Vet and assistant examining dog

Would you be disappointed in your veterinarian if she suggested a referral to a specialist? You shouldn’t be. In fact, asking for the help of colleagues can be the sign of a veterinarian who’s going the extra mile to make sure your pet’s getting the best possible care. Do you expect your own physician to possess the knowledge or technical ability of a specialist? Or do you expect a referral to a top-notch specialist? I know what I want from my doctor, and that’s what I do when I need to with my own patients: I refer to a specialist.

Why Veterinarians Rely on Specialists

I attend a lot of veterinary conferences, and I work very hard to stay on top of all the latest research. As a veterinarian who’s also a communicator (TV, Internet, books) I have a responsibility to offer only the latest and greatest information. But that was true even when I was a full-time hands-on veterinarian, and I know your veterinarian works just as hard to keep current. But as a general practitioner, I can’t know everything as well as a specialist or do everything as well as a specialist.

In my work as a veterinary communicator, I reach out to these experts every day. As a practicing veterinarian, I didn’t talk to them as often. In animal medicine as in human medicine, most cases fall within the realm of the routine. But when I had something I needed help with, you can bet I picked up the phone.

Though we veterinarians are very familiar with our specialist colleagues, many pet owners know little about specialization beyond the split into small animal (as in pets) and large animal (as in livestock) medicine. The number of specialties is smaller in veterinary medicine than human medicine, but it is growing.

Types of Veterinary Specialists

Let’s stick just to companion animal medicine: There are veterinarians who’ve added specialty credentials for care of cats, birds, reptiles or, most recently, “exotics,” which is the term used for pets such as rabbits, ferrets, sugar gliders and guinea pigs. These credentials are generally earned by veterinarians already in practice and certified by the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners. To be recognized as a specialist, a veterinarian must pass a grueling test.

As in human medicine, there are also system specialists, primarily internists but also others such as surgeons. These credentials are overseen by a board such as the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, which further recognizes subspecialties such as oncology and cardiology. These specialties generally require residencies in addition to testing. There are also specialists who fall into the "other" category, although they’re certainly no less important, such as veterinary behaviorists.

How does your veterinarian decide when to refer? And should you ask for a referral if it’s not offered? Glad you asked! That’s what I’ll  cover in my next post.

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