Like human medicine, some veterinarians choose to specialize in one field of medicine.
What makes a veterinarian a "specialist", and should your pet be seen by one?
There are currently 20 veterinary specialties recognized by the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association). Specialties range from anesthesiology to zoo medicine.
To become a veterinarian, one must first earn an undergraduate degree, which takes 4 years (on average). Admission to veterinary school is competitive, and many applicants apply to more than one school. Veterinary school is 4 years, and upon graduation, both national and state boards (exams) must be passed to be able to practice veterinary medicine in the United States.
To become a veterinary specialist, one must undergo additional extensive training after vet school graduation, clinical experience in the area of the chosen specialty, publish a clinical case or research findings in journal articles and pass a credential review and specialty board examinations.
Becoming board-certified in a specialty can be via a university-based residency program (in a veterinary school) or in approved private specialty hospitals. Each specialty has its own requirements.
The length of time to attain the specialty certification varies with each individual, but is usually a minimum of two years.
How does one arrange to see a veterinary specialist? In many cases, your veterinarian will suggest a referral to a specialist if the case is a difficult one. Some specialty practices only work with referrals, meaning cases sent in by veterinarians; other specialty practices will see new patients directly, no referral needed.
Veterinary specialist and referral practices do not usually provide basic care such as vaccinations, spays/neuters, etc., unless they work in combination with a general practice.
Should your pet see a specialist? If you are concerned about your pet's diagnosis or care, please speak with your veterinarian about the possibility of a referral to a specialist. If you are uncomfortable doing this, it would be wise to seek a second opinion or advice of a specialist.