The Vet or the Net? How to Save on Your Pet’s Health

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I own five fish, three turtles, two cats, one dog, and a parrot. But I’ve made only a single visit to the vet in the past year.

While it’s not cheap to care for my animal menagerie in this sputtering economy, it would’ve been downright impossible if I ran to the veterinarian every time one of my pets had a problem. Instead, I’ve relied increasingly on the Internet to diagnose and treat my animals, and according to a study released just last week, I’m not alone.

It’s called the Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study, and it cites six main reasons why pet owners are making fewer visits to the vet, ranging from the obvious (“economic impact of the recession” and “cost of care”) to the complicated (“fragmentation of veterinary services” and “feline resistance,” which the study defines as “the hiding, aggression, vocalization, and stressed/fearful behavior cats exhibit when crated and transported to unfamiliar surroundings”).

But the most intriguing reason was this one: “Consumers substituting Internet research for office visits.” Now, this study doesn’t endorse what I do, so in the interest of full disclosure, here’s how they describe it…

“Another factor that can negatively affect pets and their health is the ready availability of information online – 15 percent of pet owners said that with the Internet they don’t rely on the vet as much, while 39 percent look online before consulting a vet if a pet is sick or injured.”

Adds Karen Felsted, CEO of the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues (NCVEI), “This means veterinarians often see sicker pets because the owner has delayed treatment based on something they read online.”

Then again, the company that sponsored this survey – Bayer – might be biased since they’re one of the world’s leading manufacturers of veterinary drugs: They can ill-afford to alienate veterinarians. Their Animal Health division manufactures and markets approximately 100 different veterinary drugs and care products, which like human medications, are increasingly available without a doctor’s or veterinarian’s prescription. So why spend an average of $100 to see a vet when you can get the advice and treatment online?

For example, in the last few months, my turtles stopped eating for a week, my parrot has lost all of the feathers on her head, and my dog swallowed a pain pill and had a hematoma on his ear the size of a walnut. Granted, in early pet-hood I might have run directly to the vet to report the problem, but as I become a seasoned pet parent, I’ve realized two things:

  1. A vet visit is sometimes more helpful in comforting the owner than treating the pet, and I simply can’t afford to spend $100 just to ease my vicarious hypochondria.
  2. I can stay at home, web-search the problem, and hundreds of websites offering free advice – and better yet, pet owners’ personal experience with the same issues – come right up. And usually I can find enough information to soothe my worrying soul or be directed to a suitable treatment.

Sometimes, however, home diagnosis isn’t enough. If the problem worsens or reoccurs, it’s time for a trip to the vet. But the Internet is certainly a money-and-time-saving step worth taking before the knee-jerk vet run. Some sites I find reliable:

But as I mentioned above, this is the tip of the iceberg. Here’s a list of 100 pet-oriented sites you might also try.

As for my brood: I spent a few hours online and learned that turtles don’t eat when the temperature drops suddenly, parrots molt and can’t reach their heads to pull out the sheaths that form around new feathers, the Tylenol in pain pills is toxic to dogs (although strangely, the narcotic isn’t), and there was no way in hell I was going to lance a blood-filled sac in his ear at home. Thus, my one visit to the vet – during which I also got him his annual rabies vaccine.

Then again, if you don’t use the Internet wisely, or take bad advice, you’ll end up spending more later, since your vet will have to try to repair the damage you did or caused by delay. As my vet says, “The Internet keeps me in business.”

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