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A funny thing happened on the forum

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I GRADUATED from vet school in the old days, back when we used to ride dinosaurs to work and communication with people on the other side of the world was carried out by means of a pen and paper and was subject to the temporal vagaries of airmail. Actually it wasn't that long ago, but I'm definitely a graduate of the PI era – that's pre-internet – or, at the very least, back when the internet was the sole preserve of a group of Californian computer geeks using it to swap in-jokes, rather than the worldwide behemoth it has now become. In those days, social media was the letters page of your local newspaper and a forum was something the Romans built.

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More importantly, clients had limited sources of information. They could consult a book (generally written by someone with a specialist knowledge of the subject) or ask their vet for advice. No Dr Google! Today it seems as though we are the last port of call. First they ask their friends on Facebook, then they consult the local Facebook dog-breeder/cat-fancier/horse-owner page. Finally they ask their question on a relevant forum and a long line of unqualified ‘experts’ queue up to give out veterinary advice.

It is now that I am going to have to confess my guilty secret. I love these forums, especially the horse ones. They are unequivocally bad for my blood pressure, my mental health and the integrity of my skull (the wall next to my desk bears a dent from where I repeatedly bang my head on it) but, like someone with an addiction to bad soap operas, I just can't stay away.

People tend to break down into a small number of easily identifiable types. There are the vet-doubters (‘Honestly, my horse had this too and the vets don't have a clue, they just do test after test solely to get your money. I'd change vets if I were you’), the ‘experts’ (‘I can send you links to papers that prove that radio-waves cause laminitis’), the sympathisers (‘can't advise but didn't want to read and run, sending you hugs’) and the ‘miracle of the month’ crowd (last month it was toothpaste, this month it's turmeric – apparently, it cures everything from arthritis to peritonitis).

One current craze is for posting videos for opinions on lameness. Usually these involve a horse being badly ridden or lunged about 100 yards from the video camera in an apparent hailstorm. My full-time job involves evaluating horses for lameness problems and most of the time I can't even tell whether or not the horses on these videos are lame at all, let alone on which leg. Sometimes I can't even be sure that it's a horse! Yet person after person will pop up to say that it's ‘definitely its off-hind suspensory’ or its near-fore shoulder, or that the horse obviously has kissing spines. It's brilliant. No nerve blocks, no scintigraphy, no MRI, just instant diagnosis, without even the hassle of leaving the sofa.

Every so often a lone voice in the wilderness pops up to restore my faith in humankind. ‘Why don't you ring your vet and ask their opinion?’ the voice of reason says. ‘Book your horse in for a lameness work-up’ or, even better, ‘I don't think your vet has missed anything, you just need to stick to their recommendations’. Slowly my heart rate starts to settle, my blood pressure drops and I feel at ease. Although it often seems the opposite, these little oases of sensible advice prove that there are good clients out there. It would be easy to think that the second you drive out of the livery yard every client is accessing the internet on their smartphone to ask for feedback on your thoughts, diagnoses and proposed treatment options. I suspect that a small proportion of them actually do this; however, I'm going to stick to my naïve belief that most of my clients trust my advice and don't feel the need to get a second opinion from unqualified on-line experts.

As for my internet addiction, I've started to wean myself off the veterinary advice forums. While they do make for rather compulsive car-crash viewing, they should probably carry a health warning for holders of an MRCVS. I don't think it's a bad thing to have a general idea of the current fads and fancies of the horse-owning world but a quick peek once every month or two will suffice from now on. It is much better for my blood pressure and anger management to switch off the laptop and instead venture out into the brave old world to meet some real clients face to face.

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