I participate in a list serve for veterinarians who specialize in internal medicine. The list serve “topic de jour” concerns veterinarians who are general practitioners (also known as family veterinarians), yet bill themselves as “specialists” in specific venues such as surgery, dentistry, or cardiology. The responses have been strongly disapproving, and here is the reason why: The American Veterinary Medical Association dictates that the term “specialist” be reserved only for veterinarians who have completed all of the requirements to become a “diplomate” within a specialty organization. What must a veterinarian do to become an official specialist/diplomate? Trust me, it is a long and arduous process! After graduating from veterinary school, wannabee specialists must complete a minimum three-year internship and residency training program, author publications in peer reviewed journals, and pass some insanely rigorous examinations specific to the specialty they are pursuing. (Note that the requirements differ for those who become specialists in complementary/alternative medicine fields of veterinary medicine such as homeopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic, and Chinese herbs.) If one is successful in completing this rigorous and extensive training they achieve “board certification” status and are deemed to be “specialists” or “diplomates” within their chosen specialty. This is much like the process physicians go through to become specialists.
The world of veterinary specialists has grown by leaps and bounds. Much like Starbucks®, if there’s not already a group of specialists in your community, there likely will be soon! Veterinary specialists are found in university teaching hospitals and in some private practices. They often “cohabitate,” sharing specialty staffing, equipment and laboratory services with specialists in different areas of expertise. When this is the case, you, the lucky client, end up with access to multiple specialists under one roof. Not only is this convenient, it also focuses a lot of brainpower and experience on your pet- group discussions about patients (medical rounds) typically occur daily in such specialty hospital settings.
When might you need the services of a veterinary specialist? Just as your family physician refers patients to specialists, your family veterinarian should be considering referral in the following three situations:
- A second opinion is desired by you or your veterinarian. Yes, you definitely have the right to request a second opinion. I know it can be tough telling your vet you would like a second opinion, but as your beloved pet’s medical advocate, you are obligated to do so just as soon a your “gut” starts suggesting that a second opinion makes sense. I encourage you to read the chapter called, “A Second Opinion is Always Okay” in Speaking for Spot- it will provide you with plenty of helpful coaching about how to tactfully broach the subject with your veterinarian! Hopefully your vet has established relationships with local specialists- the kind she would trust to take good care of her own dog should the need arise. Not all family veterinarians are keen on “letting go” of their patients, so self-referral might be your only way to seek out the help of a specialist.
- Help is needed to figure out what is wrong with your pet. Specialists have advanced diagnostic tools (ultrasound, endoscopy, CT imaging, MRI scans, etc.) and have developed the skills to use them. Additionally, because of their extensive experience with challenging cases, specialists often have the ability to hone in on a diagnosis in the most direct and expedient manner.
- Your vet doesn’t specialize in the disease your pet has or the therapy he needs. Just as with our own health issues, treatment is ideally managed by someone who works with that particular disease issue day in, and day out, and regularly pursues continuing education pertaining to that disease.
How can you tell if a particular veterinarian is truly a specialist? Simply examine the initials following his or her name. See the list of specialties and their corresponding initials below. For example, if you look at the initials following my signature (ACVIM), you can tell that I am a specialist in The American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine. To learn more about any of these areas of specialization, pay a visit to the websites. Those listed below are within the United States, but you will find comparable organizations in many other countries or continents.
Have you ever taken your pet to a veterinary specialist? Have you ever wanted to do so, but had trouble getting “buy in” from your family veterinarian? If so, please share your experience. I’d love to hear from you.
||Internal medicine (acvim.org)
|Diplomate, ACVIM, Cardiology
|Diplomate, ACVIM, Oncology
|Diplomate, ACVIM, Neurology
||Emergency and critical care (acvecc.org)
||Veterinary acupuncture (Ivas.org)
||Chinese veterinary medicine (tcvm.com)
||Homeopathy (drpitcairn.com) or (theavh.org)
||Canine rehabilitation (caninerehabinstitute.com)
Best wishes to you and your four-legged family members for abundant good health,
Nancy Kay, DVM
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association 2009 Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, 2009 Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, 2009 Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
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Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at Amazon.com, local bookstores, or your favorite online book seller.