Visit the “dog question” section of pet websites, and you’ll likely find a long, sad litany of problems that dogs have suffered over the previous several hours: “My 4-year-old Labrador is urinating on everything.” “My dog is acting strange. Could she be depressed?” “My 14-year-old toy poodle is suddenly lethargic. Help!”
Some websites offer expert veterinary advice for a small fee, but even those come with a disclaimer that there’s no substitute for hands-on veterinary care. “For most questions, I advise that the client see their vet because we can only give insight on what they have told me, but I can always miss something without a proper veterinary exam,” says Dr. Loretta Potts, veterinarian and a verified expert at JustAnswer.com. “Many times, I have to tell the client to go straight to the vet or they could lose their animal.”
Vet vs. iVet
What used to be a simple choice — go to the vet or wait it out — is now complicated by the scores of websites that offer to help you and your dog.But when is it appropriate to play doctor at home? Or more importantly, when isn’t it?
Dr. Patricia Joyce, an emergency clinician at NYC Veterinary Specialists, breaks down the typical problems pet owners confront:
First call the ASPCA Poison Control Hotline at 888-426-4435. (A $65 fee may be applied.) “A lot of stuff isn’t poisonous, and they [ASPCA representatives] can give you advice for what to do at home or how to treat it so that a plan’s in place when you get to the [veterinary hospital] ER,” says Joyce.
“At the first sight of blood, people freak,” says Joyce. But applying direct pressure can often stop bleeding at home. Common injuries, like torn nails or cut ears, can generate a lot of blood that goes everywhere — but they’re minor wounds you can handle. However, any bite wound should be inspected by a doctor, since infection could set in. Any bleeding that won’t stop requires veterinary attention too.
Diarrhea or vomiting
“In most cases, even with blood, this is not an emergency,” says Joyce. In fact, Joyce usually sends these cases home for a “nothing by mouth” trial. “It’s instinctive for dogs to drink, and instinctive for people to give the dog water,” she says. But you should cease all food and water to see if the vomiting resolves. If it doesn’t, have your dog checked out.
Injuries and limping
Joyce recommends giving leg injuries some time to heal. “A dog’s instinct is to cease weight-bearing immediately after an injury, which scares owners,” she says. “But by the time they get to the ER, the animal is putting pressure on its leg and wagging its tail.” See a doctor the following day, however, especially if the limping persists.
Any obvious and unusual increase in effort or breathing rate should be evaluated by a veterinarian immediately. Other issues requiring prompt attention include pale or abnormal gum color, urination issues, change in skin color, yellow in the white of the eyes, strange bruising and seizures.
In the end, Joyce says visiting a veterinarian is always a wise course of action. She often finds what’s available online to be more trouble than it’s worth.
It’s easy for owners to misinterpret pain from a dog that can’t speak, says Joyce, who often sees clients diagnosing their own dogs. She recounts how owners may come in and say, “My dog has a stomach problem, because when I pick him up, he yelps.” But instead of the stomach causing the issue, “it could be his back,” explains Joyce. “When I have someone who’s already decided what’s wrong, it makes my job harder.”
If you go online for clues, Joyce also recommends calling your local veterinary hospital’s emergency room, which will often listen to symptoms over the phone and offer advice for free. “It’s a great service for the public.”
Brad Kloza is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Dog Daily. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Discover.