Vet examining xray

Has your veterinarian ever recommended that you see a specialist?

Nestled within their offices there are hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars' worth of equipment and dozens of years of postgraduate education to help heal your pet in ways that you may not have known was even possible.

Veterinarians are increasingly electing to spend an extra two to four more years doing postgraduate work to become specialists. In small-animal medicine, veterinarians can become board-certified in surgery, internal medicine, dermatology, dentistry, ophthalmology, behavior medicine, cardiology, oncology, neurology, nutrition and radiology, among other fields.

Specialists earn twice as much money, on average, as most general practitioners. And the board-certified variety also get to practice in beautiful hospitals with all kinds of fancy tools, challenging cases and highly educated teams of paraprofessional staff to temper the gruntlike workload that so many generalists have to shoulder. There’s also the higher degree of respect to consider. Lots of it.

As you can imagine, all of these perks can appear mighty attractive from the viewpoint of a veterinary student, which is why some 40 percent of students now hope to practice as specialists.

That’s up from about 10 percent when I was in school over a decade ago. It only makes sense, given the fact that, 30 years ago, the entire Miami metro area (where I live) had exactly one board-certified specialist. We now have about two dozen.

The demand for specialists has exploded over the past couple of decades as pet owners like yourself have clamored for higher-quality care. Since the economic downturn, however, the demand for specialists has plateaued, ensuring that only a fraction of the students who currently hope for specialization will ever make it there. And that makes being a specialist even sexier.

Despite all this fervor, I think that the appeal of the whole specialty thing is way overrated. Sure, the money’s great — and it’s fun to get all the cool cases — but it’s not for me. Here’s why:

The Patients

Given the nature of their role in animal health care, specialists typically don’t enjoy long-lasting relationships with their patients. Since I've grown seriously fond of so many of my patients, I’d miss not having the chance to develop that kind of bond with them. This type of relationship may not be something that we can consciously imagine before embarking on our careers, but it’s an important reason for sticking with this beautiful profession.

Then there’s the touch-an-animal factor to consider: I’d have a really hard time being a radiologist, for example. You can’t possibly see many pets if you’re staring at a computer screen all day. And yet my 14-year-old son is interested in this field. He says it's like having a job that lets you play video games. Well, sort of . . . if you're an interventional radiologist like veterinary superstar Dr. Chick Weiss.

Dr. Patty Khuly spay surgery

The Money

Earning more means that you’re charging more. And that can raise a whole host of uncomfortable issues. It’s not that I don’t currently suffer my own daily stresses related to my clients’ inability or unwillingness to pay for their pets’ care, but the stress for me would be a whole lot worse if my services cost thousands instead of hundreds.

The Caseloads

Specialists may get lots of interesting cases to tackle, but they also get the sickest patients. Just imagine being a veterinary oncologist. That could be a tough job.

The Scope

I’m more of a big-picture person. Although I’d love studying for a specialized education, I can't see myself practicing one specialty for the rest of my life, not when I can discuss everything from cutting claws to cancer in the same visit.

In fact, breadth of scope is the main reason that I elected to spend two extra years studying for an MBA. Business is broadening, while increasingly specialized science can be confining. For me, anyway.

Of course, I am by no means dissing specialists. After all, they play a huge role in my ability to provide great care to my patients. I respect them highly for their impressive talents and willingness to do something that I’m not cut out to do myself.

Check out more opinion pieces on Vetstreet.