THE BLOG
01/24/2014 03:16 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2014

The Internet Diagnosis

I will be honest. I have searched online resources not just once, but many times to better understand what ails my husband, my children, and me. I cannot tell you how many times I have mistakenly frightened myself with inaccurate Internet diagnoses of brain tumors, multiple sclerosis and other maladies. I know almost every one of my pet loving clients has searched the Internet to better understand why their pet is not feeling well. I know this because they sheepishly tell me what they have read on the Internet while I'm taking their pet's medical history. I would speculate that around 50-60 percent of the time my clients are in the vicinity of the right diagnosis. However, nearly 40 to 50 percent of the time they are not. My favorite example of an overzealous diagnosis based on an Internet search was when a woman frantically called my office because her Golden Retriever had a fast-growing tumor on the top of her head. She was confident that it was a malignant melanoma. Not only did she request the name of an oncologist but also a surgeon. Fortunately, my receptionist scheduled an immediate appointment with myself where I diagnosed an engorged tick on her dog's head. Using only a tweezers, I removed the "fast-growing tumor" and sent the dog home with an embarrassed, but smiling owner.

One of my veterinary assistants was recently diagnosed with a thyroid tumor, which fortunately has a 98 percent 20-year survival rate with appropriate treatment. When she was diagnosed, her internal medicine specialist immediately said, "Don't look on the Internet. It will scare you to death." I feel differently. I believe the Internet is a powerful educational health tool for helping people better understand what is not only ailing themselves, but also their pets. However, if not used correctly, it can be dangerous and misleading. I never trust any testimonial user advice nor any site that cannot refer you to the original study where the product was analyzed by non-financially motivated professionally respected scientists. I believe there are many trustworthy sites to investigate your pet's illness; many of them are linked to universities or nonprofit foundations. I recommend the following educational websites: VeterinaryPartner.com, aspca.org, vet.cornell.edu/fhc/, and avma.org/public/petcare.

I would like to present three medical cases that I have recently seen at Animal Medical Center of Chicago. Prior to my physical examination and diagnostic work up, each pet owner told me what they thought was their pet's diagnosis based on their own Internet search and intuition. I will tell you their actual diagnoses at the end of this article.

Case 1:
Meet Max, a 14-year-old male cattle dog-husky mix. Max has been suffering from allergies for years, itching his belly, licking his feet and rubbing his face. In addition, Max has severe arthritis in his back legs and has difficulty walking. Recently, his itching had gotten worse and his owner increased his allergy medication. In the past few months, he had two seizures. Both seizures presented with mild body tremors and lasted only a few minutes. For the past 12 hours, Max has been depressed and not interested in eating. After searching online, Max's mother thought he was having an adverse reaction to his anti-inflammatory medication or a brain tumor.

Case 2:
Nine-year-old Mastiff, named Bull, presented to Animal Medical Center of Chicago with a two-month history of sluggish behavior and weakness in hind limbs. He also had a decreased interest in dry dog food but would eat canned dog or human food. "On the Internet," my client says, "I read that bone cancer is very common in Mastiffs but I believe Bull has an abscessed tooth."

Case 3:
Sarah, a very young 14 ½ year-old shepherd, presented to me with a 1 1/2 month history of intermittent soft stools. About 1 1/2 months ago I had examined Sarah after she had ingested an old buried bone. I prescribed medication and a bland diet for her explosive diarrhea. Sarah initially responded beautifully to my recommendations, but two weeks later her diarrhea reappeared. After searching the web, Sarah's parents thought that she had parasites or Inflammatory Bowel Disease.

Each of my clients had searched the Internet and felt they had reached the most likely diagnosis. To their dismay, each of my client's Internet diagnosis was incorrect. As one can only imagine, a misdiagnosis can lead to catastrophic consequences for the patient. After my complete physical examination and appropriate diagnostic testing, I discovered that all three pets had the same disease: a tumor on the spleen. What is remarkable about these three patients with the same disease is that they all had different symptoms. Only after a complete physical examination and wisely chosen diagnostic tests performed was the correct diagnosis reached.

Please contact your entrusted veterinarian the next time your pet becomes ill. Once a diagnosis has been reached, ask your doctor for trustworthy educational sites for you to read to help you better understand and care for your pet's illness. As I have repeatedly said in my past blogs, an educated client is the best pet owner.