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Evolution of Specialty Veterinary Medicine

If a group of veterinarians decided to open a new hospital today, they may consider building a hospital that would house both a 24-hour emergency center and a group of various specialty practices. While there are many animal hospitals structured in this way today, the path taken by the veterinary community to arrive at this point is not as simple as one would imagine.

As recently as 25 years ago, most veterinarians served as an all-in-one resource for pet owners. Veterinarians would do everything from annual check-ups to surgeries. Though these veterinarians only had their offices open during the day, they gave clients their home phone numbers and instructions to call at any time if there was a problem with their pet. Groups of likeminded veterinarians gradually developed in larger cities to rotate on-call duties amongst themselves. Clients with pets that needed overnight care were directed to call the on-call veterinarian. These dedicated veterinarians really were on-call 24 hours a day. Many can tell stories of opening their office at all hours of the night to treat a pet in need.

As expectations of the public grew, and as these overnight calls became overwhelming, many veterinarians realized that having an emergency hospital open at night and on the weekends was the best solution to address the needs of their patients. Generally, a group of local veterinarians would develop a hospital and tell their clients to take their pet into the on-call hospital if it needed treatment when the regular veterinarian’s office was closed. The local veterinarians would set up a schedule amongst themselves so that there was always a veterinarian to handle overnight and weekend emergencies.

As emergency hospitals were being established, another significant change was occurring in the veterinary field. More and more veterinarians began to specialize in a specific area. A specialist completes three to five years of additional training after veterinary school and passes rigorous additional examinations. Specialty areas include, but are not limited to, cardiology, dentistry, dermatology, internal medicine, oncology, ophthalmology and surgery. Specialists typically work hand-inhand with a pet’s regular veterinarian for patients with health problems that are more involved or require specialized treatment. Since the knowledge base for veterinary medicine continues to increase every year, referral of cases to a specialist is becoming much more common as veterinarians recognize the expertise specialists can offer on complicated cases.

The next step in this evolution was pairing specialists with emergency providers, a natural evolution. Since the veterinarians who established and staffed early emergency hospitals also maintained their own practices, the emergency hospitals were closed during the day. The emergency care facilities were already constructed and furnished with much of the equipment that specialists needed. Specialists only needed to add the equipment specific to their specialty to get started. They could also be confident that any of their patients that needed to stay in the hospital overnight would benefit from high quality care because there was always a veterinarian in the hospital at night and on the weekend. Finally, over time, many emergency hospitals have brought in new veterinarians who have trained in or developed their expertise in emergency medicine and aspects of critical care.

The changes in the veterinary community over the past three decades have been considerable. Small animal veterinary practitioners of the 1970s, 1980s and even into the 1990s were focused on the care of dogs and cats. In 2008, they also care for pocket pets, reptiles, fish, a few legal exotic species, and birds of all varieties, sizes and colors. Now, the small animal veterinarian has to consider providing a myriad of new abilities like ultrasound, digital radiography, laser surgery and equipment to complete in-house analysis of blood work and other diagnostic tests. This takes an incredibly strong desire to provide high quality care and an ever-increasing financial commitment to purchase property, build hospitals, and hire additional staff. As our clients develop ever deeper bonds with their pets, their expectations of what represents good veterinary care also climb. It is a true challenge for veterinary medicine of the 21st century to lead the way in these developments. Similarly, the veterinarians who are developing emergency and 24-hour care centers recognize their part in this team approach and dedication to quality patient care. A natural alliance has developed among these facilities and the last link in veterinary care, that of specialty veterinary medicine. The general practice, emergency/critical care facility, and specialty service all work together to provide your pet with advanced veterinary care.

Compliments of Chesapeake Veterinary Referral Center 410-224-0121



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