It’s late at night and your cat returns from her nightly adventures with some road rash and her tail dragging on the ground. You know something’s wrong, but can a trip to the vet wait until tomorrow? You can’t call your vet because the office is closed, and if you call the emergency clinic they’ll probably tell you to come in (cha-CHING!) whether you really need to or not. So before you make that call and the midnight trip to the e-vet, you do an Internet search for information about your cat’s symptoms.
According to one site, your cat has probably been hit by a car and needs emergency attention right away because she may be bleeding internally. Another site may tell you that you should let her rest and call the vet in the morning because it’s probably just a severe sprain.
Which site do you believe? Desperate for a tie-breaking vote, you write an email to another advice website describing your cat’s symptoms. And wait.
I’ve been writing my cat advice blog for more than 10 years now, and I’ve gotten my fair share of emails like this. When I do, I go through a roller coaster of emotions.
- Frustration — I’m not awake and online 24 hours a day!
- Compassion — I know how it feels to be worried about your cat’s health and not know what to do.
- Anger — Why are you writing to me about your bleeding, seizing cat when you should be on your way to the vet?
- Heartbreak — A lot of times, these desperate requests include something like "… and I can’t afford to go to the vet — what should I do?"
- Compassion again — I know what it’s like to be poor and wonder whether you’re going to be able to pay your rent, let alone pay an emergency vet bill.
- Sadness — I can’t tell these writers anything else besides, "This isn’t something you can treat at home. You really need to find a way to get this cat to the vet." I share links to financial assistance websites for people who say they can’t afford the vet, but I know that any programs that have funds available have very strict eligibility criteria.
And then there’s the big issue: I’m not a veterinarian! Even if I were, I couldn’t legally or ethically diagnose a cat’s illness via symptoms described in an email. I am certified in pet first aid and CPR, so if your cat’s emergency happens to take place while I’m online, I could tell you what first aid to administer to stabilize your cat for the trip to the vet (except in the case of poisoning, where first aid can do more harm than good if you guess wrong about the kind of poison the cat ingested).
Maybe it sounds to you like I’m whining about having to answer people’s questions on my blog. I’m not. I’m telling you that neither I nor any other cat blogger — vet or not — will be able to answer your emergency questions in the middle of the night or diagnose your cat based on what you tell us in an email, and that it can be difficult for me and for other cat bloggers to know we really can’t help you.
Sometimes I wonder what happens to the cats about whom people wrote desperate letters in the middle of the night. Did the owner get my reply in time to get the cat the vet care she needed? Did the cat recover on her own? Or did the cat die, and was that death fast or slow and agonizing?
I try not to let it get to me, because if I did I don’t think I’d be able to continue helping cat guardians care for their feline friends.
What do you think? Have you consulted "doctor Internet" yourself? Do you have salvation or disaster stories about people who have? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer, and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their cat advice column, Paws and Effect, since 2003. JaneA dreams of making a great living out of her love for cats.