What Do Veterinary Specialists Do?

Veterinary medicine is now more and more specialized, with veterinary specialties in surgery, dermatology, oncology, ophthalmology, behavioral issues, internal medicine, emergency medicine, avian and exotic animal medicine, equine medicine, equine surgery, holistic medicine, and more. 

It’s analogous to human medicine: You see your general practitioner first and then get referred to a specialist if necessary. In the veterinary world, the general practitioners are the veterinarians whom people typically see with their pets, and veterinary specialists take more specific and complex cases that require their expertise.

So what exactly do veterinary specialists do? Here's what to know about these specialized vets.

When to consult a specialized vet

Why would someone seek out a veterinary specialist for their pet? Their regular veterinarian often suggests it. Here are three common reasons why your veterinarian might suggest a referral to a specialized vet:

  • Your pet might have a problem that is more complicated than your vet has handled before or has the capability to handle. For example, it is common to refer an animal to a neurologist for an MRI. Most general veterinarians do not have such equipment or the expertise to precisely interpret the results.
  • Your pet might need a surgery that your veterinarian has never done or doesn't have the equipment to do. For instance, many of the more advanced orthopedic surgeries require special and expensive equipment to perform. And it's often not cost-effective for general practitioners to invest in the equipment and training to do certain surgeries. They might not see the numbers of appropriate cases to justify such a cost, or they might not have the time to perform the surgeries if their practice is geared toward providing other services.
  • Your vet might want you to explore treatment alternatives. Or your vet might want you to get a second opinion to give you as much information as you want about your pet's condition.

It is also possible that your veterinarian may not suggest a veterinary specialist, but you want one for a second opinion or because you are dissatisfied with how your veterinarian is handling your pet's case. 

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These situations can be tricky because many veterinary specialists require a referral from a general practitioner. So it's best for you to tell your veterinarian that you want a referral and ask for a recommendation.

If your vet refuses to give a referral, you can find out whether you're able to get an appointment with the specialist without the referral. If not, you might need to go to another general practitioner to get the referral. Either way, you should consider switching your regular veterinarian because they're not looking out for you and your animal's best interest.

How to find a veterinary specialist

Generally, you find a veterinary specialist by getting a referral from your regular veterinarian. If you're looking for options on your own, start by researching online the veterinary specialists near you. Search your location plus the veterinary specialty you need. From there, you can do research on which services they provide, whether they are board-certified, what others’ opinions of them are, and where they are located.

Be aware that if you live in a rural area, you might not find a board-certified vet specialist within close proximity of where you live. In that case, instead of a specialist, you could choose to see a general practitioner who has received extra training in the field relevant to your pet’s needs. Doing this will require some more research on your part. But your veterinarian can and should typically be able to give you this information, or it can be found online.

For instance, let’s say your pet needs a TPLO (tibial-plateau-leveling osteotomy) surgery for a torn cruciate ligament, and you can’t find a board-certified surgeon an acceptable distance from your home. However, there may be numerous general practitioners in your area who have received training in this surgery and can perform it for you. So search online for “TPLO veterinarians near (your location).”

In urban areas, there is a growing trend for general practitioners and specialists to work out of the same veterinary hospital. These are often quite large hospitals that provide a great service to clients — if a referral is needed, you don’t have to change hospital environments to see a specialist. 

The downside of these veterinary hospitals, though, is they might not include a less expensive option. For instance, many general practitioners can successfully perform surgeries for a torn cruciate ligament. However, at the hospitals that combine general practice and vet specialties, the general practitioners might not have those skills and thus every orthopedic surgery there is done by a specialist, which typically means higher costs.

In general, too, seeing specialized vets generally involves higher costs than seeing your general practitioner. But when it comes to certain situations, it is the recommended path to go. Having the option to see a veterinary specialist greatly improves the type of care you can provide your pets. 

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