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.)
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.”