Finding the Truth on the 'Net
A few weeks ago I wrote an article about the merits and pitfalls of the Internet as a source of information for owners of pets with cancer. I wasn’t at all surprised to find the reviews were mixed.
My goal in writing the piece was not to chastise anyone for using the web as a resource or to denounce the Internet as a source of data, but rather to point out the proverbial “buyer must beware” when considering exactly what’s out there regarding veterinary oncology.
As a follow up, I wanted to provide more specific details about the websites I would recommend and examples of things to look out for that could indicate false information.
I still stand by my conviction that the Internet is a dangerous place for owners of pets with cancer. As an example, I repeated a search of “canine lymphoma” in a widely used search engine, and the second hit on the list was a Wikipedia article on this disease.
Many people are aware that Wikipedia is an open-forum website where anyone can write an article on any topic they wish. Fewer may understand articles can be published with virtually no review of the content for accuracy. Veterinarians are not asked to review such pieces before they are published and I frustratingly still found what I would consider some major errors in interpretation about this one particular disease.
When I am asked to direct an owner to web-based resources, I generally recommend websites put forth by veterinary schools or the colleges/organizations responsible for overseeing veterinary specialty groups. I find these sites have the most accurate and up to date statistics and data, and are most reliable for providing truthful and realistic data.
For example, the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine is the governing body for all veterinary internal medicine specialists, veterinary medical oncologists, veterinary cardiologists, and veterinary neurologists. An entire section of their website is dedicated to pet owners and education and also provides a search option for owners to find specialists near them. Their section on veterinary medical oncology isn’t large, but the links are up to date and accurate and easy to read through.
The Veterinary Cancer Society is also a great resource for owners. This website includes a fantastic section of “frequently asked questions,” a “find an oncologist” option where owners can look for a board certified oncologist near their homes, as well as a searchable database for clinical trials owners can use to see if their pet could be eligible for experimental treatments.
Veterinary specialty hospitals with medical oncologists on staff will also often have websites with accurate and reliable material about veterinary oncology and some general practices will also offer similar articles or blog sites. Unfortunately, this doesn't mean every veterinarian is putting out correct data, which can certainly complicate the issue even further.
I found an example of a veterinarian claiming on a website, “Anything credible you read about cancer in humans applies equally to animals.” Even the least medically trained individual would likely find such a statement misleading. This same website indicates that lipomas (benign fatty tumors commonly found just under the skin of many dogs and the rare cat) are only seen in “chubby dogs,” which is absolutely false. How can the “average” pet owner sift through and discern the accurate from the inaccurate?
There are two main “red flags” for me indicating a website is likely providing misleading information for owners.
The first would be websites touting the benefit of various supplements, nutriceuticals, vitamins, immune-boosters, etc., with absolutely no scientific research to support the claims put forth. Most people are unaware that nutraceuticals ride the “shaky” ground between being a “feed” and a “drug.” For a substance to be considered a feed it must have established nutritive value and for it to be considered a drug it must undergo rigorous safety and efficacy testing. Most nutraceuticals sit right in the middle, neither having to prove any nutritional value nor be tested for safety, integrity, or to meet any of the claims put forth via advertising. There is extremely limited research on the value of nutriceuticals for affecting outcome for humans, let alone veterinary patients. Equally concerning is the lack of research to support their potential adverse effects (e.g. potential negative interactions with chemotherapy.)
The second red flag to me are the websites claiming to report all “known and evidence based” information regarding various causes of cancer in pets, including commercial diets, pesticides, vaccines, and spaying/neutering. Other than the dreaded injection site sarcoma, these hotly debated etiologies of neoplasia are exactly that: debated. If your veterinarian is telling you they do not know the cause of a particular cancer in your pet, it is because it truly is not known. Proving causality for cancer in humans is difficult enough, and proving it in animals is near impossible.
I know I will never change the ideologies of every individual, and I’m sure I will still manage to upset some people with the content of this article. However, that’s not my goal. I simply want to help make pet owners aware of the limitations of the web and provide my opinion about what sites I recommend people consider looking at when trying to gather more details about their pet’s diagnosis.
If only everything on the ‘net were true. We would all be thin, youthful, rich, and cancer-free.
But I guess that would leave me with a whole lot less to write about.
Dr. Joanne Intile