The medical information we can find for our animals and ourselves has improved immeasurably because of the internet. But it’s important to remember, anyone can publish a website and say anything they like whether it is true or not. However, you can learn to tell the difference between valid information and that which is unproven, so you don’t waste your time or money and possibly harm your pet.
There are two main types of sites:
- Noncommercial (teaching hospitals, government agencies, speciality hospitals, and foundations)
- Commercial (generally someone who wants you to buy their product).
The noncommercial sites are usually trustworthy. In health care research, it is best to avoid commercial sites, such as those that sell veterinary medications or products. Nonetheless, commercial sites can contain good information, but train yourself to recognize it. Look for the following if you are reading something from a commercial site.
- Scientific references come from scientific, peer-reviewed journals such as the Annals of Internal Medicine, The Cochrane Database, the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Journal of the International Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society, Journal of Nutrition, etc. Scientific references do not come from newspapers, Time magazine, the Whole Dog Journal, or Cat Fancy. Pharmaceutical marketing materials need to cite medically appropriate studies, whether their products are over the counter or prescription. Because supplements are not regulated by the FDA, you usually cannot find any information other than what studies the company has done for itself. What you want to find are peer-reviewed journal articles for which the article has been reviewed by experts in the same field.
- The references and information should be relevant to your pet. For example, test tube studies and those in laboratory mice are probably meaningless to a dog in the real world. Human studies are somewhat more useful, but dog studies are best. (And cats are a completely different issue because they are metabolically very different from humans, dogs, mice and most other species we can think of.) Testimonials are not useful at all so ignore them.
- The people who write articles and formulate nutritional supplements should be clearly identified, along with their training and credentials. Contact information should be easily available; having to hunt for it is a red flag. From this information you can determine their expertise to comment on the product. Your mechanic’s recommendation means nothing compared to a medical specialist’s.
- If information on the site seems extremely optimistic or promises to cure chronic and terminal illnesses, please refer back to #1-3.
- If the site promotes and sells brand name products, refer back to #1-4.
- If the ingredients and their amounts are not available, avoid purchasing from the company. “Proprietary ingredients” are secret, and there is no way to tell whether they may be toxic or just useless to your pet.
- If a company sells veterinary supplements, it should be a member of the National Animal Supplement Council, an industry group that ensures high standards of quality control and maintains an adverse event reporting system. If the company does not belong, it indicates a willingness to cut corners.
- Veterinarians can prescribe and dispense human products for animals as well, but the dose should be recommended ONLY by a veterinarian familiar with the supplement and not by the manufacturer, unless they employ veterinarians.
- The site should have links to other sites, and these links should provide multiple ‘points of view’ about the issue or condition.
- Beware of sites that link ONLY to other alternative medicine sites, or conversely, those that link only to quack buster sites.
- Check to see if the information you are gathering is fairly well accepted and not the opinion of one well-spoken company representative or lone practitioner who only sees a few patients a year. Compare information from commercial sites to noncommercial ones.
- The site should clearly indicate when it was last updated. Medical information can become outdate quickly.
- Finally, do not assume that consumers and pet owners have access to the same information that veterinarians do. Professional networks keep them informed of research before it is published, and of breaking news never seen in the newspapers or on the internet. Verify your information with your veterinarian and ask questions.
Recommended websites to start your research:
- Veterinary Partner (you're actually here): a database of in-depth articles on veterinary conditions and the conventional diagnostics and treatments recommended; usually kept very well updated. Driven by the Veterinary Information Network (VIN) and overseen by veterinarians.
- The National Library of Medicine is the scientific database of peer-reviewed journal articles published from about 1960 to the present. You can retrieve abstracts of the studies and occasionally the full scientific article.
Dr. Wynn is with Georgia Veterinary Specialists in Sandy Springs, Georgia.