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Vet Talk

Get off the 'Net and Phone a Vet
May 18, 2015 (published)


If you have an urgent veterinary question because you're worried about why your dog has bloody diarrhea or your cat has curled up in a ball and yowled non-stop for the last hour, get off the Internet and phone a veterinarian. Don't email, text, or message on Facebook: dial the phone and speak to a live person. Now.

We see this all the time at Veterinary Partner, VIN's client education website. There's an "Ask a Vet" feature that is totally helpful and totally free. A couple of veterinarians answer questions, often the same day, but they get to it when they get to it. The questions come in linked to the page the writer was reading, so the vet knows what topic is being discussed. The questions are usually along the lines of:

Q: Is my tulip plant only toxic to my cat if it's ingested or will she get a reaction from just rubbing on it?
A: The toxic part mostly is the bulb and eating the bulb. Cats rarely do that. Rubbing the plant may cause itching at worst as long as the cat doesn't chew it.

Q: Can you tell me how long it takes for results from a culture and sensitivity test for bacteria in a dog's nose?
A: It depends on how many organisms grow and how fast they grow. It could be as short as two days and as long as a week.

Voila! Simple question, simple answer, client knows more, veterinarian has warm fuzzies from helping pet owners. Piece of cake. That's what this service is designed for, and it works quite well when used appropriately.

In order to tell you what might be wrong - give a diagnosis - the vet must be able to see and touch the animal, and sometimes give diagnostic tests such as skin scrapes, blood tests, and x-rays. That can't happen over the Internet.

This service is not only not helpful but also unrealistic and downright dangerous when your question is urgent. If your cat has managed to roll around in the dryer for a bit with your undies, phone the vet to let them know you're coming in NOW and jump in the car and go there right this minute. Trauma, burns, and heat stroke are possible consequences, even if the cat looks unharmed, because these injuries aren't readily apparent. Even one whirl around the dryer can crack a rib.

We get urgent/emergent questions all the time. Unfortunately, some of these questions arrive at midnight or Sunday morning when most of us are not working. We don't staff this service 24/7; we do it because the veterinarians enjoy answering questions. They do this when time allows.

Situations in which you can ask for medical advice online for free are not a good idea for time-sensitive questions. That is actually a bad idea that can have some depressing results. Most organizations with a free service such do not answer questions in the middle of the night or during Sunday football games because the people who answer those questions aren't at work.

Many brick and mortar facilities are staffed 24/7 and will tell you if it sounds like you can wait for your clinic to open or if you should come in now. Any local ER doesn't mind at all if you call to ask a question.

If your question is about poisoning, the ASPCA's ASPCA's Animal Poison Control and the Pet Poison Hotline are open 24/7. Of course, that's one of the reasons they charge for each call.

We regularly get urgent questions that to us seem to have an obvious answer, but we answer them anyway (far more tactfully than the following, of course, but sometimes these answers run through our heads - we're human).

Q: My iguana fell off the bed onto his back and now he can't walk. What should I do?
A. Get him to a vet immediately.

Q: My dog was hit by a car and is screaming and can't get up although I don't see any blood. He bit my hand when I reached for him! I don't have a car and whatever it costs, I can't afford it because I'm on a fixed income. What can I do to help him at home?
A. Get him to a vet immediately; if you can't afford treatment (and many cannot) take him in for euthanasia.

Q: My 12-week old puppy has been really sick at both ends since last night, and now his poop has blood. I can't believe how much is coming out! What do you recommend?
A. Get him to a vet immediately. Any puppy that is vomiting and has diarrhea may have life-threatening parvovirus. Even if you think he's been vaccinated, he may not have received the entire series.

Sometimes a writer feels it's an emergency, but it's a question we can't answer:

Q: My pregnant daughter was petting a dog that looked like he had some kind of bloody maggot in his side. Please tell us immediately if she needs to be seen by her physician right away. Help us, she's pregnant!
A. Sorry, veterinarians cannot advise on human health; we don't treat that species. Have her contact her physician or even the CDC.

If you need information quickly, then get it quickly: get off the 'net and phone your vet or an ER, whoever is open. Don't wait for a service that gets to you when it gets to you, no matter how good it is. Ask the right people at the right time before too much time slips away, and your pet (and wallet) pay the price.


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