Pets of all shapes and sizes receive the finest medical care in North America. From complex surgeries and customized cancer treatment to critical care and everyday wellness exams, veterinarians fill an increasing need for top-notch care. When pet doctors encounter a medical condition that may benefit from a second opinion or care from a doctor who specializes in that area of medicine they refer cases to colleagues.
“Specific expertise can be quite valuable in terms of assessing just what my dog needed or didn’t,” said Sarah Carey, whose dog Katie saw veterinary surgeons at the University of Florida (UF). “I wasn’t sure when I went to our veterinary orthopedic surgeons whether my dog even needed surgery, but I trusted that if she did the UF orthopedic team would explain all of my options.”
In North America there are thousands of board-certified veterinary specialists. The specialist title is awarded by organizations, including the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM), after doctors complete internships and residencies (similar to human doctors) in many fields, including oncology, dermatology, surgery, neurology, cardiology, and internal medicine.
Over the last 10 years, the number of specialists in private practice has doubled, which gives pet owners greater access to healthcare options when expertise in one area is required.
General practice or family veterinarians are the gatekeepers for a pet’s medical care, which is why specialty referrals should come from them.
Family veterinarians continually update their medical knowledge, and many of these practitioners can handle specialized cases. Talk with your veterinary team to learn about all of the options available to you.
After Carey took her dog Katie, a nine-year-old Labrador retriever, to see the surgeons at the University of Florida, Katie had a tibial plateau leveling osteotomy (TPLO) surgery to repair a torn ligament in her leg.
Pet owners, who do not have easy access to veterinary teaching hospitals like the University of Florida, can ask their family veterinarians for recommendations. These doctors will ensure that medical records are shared with specialists and that clients get all of the information they need before arriving for an appointment with a pet specialist.
Some medical tests will be done by family veterinarians, but specialists may ask for different tests and will use the health records, which will be sent by your family’s pet doctor, to complete a diagnosis.
Pet owners should ask about costs associated with specialty care. Fees vary by location and medical specialty. Carey also suggests asking about follow-up care.
“I would have preferred to have been told about the aftercare requirements for TPLO surgery during my initial visit,” she said. “They’re pretty intense. For the first couple of weeks, every trip outside for the dog to eliminate meant putting on a plastic foot bootie and the use of a sling to minimize her weight on the leg.”
Carey also did not know that surgeons wanted Katie to return to the hospital twice a week, which required additional time off work and help from friends to get Katie into the car. Although it was labor-intensive, Carey is pleased with the results of the surgery.
“I’d do it all over again,” she said. “The results are what it’s really all about, and Katie is a happy, healthy, limp-free dog now and has been for some time.”
Wellness care — regular visits to ensure pet health — is best handled by family veterinarians, but some medical cases — like surgeries — may be referred to specialists.
This article originally appeared in PetsMatter Volume 2 Issue 5, published by the American Animal Hospital Association. Copyright © 2009 AAHA. Find out more.