When we become ill, we go to the doctor. We do the same for our pets. When they become sick or injured, we take them to see their veterinarian. However, sometimes our pet’s medical condition may be complex and require advanced medical skills, technologies, and/or treatment. This is often when your general veterinarian will recommend you take your pet to a board-certified veterinary specialist.
Most pet owners are unaware that veterinary specialists exist and the question arises, “What makes a veterinary specialist special?” First, it is important to know that a veterinary specialist will not replace your general vet. A veterinary specialist will work with you and your general vet to coordinate the best quality of care available. Veterinary specialists often have access to advanced technologies and treatments that may not be available through your general vet. Furthermore, cutting-edge specialty hospitals often provide your general vet with 24-hour, online access to your pet’s medical record - keeping them up to date almost in real time about your pet’s condition. However, this still doesn’t answer the question - what makes a veterinary specialist special?
Like your general vet, after earning a bachelor’s degree, a veterinary specialists must earn a degree from an accredited veterinary school, pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam (NAVLE), and obtain a license from the state governing board in which the veterinarian practices. This process takes four years to complete. General veterinarians will often then go straight to work providing vital wellness care, vaccinations, and perform routine, sick exams and surgical procedures, such as spays and neuters. However, a licensed veterinarian wishing to become a board-certified veterinary specialist must also complete an internship, sometimes two, and a residency after attending vet school.
Depending on the specialty of choice, a veterinary residency program takes three to four years to complete. During this time, residency programs require residents to complete medical research projects, publish professional academic articles, participate in and occasionally lead daily rounds and weekly formal conferences, and pass a comprehensive general examination, all while receiving intensive clinical training and providing skill-appropriate medical care to their patients. Residency programs are intense. They are not for the faint-hearted. The workweeks are very long (sometimes 50+ hours) and their average pay can range from only $10-15 an hour.
Even after these five to seven additional years of training, the requirements to become a board-certified veterinary specialist are not complete. The residency-trained veterinarian must then pass their specialty board-certifying exams. These consist of multiple intensive exams given over a number of days. Once passed, only then may a veterinarian be called a board-certified veterinary specialist or Diplomat of their respective specialty college.
A board-certified veterinary specialist is identifiable by the letters that follow their name. For example, a veterinarian board certified in internal medicine will have the letters – DACVIM - follow their name. Likewise, a small animal board-certified veterinary surgeon will have the letters – DACVS-SA. Today, there are greater than 20 recognized veterinary specialty organizations and more than 40 different veterinary specialties, some of which include internal medicine, surgery, ophthalmology, and zoological medicine.
Hopefully, your pet will live a long, healthy life and never need the services of a veterinary specialist. However, should you ever think your pet is in need of a referral or your general vet recommends one, rest assured in knowing that Lexington has been home to a fantastic group of local veterinary specialists for over 10 years; and they will be happy to work with you and your general vet to give your fur baby the extra-special care they deserve!