Pet health misinformation can spread quickly on the internet. Read the Petlearnia guide on how to spot it

The Petlearnia Guide to Spotting Pet Health Misinformation on the Internet

When it comes to researching your pet’s health on the internet, it can be difficult. There are a lot of people out there spreading pet health misinformation, whether mistakenly or not. With the rise of AI, whose training information may also have been incorrect, the internet is turning into echo chamber. So how can you tell good information from bad?

Here’s the Petlearnia guide to spotting bad pet health information on the internet.

10 signs of misinformation

Here are 10 signs that suggest a you should be suspicious about the pet health information the source is spreading. Most bad sources will have one or two of these signs, not all of them – so keep an eye out to protect yourself and your pet from scams.

#1 – The Lone Ranger

People spreading misinformation often say they are going to “expose the secrets of…“, tell you this is “what your vet doesn’t want you to know” or position themselves as a “whistleblower“. These people try to prey on your insecurities by inventing a conspiracy, with them as the lone ranger battling for truth. They might rail against vets, pharma companies, or nutrition companies, but they generally tell you somebody hasn’t been telling you the truth – but that they alone will. If they’re going against established science and/or the opinion of thousands of qualified people, you have to ask why.

How to beat them: If it sounds like a conspiracy theory, be suspicious.

# 2 – No references

If the person doesn’t reference studies, or their references are too vague to allow you to check what they’re saying, be suspicious. Whether they’re misinformed themselves, or they are purposefully misleading you, you should be able to verify what someone is saying easily. Look for hyperlinks, and references should be to a single study, article, or page of a book, not a vague ‘Journal of Medicine 2020’ with no details about how to find the exact information they’re referencing.

How to beat them: Follow one or two of their sources and try to come to the same conclusion the author has.

#3 Poor studies

This one is a bit harder to check without a scientific background, but just be cautious even when people use sources. Some people reference studies they did themselves, or all their studies came from a single researcher, or they reference opinion papers as though they’re studies. They might hyperlink to an article from a well-known media outlet, but that article was also written by an unqualified person, who may reference another unqualified person – and so on.

How to beat them: Follow one or two of their sources, and check they are from peer-reviewed journals with several authors.

#4 Anecdote

We all love to hear stories of a product helping a pet – it makes us believe it could help our pet too. It almost seems a bit like proof. But that’s where we have to be careful – one person’s story is NOT proof. Even 1000 people’s stories are not proof.

The problem with anecdote is that it doesn’t allow for compounding factors:

“This supplement reversed my dog’s arthritis” – but maybe the weather warmed up so they’re limping less.

“One drop of this a day and my dog didn’t get fleas” – but maybe they weren’t exposed to any. Or maybe they’re genetically less prone. Or maybe there was still chemical residue on them from a previous application of flea medicine. Or maybe the owner just hasn’t noticed the infestation in her house.

There are lots of explanations that aren’t the conclusion the anecdote has drawn.

How to beat them: Look for clinical trials comparing the product to a placebo, with enough dogs that chance is unlikely to be a confounding factor.

#5 – Dodgy qualifications

Before following anybody’s advice, check their qualifications. ANYBODY can call themselves a ‘pet nutritionist’, ‘dog trainer’, ‘pet behaviourist’, and others.

They may have no qualifications at all. Or, worse, they have a certificate from a dodgy online course that takes half an hour to complete but gives the impression that they’re qualified. They might even tell you they have a degree, but not tell you its in an unrelated subject.

How to beat them: Google their qualification or letters after their name and see what they have to do to get and keep that qualification/registration.

#6 Naturalistic fallacy

Humans are prone to naturalistic fallacy – where we automatically assume that ‘natural’ things are safer. Some people like to prey on this to make you choose their product over another option.

It’s normal to prefer natural to synthetic, but it’s important to kick in the logical part of your brain to remind yourself that ‘natural’ does not mean ‘safe’ (or effective!). Lots of natural things are very dangerous, including poisons, so don’t let people spin you the ‘natural is best’ without some sort of evidence to back it up. Many drugs are based on natural ingredients but are strengthened and concentrated in the manufacturing process, before going through careful testing to prove adequate safety and efficacy.

How to beat them: If a major benefit of the product is that it’s ‘natural’, let your logical thinking brain remind you this doesn’t necessarily mean ‘safe’ or ‘effective’.

#7 Scare Tactics

Marketers, sales-people, and dodgy ‘experts’ will use scare tactics to make you question what you know. Take ‘by-products’ for example. Some companies have taken to saying ‘we don’t use by-products’ and then using the same ingredients under a new name – like ‘beef heart’ and ‘fresh liver’. They still use by-products, but they’ve renamed them and used people’s naturalistic fallacy (see above) to scare people into thinking by-products = bad. You might also see people using long chemical names to try to sound scarier.

How to beat them: If they’re purposefully scaring you by talking about ‘chemicals’, or saying that other businesses/products are dangerous, be suspicious!

#8 They’re trying to sell you something

Not everyone selling something is a quack. But someone professing their expertise on a subject and telling you that they have the only solution to your problem is someone to be concerned about. After all, they have a vested interest in getting you to believe them and nobody else.

Sales can be subtle – look for carefully-placed adverts to their brands, affiliate links, or requests to follow them.

How to beat them: If they’re trying to sell you something, look hard at the other things in this list to see if they could be spreading pet health misinformation.

#9 The ONE thing

If anyone tells you there’s ONE secret trick to anything, be suspicious. We all wish there was a cure-all, it would make the world a far nicer place. But diseases aren’t that simple, and there are too many varied causes for a single treatment – or a single prevention – to cure everything.

How to beat them: Walk away from anyone telling you their product their product will solve lots of problems – it’s never true.

#10 Certainty

If someone is speaking with too much certainty, they might not know as much as they think they do. Quacks prey on your need for certainty by saying that their product can cure X or this technique will prevent Y.

For example, they might sell you the idea that this new food prevents cancer, The truth is, nothing is that black-and-white in real medicine. Pets aren’t machines, they’re individuals. Even if there’s some evidence behind the solution, like a diet that treats a disease (which do exist!) pets won’t all respond the same way.

Real experts will use a side helping of doubt – “X may help to reduce Y” or “There is some evidence that this food can prevent certain types of cancer in some breeds of dog”. See the difference?

There’s a well-known thing called the Dunning-Kruger effect, where people who know less tend to be more confident in their knowledge than those who know more. The more you know about pet health, the more you realise you can’t possibly know everything, so the less certain you are.

How to beat them: If they’re professing anything as absolute certainty, look for other signs they could be spreading misinformation.

Finding good sources is hard!

So how can you find good pet health information on the internet? Well, the main thing you can do is stay suspicious. Look for recognised qualifications and memberships of professional bodies that require continuing professional development (CPD), as this means the author has had training and regulation.

Pet health misinformation can spread quickly. Stop it in its tracks by questioning everything, calling it out when you see it, and finding good sources to spread instead.

Want a good pet social media account to follow? Our Petlearnia Facebook and Instagram accounts use vet-written content for safety. Follow us and share them with your friends!

Need pet health information right now? See whether any of our courses are what you’re looking for. Or, if it’s medicine information you want, check out our pet medicine database.

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