is starting hand-walking after a fortnight doesn’t mean that either vet is necessarily incompetent.
The late night ‘Please help, horse showing signs of colic’ posts make me grit my teeth to the point of enamel damage, but luckily most people will chip in and reply with ‘Phone a vet. Now’.
I can appreciate that we are in rather difficult financial times at the moment. Hell, I’m pretty much broke myself. However most people can afford to pick up their phone and talk to their vet and at least that way you’re speaking to someone who generally knows what they’re talking about. You don’t necessarily need a visit for every problem – often a telephone call and some suggestions will suffice in the short term. It’s all very well reading a semi-coherent reply online, but how do you know whether it’s been posted by someone with a degree in animal health or the local village idiot? If you’re not sure about the advice given by your vet either ask them to explain further or give you more options or try asking a different vet. Would you trust the opinion of internet strangers if your child was ill? (actually, don’t answer that one!).
For now I’m going to step away from the laptop every time I see something along the lines of ‘Pus discharging from my horse’s eye – what should I do’ or ‘Vet diagnosed Benji as a wobbler – can herbs help?’. It can only be beneficial to my blood pressure. If I hear the words ‘toothpaste’ and ‘sarcoid’ in the same sentence one more time I may not be answerable for my actions!