Someone Special: a look at veterinary specialists

Dr. Kim
Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on Dec 13 2012


Most veterinarians are generalists, meaning that they don’t really specialize in any one health problem. Veterinarians tend to do it all, from soft tissue and orthopedic surgery to solving skin infections, behavioral problems, obstetric emergencies and other complicated internal illnesses. All of that, and they do it on multiple species as well!

However, it is impossible for us to know it all or be able to provide the best care in every pet’s situation. Sometimes we have to refer our patients to a specialist, much like your general practitioner does if you present with an unusual illness.

Sometimes, your veterinarian will refer you after his treatments have failed to solve the problem, or sometimes your pet will be referred right away. Veterinary specialists are those who have gone not only to veterinary school, but also followed up with internships and residencies to become proficient in a particular specialty. After finishing their residency, they must pass a rigorous exam to become board certified in their specialty of choice.

Below is a summary of common veterinary specialists and why you and your pet may be referred there:

  • Internal Medicine: Generally, these specialists can be found at veterinary schools, larger practices and referral practices alike. Internal medicine veterinarians are the ultimate problem solvers, handling sick patients with multiple concurrent illnesses or unusual conditions. Problems that are often referred to internal medicine specialists include those that are difficult to regulate, such as diabetic or adrenal disease, illnesses that do not respond to initial therapies, or illnesses that cannot be pinned down.

  • Dermatologists: Veterinary dermatologists focus on diseases of the skin and ears. Recurring or non-responsive ear infections are a commonly referred problem, as are chronic skin infections and atopy. Skin disease can be very frustrating for owners and veterinarians alike, and sometimes referral to the dermatologist can just make everyone feel better!

  • Oncologists: Veterinary oncologists specialize in treating your pet’s cancer. They have access to chemotherapy drugs and often are able to perform radiation treatments as well. If your pet has been diagnosed with cancer and you decide to seek treatment, an oncology consult is generally recommended if it is at all possible.

  • Neurologists: Veterinary neurologists focus on diseases that affect the nervous systems of our pets, be it in the brain, spinal cord or in nerves that communicate with major muscle groups. Intervertebral disc disease (a common condition of Dachshunds) can present as an emergency, and with quick referral to a veterinary neurologist, your pet’s ability to walk can often be salvaged. Meningitis, encephalitis, brain tumors and nerve damage are also reasons that your pet may need to see a neurologist. Read the fetch! magazine interview with veterinary neurologist Dr. Annie Chen-Allen here.

  • Cardiologists: If your general practitioner hears a heart murmur when they listen to your chest, they will refer you to a cardiologist. The same is often true when your vet hears a murmur in your pet. Cardiologists can do echocardiograms to visualize your pet’s heart to see where the problem lies and then provide an appropriate treatment plan for your pet’s condition.

  • Ophthalmologists: These veterinary specialists treat your pet’s eyes. Often, your veterinarian will try a few therapies for eye problems, but when those methods fail, you may be referred to an ophthalmologist. Uncontrolled glaucoma, chronic corneal ulcers, ocular cancers and cataract surgery are commonly referred conditions.

Your veterinarian and veterinary specialists work as a team to solve your pet’s health problems. If your veterinarian has offered a referral, it is because he or she feels that the specialist will be able to provide the very best treatment for your pet’s condition.

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