Online Consultant

An All-Knowing 24/7 On-Call Veterinarian

Veterinarians know a lot, but they cant possibly know everything about every disease in every species they are expected to treat. So when they have tough questions, the animal doctors contact a consultant – sometimes by phoning a specialist at a veterinary college but more often these days by checking electronic databases that hold more information than a library full of reference books.

One such database – with the advantage that it is available free of charge to non-medical people, including a cats human companion – is Consultant at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. And like other Web-based services, Consultant is accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for those questions that seem to come up at 4 a.m.

Starting at, you have the choice of searching by Signs or by Diagnoses. To test the system and find out why an elderly cat was twitching in her sleep, we started with Signs.

Conducting the search
Twitching is not one of the signs in Consultant, but head shaking produced 16 possible diagnoses, ranging alphabetically from aural, auricular, ear hematomas to tumors of the nose and paranasal sinus. Three of the possible causes of shaking involve poisonous houseplants like the diefenbachia, over-dosages of the herbal supplement Ma Huang, and one notorious amphibian, the giant tropical toad Bufo marinus that, when mouthed by a pet, releases toxins from its skin that can produce convulsions and even death. Toad toxicity is more prevalent in dogs, according to Consultant. Could it be that most cats are smart enough to know better?

If 16 possible diagnoses for head shaking arent enough, the keyword trembling yielded 132 diagnoses, including all the same ones for head shaking and such surprising possibilities as feline spongiform encephalopathy (yes, mad cat disease), spider bites, and vitamin D toxicity. For each diagnosis, Consultant offers a description of the condition as well as other signs and references to articles in the veterinary literature. Texts of some articles can be retrieved electronically, but reading others will take a visit to a major library where specialized medical journals are found.

Before searching by Signs or Diagnoses, be sure to select the species of interest (from the familiar canine, feline, and equine to caprine, which are goats, and ovine, which are sheep). Otherwise youll get more information about more kinds of animals than Dr. Doolittle could ever cope with.

Searching by Diagnoses is a good way to get additional information on a condition mentioned by the veterinarian. The diagnosis keyword FIP, for example, brings up plenty of information on feline infectious peritonitis.

Learn some new words
Bear in mind that Consultant is not intended for the layperson and contains a certain amount of medical jargon and terminology, like nystagmus, which is one of the signs of FIP and means rapid, side-to-side movement of the eyeball. Some of the doctor-speak will be familiar to watchers of the popular television series E.R., but terms that are specific to veterinary medicine might require a dictionary. Remember them, though, and you will astound others when playing Scrabble.

Originally designed by Cornells Maurice E. White, DVM, as a diagnostic support system for practicing veterinarians, Consultant now receives 1.3 million hits a year from 200,000 individual visitors. White knows that not all the visitors are fellow veterinarians, so he emphasizes that Consultant is not a pet owners substitute for the professional services of a veterinarian.

People are welcome to use Consultant as a supplement for information a veterinarian can provide, White says.

Consultant is not a substitute for a medical encyclopedia – there are no photographs or illustrations – and there is no information on suggested treatments for the ailments. But when you wake at four in the morning because the cat is twitching in her sleep (which is quite normal during certain stages of the sleep cycle), Consultant is on the job.

Then try to get back to sleep while pondering feline spongiform encephalopathy!