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How to Find a Veterinary Specialist for Your Dog
When, why and how to find one


If a member of your (human) family got sick or hurt or had a condition that demanded expert care, you’d ask your doctor for a referral to a specialist—someone who could offer treatments beyond what your GP could provide.

And now, if your dog needs care beyond the scope of your regular veterinarian’s practice, you can do the same thing for him.

Specialists can take over where standard veterinary care leaves off because they have specific education and hands-on experience over and above that of most general practice vets, says Nancy Kay, DVM, a board-certified specialist in small animal internal medicine in Rohnert Park, Calif., and author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life (2008). “Veterinary specialists have spent two or more years of in-depth residency training, often receiving one-on-one guidance from clinicians who are experts in their fields,” she says. “That’s where they learn how to deal with challenging cases.”

Veterinary specialists—experts in everything from anesthesia to zoological medicine—were all but unheard of when most of us were young (and romping with the dogs of our childhood). The first specialties were recognized by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) in the 1950s, when the association established the American Board of Veterinary Specialties (ABVS) to serve as an umbrella organization for all AVMA-recognized specialty groups.

Today, the ABVS represents 39 distinct specialties, which are practiced by members of 20 specialty organizations, some of which encompass several disciplines (for example, the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, or ACVIM, covers large and small animal internal medicine, plus oncology, cardiology and neurology). More than 9,000 U.S. veterinarians—roughly 9 percent of all vets in the country—are card-carrying members, or board-certified diplomates, of these organizations. To obtain diplomate status, a vet must complete postgraduate coursework and residency and pass a certification exam. In some cases, that means several years of additional training after vet school.

In addition to the AVMA-recognized specialty groups, a few organizations offer specialized training and certification to vets who have added physical rehabilitation and various types of alternative medicine to their practices. (See sidebar.)

Extra Credit

While the specific requirements for diplomate status vary, virtually all require a veterinarian to take additional coursework and complete an internship (or its equivalent in active veterinary practice).

The expertise demanded of specialty veterinarians is especially important in veterinary medicine, because vets—unlike human doctors—can legally perform any accepted procedure on your dog, says Mitch Robbins, DVM, a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons (ACVS) who practices at the Veterinary Specialty Center in Buffalo Grove, Ill. “If you needed surgery, your doctor is required to refer you to a surgeon,” he says. “He can’t just operate on you himself. But if your dog needs surgery, your regular vet can do it himself. The question isn’t whether he can perform the procedure—it’s whether he is the best person to do it.”

Another issue is equipment—high-tech radiology, neurosurgery and diagnostic machines that specialists have (and general practice vets almost never do). Specialists have received training on this equipment and are well versed in the latest therapies and technologies, says Patty Khuly, VMD, a general-practice veterinarian in Miami, Fla. “They’ve invested in the kinds of equipment that I wouldn’t buy for my practice,” she says. “Of course, there are good and not-so-good specialists just like there are good and not-so-good general practitioners, but, generally speaking, specialists are at least four years ahead of everybody else. Veterinary medicine is advancing very quickly, so four years represents an awful lot.”



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Submitted by groendog | August 18 2010 |

The important thing about Specialists, which we learned the hard way, is not to wait until the last minute for a consult.
Give your Vet a reasonable amount of time to fix the problem, say two weeks, and then head for the Big Guns. If your Vet won't refer you, you need another Vet anyway.

Submitted by Sarah Katherine... | October 8 2010 |

I don't know if it's just the vets in my area but I had a terrible time when another of my four-legged family (horse) needed what my regular vet said was laser surgery to remove a tumor in a sensitive area (ear). BUT because his clinic did not have laser surgical capability he insisted that they do it "the traditional way" and refused to refer me. His way would have meant 2 weeks in the clinic's pet hospital on IV and with a blood transfusion (or two or three) several hours under a general anesthesia and no guarantee of outcome and probable life threatening effects from the GA. I found another vet who COULD do laser surgery on an outpatient basis with little risk to the horse, far less pain, reduced bleeding and vastly better prognosis. Second vet wanted to know who my regular vet was and then proceeded to call that vet and tell him. Regular vet not only immediately called me at work, screaming threats incl how he would (and he has) blacklist me for "going behind his back." He screamed at me on the phone so hard and loud that my boss in the next office heard it through the phone receiver reverberating throughout the office. After that no vet (includingthe laser vet) in a hundred mile radius would even talk to me. The horse's tumor was cancerous and had it been removed he would have a chance to live but because of these vets' antics and being unable to get other local vets to treat him, we lost him. The day he died I lost any faith in veterinarians.

Submitted by annie b | March 29 2014 |

so sorry...I had a similar story...it's hard to trust them when things like this happen

Submitted by cash advance | July 27 2012 |
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Submitted by Anonymous | October 8 2012 |

we were told are dog has lymphoma and nothen can be done she is only six years old im not ready to give up yet. looking for a doctor that might be able to get some answers .

Submitted by Rhett | November 8 2012 |

Thanks for all the advice. We are getting a little German Sheppard and will be needing a good veterinarian in Mesa AZ. One of my biggest pet peeves is when owners don't get their dogs fixed and properly taken care of.

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