Veterinary practice has evolved a lot in the last few decades, and it is becoming increasingly rare for veterinarians to be a Jack (or Jill) of all trades. It’s still possible to find such veterinarians, but what was once the mainstay of the profession has become the exception.
Veterinary medicine is now more and more specialized, with specialties in veterinary surgery, dermatology, oncology, ophthalmology, behavioral issues, internal medicine, emergency medicine, avian and exotic animal medicine, equine medicine, equine surgery, holistic medicine, and so on. It’s analogous to human medicine: You see your general practitioner first and then get referred to a specialist if necessary. In the veterinary world, general practitioners are the veterinarians that are normally referred to by people as “our vet.”
When and why to consult veterinary specialists
Why seek out a specialist? The easiest answer to this question is that your regular veterinarian would suggest it. There are several reasons why your veterinarian might suggest a referral to a specialist. Your pet may have a problem that is more complicated than your vet has handled before or has the capability to handle. For example, it is common to refer an animal to a neurologist for an MRI. Most general veterinarians do not have such equipment or the expertise to precisely interpret the results from such tests.
Another reason is that your pet may need a surgery that your veterinarian has never done or that he/she does not have the equipment to do. For instance, many of the more advanced orthopedic surgeries require special and expensive equipment to perform. It is not cost-effective for general practitioners to invest in the equipment and training to do certain surgeries, since that cost is likely tens of thousands of dollars. They may not see the numbers of appropriate cases to justify such a cost or they might not have the time to perform the surgeries if their practice is geared toward providing other services.
A third reason is that your regular veterinarian may offer a referral to see another vet in order to provide you with treatment alternatives. Also, your vet may feel comfortable working with your pet’s problem, but offer a referral as a way to get a second opinion or to give you as much information as you want about your pet’s condition.
Second opinion, anyone?
It is also possible that your veterinarian may not suggest a specialist, but you want one for a second opinion or because you are dissatisfied with how your veterinarian is handling your pet’s case. These situations are a little tricky because most specialists require a referral from a general practitioner. In these situations, it is best for you to tell your veterinarian that you want a referral and ask for a recommendation.
If your vet refuses to give a referral, you can find out if you are able to get an appointment with the specialist without a veterinary referral. If not, you may need to go to another general practitioner to get the referral. Either way, you should switch your regular veterinarian, since he/she is not looking out for you and your animal’s best interest.
How to find a veterinary specialist
Generally, you find a specialist by getting a referral from your regular veterinarian. If you are looking for options on your own, the Internet is your obvious starting point. Enter the name of your city, county or state and the veterinary specialty in your favorite search engine (such as Google). From there, you can do research on what services they provide, whether they are board-certified, what others’ opinions of them are, and where they are located.
Be aware that if you live in a rural area, you may not find a board-certified specialist within close proximity of where you live. In that case, instead of a specialist, you could choose to see a general practitioner who has received extra training in the field relevant to your pet’s needs. Doing this will require some more research on your part, but your veterinarian can and should typically be able to give you this information, or it can be found online.
For instance, let’s say your pet needs a TPLO (tibial-plateau-leveling osteotomy) surgery for a torn cruciate ligament, and you can’t find a board-certified surgeon an acceptable distance from your home. However, there may be numerous general practitioners in your area who have received training in this surgery and can perform it for you. So, do an Internet search for “TPLO veterinarians near (your town and state).”
In urban areas, there is a growing trend for general practitioners and specialists to work out of the same hospital. These are often quite large hospitals that provide a great service to clients in that if a referral is needed, you don’t have to change hospital environments to see a specialist. The downside, though, is that these facilities may not include a less expensive option. For instance, as mentioned in the example above, many general practitioners can successfully perform surgeries for a torn cruciate ligament. However, at the hospitals that combine general practice and specialties, the general practitioners may not have those skills and thus every orthopedic surgery there is done by a specialist, which typically means larger costs.
Having the option to see a veterinary specialist greatly improves the type of care you can provide your pets. Keep in mind, though, that seeing these specialists generally involves greater costs than seeing your general practitioner. But when it comes to certain situations, it is the recommended path to go. For the majority of problems, a trip to your regular veterinarian will suffice and is always the place to start.