Symptom Checkers - Who needs vets anymore? We've got the Web.

I think my dog has rabies. My cat probably has feline leukopenia and my goldfish looks like he has trichondina.

My pets are also overstressed, overweight, and lacking in exercise. I probably feed them too much as well.

Who needs vets anymore? We've got the Web.

There are dozens of pet symptom checkers out there, and they all promise to help you interpret your animal’s symptoms. Of course, they all feature prominent disclaimers emphasizing that they should be used for information purposes only and you should seek veterinary advice for any real diagnoses.

I have a case of Cyberchondria

So why bother? Because in theory, it's much easier (and cheaper) to type in few search terms or answer a few questions and obtain a list of potential causes of your pet’s symptoms.

And, pet owners being pet owners, we will probably focus on the worst-sounding ailment and convince ourselves that is what our pet has. This condition is called "cyberchondria" by a couple of Microsoft researchers who have studied health-related search behaviour in the field of human medicine. In their research paper, they declared, "The Web has the potential to increase the anxieties of people who have little or no medical training, especially when Web search is employed as a diagnostic procedure."

If that statement is true for human ailments then it is a pretty sure bet that our anxieties will amplified where our animals are concerned.

Under review ....

We reviewed several of the most popular online symptom tools ourselves and also asked a selection of veterinary surgeons and pet owners to give their general views.

We consulted with Jo Crosby-Deakin of specialist animal behaviouralist K9 Solutions in Essex; Adrian Caunter , the Good Vet Guide’s resident veterinary surgeon and also of Vet’s Klinic in Swindon; Jonathan Nurse principal vet at Cherrydown in Basildon; and Kevin O’Leary also of Cherrydown.

Jonathan Nurse said that symptom checkers have their place but he was concerned about their accuracy and how pet owners may choose to interpret the results. One common problem he found was that the symptoms presented by an animal are often not visible to the lay person. In addition, some symptoms are more significant than others in the context of a particular condition.

Self diagnosis ....

Jonathan would always prefer that patients come in first so he can establish the full facts. In those cases where symptoms checkers are the first port of call, "I think they have the clear potential to generate high levels of anxiety because pet owners inevitably fixate on the worst-case scenario. This has the potential to cause them to bury their head in the sand through fear rather than address the problem at an early stage."

"Some pet symptom checkers appear useful," he said, "but they sometimes leave out some of the questions that a veterinary surgeon may ask. In the final analysis, there is no quicker or better way of obtaining expert veterinary advice than simply picking up the telephone and talking to your vet."

Kevin O’Leary’s observations about the usefulness of symptom checkers was even more strident. "I’m struggling to see the point of them to be honest. Whilst I am all in favour of online research, I think that it is better undertaken once a definitive diagnosis has been reached. It can end up wasting everyone’s time because the vet has to spend more time educating the owner about why it's not a certain condition rather than with just getting on with treating the animal."

Potential to escalate an owner’s fears....

Adrian Caunter said that patients sometimes come in with printouts from Web research about what their animal’s condition could be and ask, "'Why aren't we ruling out this?' when it's something which is very obvious to an experienced veterinary surgeon. One example of this which springs to mind is the owner who was convinced that his dog had rabies despite the last reported case having occurred at the beginning of the last century. I am not attributing that to online symptom checkers but it does illustrate the problems of self-diagnosis.”

“Symptom checkers also have the potential to escalate an owner’s fears, sometimes to the extent that the owner is so worried about the likely prognosis that they do nothing. This can result in unnecessary delays which can mean that illnesses which otherwise could have been treated simply can become much more serious by dint of the owner not seeking earlier assistance. "

We asked Jo Crosby-Deakin to consult with a handful of her clients for their views on online symptom checkers.

The ones they selected for review were:

www.petmd.com

www.peteducation.com

www.vethelpdirect.com

The sites were accessed using a mixture of laptops, tablets and mobile devices. The first aspect to stress is that the user experience varied hugely depending on whether the sites were accessed using mobile or static devices. In the case of petmd.com which requires users to click on an image of the affected body part, all users expressed frustration at the difficulty associated with mobile navigation of the site. Users were also overwhelmed by the volume of information produced by the site which caused most of the respondents to declare that they would have been better off picking up the telephone and calling their vet in the first place.

Peteducation.com was praised by some for the clarity of its layout and criticised by others for being difficult to navigate. All reviewers were unconvinced that using the application would have yielded better results than by making a telephone call to your vet.

Vethelpdirect.com was regarded as the best of the three sites reviewed for navigation and clarity of response. Most of the outcomes produced by our reviewers’ interrogation of this site tended to encourage owners to wait 24 hours before calling a vet or to call the vet immediately. That being the case, no one could see the point of using such an application if most outcomes were to seek veterinary advice.

Adrian Caunter said that the content and advice on such sites varies greatly, some vital questions may be missed and an animal’s medical history is not taken into account as it would be with a veterinary surgeon.

Also, "If someone were to take the advice of a symptom checker -- which again they are not supposed to -- but if they were to self-medicate without the opinion of a qualified veterinary surgeon, the problem is that a follow-up may be missed and that can potentially turn into a serious issue as well."

Adrian Caunter agreed that a diagnosis is something that needs to be evaluated by a trained veterinary surgeon – even over the telephone. “A phone call to your vet can actually be faster than scrolling through the symptom checkers, because we know what to look for, what questions to ask and what the real concerns issues are. Any responsible veterinary surgeon will be delighted to take a call from an existing or prospective patient.”

The results are in ....

There you have it. Symptom checkers are helpful but are no substitute for seeing a qualified veterinary surgeon.

If your vet refuses to engage with you over the telephone, then find one who will. There are loads of amazing vets out there who go above and beyond the call of duty in providing exceptional care for our animals.

If you know one then don’t forget to tell the world by reviewing them on the Good Vet & Pet Guide so that others may benefit too.