The Internet, like Alice’s restaurant in the old Arlo Guthrie song, is a place where you can get anything you want. My closet is full of clothes from Land’s End and L.L. Bean, hard-to-find books and CDs come from Amazon, I’m writing this blog on a computer from Dell using notes I made with a pen ordered from Fahrney’s on a pad of paper that came from Levenger’s. The amount of stuff available online is literally limitless. (And if anyone from the FTC is reading, there have been no incentives to mention these particular retailers or any other website.)

The web also has a wealth of information and research sources promising to tell you everything about anything. And that’s one of the problems with the Internet. How do you know which advice to trust? Some of it is good; some of it is downright crackpot. It’s an important question when the health of your horse or companion animal is at stake.

A couple of months ago veterinarians Jed and Laci Schaible started VetLive.com with the goal of providing around-the-clock access to a veterinarian. Owners can visit the site and discuss their animals’ medical problems with a licensed veterinarian for a fee ranging from $12.95 (for a simple question) to $39.95 (for a second opinion based on a review of medical records). The American Veterinary Medical Association, in conjunction with WebMD.com, offers a similar service—Pet Health Community, geared toward companion animals—for free, and there are a number of other websites offering similar services for animal owners.

Internet veterinary sites can be useful sources of general information if animal owners understand the limitations of web-based advice and recognize that long-distance chats should never replace consulting the veterinarian who actually is familiar with the animal. One of the principal limiting factors for online veterinary sites is the absence of a legitimate veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR), a legal requirement imposed by every state’s veterinary practice act. Without a VCPR a veterinarian cannot legally diagnose an animal’s condition, or recommend specific treatments, or prescribe medication.

A VCPR means:

●That the veterinarian has assumed responsibility for diagnosing and treating the animal and the client has agreed to follow the veterinarian’s advice;

●That the veterinarian has a working knowledge of the animal sufficient to make a diagnosis of the medical condition in question and is familiar with how the animal is kept and cared for; and

●That the veterinarian either is available for after-care emergencies or has made arrangements for such care.

The American Veterinary Medical Association makes it clear that the practice of veterinary medicine requires a legitimate VCPR and that such a relationship "cannot be established solely by telephonic or other electronic means." In other words, an Internet veterinarian who has not actually examined an animal cannot diagnose a condition or devise a treatment plan or prescribe medication, no matter how thoroughly or skillfully the owner describes the animal’s condition. This doesn’t change if photographs or video or medical records of the animal are sent to the website.

Internet veterinary sites often walk a fine legal line between providing general educational information (which is okay) and providing a diagnosis and a treatment plan for a specific animal (which is not okay without a VCPR). Some red flags are sites that use unlicensed veterinarians, non-veterinarian "experts," or lay people to answer questions; sites that offer to diagnose your animal’s condition; and sites that provide treatment plans and prescribe medications.

What are your experiences with Internet veterinary sites? Good or bad?