Vet Specialists: Key Care for Your Injured or Very Sick Pet

Patients are living much longer. As a result, they have more diabetes, cancer, heart disease, blindness, deafness, as well as neurological problems akin to multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s.

Luckily, as more and more patients have these diseases of aging, and other complex, unusual and/or chronic diseases, medical technology has lurched forward, with much better treatment to keep patients alive and living happy lives. In some cases, new drugs and technology have brought cures for previously incurable diseases.

Sounds like a discussion of Medicare and the widespread advances in American medicine. But the patients we’re talking about are your pets, and the trends are the changes in veterinary medicine over the last 20 years. Specifically, today there are animal specialists in almost every field that has human specialists. The meaning for you and your pet: Your regular vet has heart, eye and nerve disease doctors and surgeons, and a range of other specialists, to give you referrals when your pet’s medical problem or injury poses intricacies best handled by, or needs equipment or medicines only available to, a specialist

The special meaning for pet lovers in the Washington metro area, with its hundreds of thousands of caring pet owners: Many of the top practitioners in the world in these specialties are working right here

The procedure to have your pet see a specialist is much the same as it is in human medicine. You take your animal to your regular vet. If the vet finds a problem that would best be taken care of by someone more expert in a specific field, you and your vet will talk over a referral. If you then take your pet to the specialist, s/he will report back to your regular vet, and discuss with you the next needed medical steps. Most commonly, there will be a diagnosis and treatment plan to be carried out under your regular vet’s supervision, plus occasional follow-ups with the specialist. Sometimes, the problem will demand continuing visits to the specialist; if so, s/he will keep your regular vet informed of your pet’s progress. You’re involved in the decisions made, just as you are with your regular vet.

Here are some examples of specialist vet care, from the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine Web site (, and other vet sources:

• Lucky, a Sheltie agility champion, had lymphoma and took a 36-week course of chemotherapy prescribed by an oncologist. Her cancer is in remission. She continued competing even during chemo! At least Lance Armstrong waited until his chemo was over to race again.

• Genie, diagnosed with a heart murmur as a kitten and surviving being grazed by a car, had fluid in her chest and circulatory problems. After tapping her chest several times, a cardiologist performed surgery. Six months out, this hard luck sweetie was doing fine.

• The modern world of radiology and related technology has reached has reached the pet set. There are MRIs and ultrasound, not only for bone injuries and pregnancies, but also to diagnose heart, digestive and nerve system diseases. There is radiation treatment for pet cancers.

• Surgery to remove cancers, set bones, fix circulatory problems, and dozens of other problems.

What are the vet specialties? The American Veterinary Medical Association ( recognizes 20 specialty boards and colleges, and many of these specialties have subspecialties. AVMA lists 19 fields with more than 100 active, fully trained specialists nationally. Here they are:

• Doctors who perform specific kinds of care, specifically emergency, eye, skin, heart, nerve system, cancer, and reproductive medicine doctors, and internal medicine doctors for small and large animals.

• Diagnostic doctors in the fields of pathology and radiology.

• Anesthesiologists and surgeons.

• Doctors focused on specific kinds of animals: dogs and cats, birds, poultry, and lab animals. There are smaller numbers of doctors focused on horses, cattle and pigs.

• Preventive medicine doctors.

• Research doctors in microbiology. About 10% of vets are fully trained specialists: about 8,200 specialists out of 82,000 practicing vets nationally.

It takes a long time to become a vet specialist. Depending on the specialty, the minimum training time to become a vet specialist can be as many, or two or three years less, as to become a human specialist. It’s at least seven years after college, or at least three years after earning the basic, four-year veterinary degree, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM). In fact, many vet specialties have a requirement that human specialties don’t have: publishing original research.

Is specialist vet care expensive? Not nearly to the extent of human specialist care, but yes, it is expensive. That’s part of the decision you must make in deciding with your regular vet and specialist what course of action to take for your pet.

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