Animal owners often turn to social media for answers to all types of questions including medical advice for their pets and livestock. Online information is abundant but not always accurate, and it may be difficult for some owners to differentiate the good from the bad. Most animal owners are also willing to share their experiences and help others via social media, but depending on the advice given, they may be in violation of the law.

A non-veterinarian who gives an animal owner specific medical advice, whether in person or via social media, could be viewed as “practicing veterinary medicine without a license.” Every state has a Veterinary Practice Act that prohibits individuals from diagnosing diseases, recommending specific treatments, performing medical procedures and prescribing medications unless they are a licensed veterinarian in that state. In order to offer advice or treat an animal, a licensed veterinarian must also have a veterinarian-client-patient-relationship, or VCPR.

That means the veterinarian has examined or has sufficient knowledge of the animal and has assumed responsibility for making medical judgments. The veterinarian must also be willing to provide some form of after-care and must maintain written medical records detailing the exam findings, diagnosis, and treatment(s) given. Even a veterinarian is prohibited from offering specific medical advice for animals they don’t know.

Why is this the case? Many diseases or aliments have very similar symptoms and some conditions described by animal owners are not actual diseases. For instance, vomiting, lameness and colic are not diseases; they are clinical signs that can have a multitude of causes. An evaluation by a veterinarian, which often includes diagnostic tests such as x-rays or bloodwork, is needed to make an accurate diagnosis. Giving improper online advice could delay appropriate treatment, which may allow the condition to worsen or cause a new problem altogether.

So, this brings us to receiving medical advice via social media. A non-veterinarian probably does not have the intricate medical knowledge required to diagnose a condition or disease. Furthermore, without a complete examination, a veterinarian may not be able to apply their knowledge and experience accurately. Someone offering general information about a medical condition or describing a prior experience with their own pet is likely to be within the law; however, this information may not be correct.

Most veterinary colleges and many private veterinary practices have websites and social media accounts offering general information about specific animal diseases. These are good sources for general information; however, most will not offer specific information via social media about a particular animal without a valid relationship.

Horse owners often say they “read online” or “were told by a Facebook friend” how to treat a problem their horse was having. Usually, they tell me they tried the advice or a variation thereof. When the advice did not help, they decided to make an appointment for an examination. This delayed the diagnosis and treatment of the actual problem. In a serious or life-threatening situation, that delay could have disastrous consequences.

When you have questions about your animal’s health, don’t turn to social media or “Dr. Google.” Consult your primary care veterinarian. Have an established relationship through routine care of your pet or livestock such as yearly physical examinations, vaccinations, dentistry, etc. If your veterinarian knows you and your animal’s health history, they will be more willing and able to offer you advice over the phone, email or via social media. If you feel a second opinion is needed, consult another veterinarian or specialty hospital.

About the author: Mike J. Schoonover, DVM, MS, DACVS-LA, DACVSMR, is an associate professor of equine surgery and sports medicine and rehabilitation at Oklahoma State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. He is board-certified in large animal surgery and equine sports medicine and rehabilitation. His clinical practice focuses on sports medicine and surgery of the western performance horse. His research interests are in objective lameness evaluation modalities, regional limb perfusion techniques, and bovine sports medicine.

Veterinary Viewpoints is provided by the faculty of the OSU Veterinary Medical Hospital. Certified by the American Animal Hospital Association, the hospital is open to the public providing routine and specialized care for all species and 24-hour emergency care, 365 days a year. Call 405-744-7000 for an appointment or more information.

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