As a pet parent, you are familiar with the importance of finding a knowledgeable and trustworthy general practice veterinarian, but there may also be situations that require the help of specialty veterinarians. Like your regular vet, these are highly educated professionals dedicated to your pet’s health and wellbeing. But when should you consult a specialist versus your regular vet, and how do you determine which specialist is best qualified for your pet’s current needs?
In this article, we are going to discuss how you can work as a team with your general practice veterinarian with your pet’s best interests in mind and when you may need the expertise of a specialist. We will also take a detailed look at 9 common specialty veterinarians that you may encounter at some point in your pet’s life.
Working With Your General Practice Veterinarian First
When it comes to your pet’s health, one of the most important working relationships you will have is the one that you build with your general practice veterinarian. Like a family doctor, this is the healthcare professional that will get to know your pet through an ongoing relationship, gathering information through annual exams, and helping to provide you with advice, preventative measures, and treatment options for any healthcare concerns.
Open and effective communication will allow you to work as a team with your pet’s health as the top focus. The more information you can provide, the easier it will be for your veterinarian as this will help them to better understand what is happening.
If you notice that something is off with your pet or you are concerned about his health, take a moment to write down everything that is happening in detail. There are going to be details that you notice from being around your pet every day that may not be displayed during your appointment time. Keeping a journal will help you remember and provide your veterinarian with all the important details that can help them to diagnose your pet and determine the next best steps.
In addition to taking note of any health concerns, you can also help to create a better understanding of your pet’s ongoing health and well-being through becoming familiar with their body and health on an ongoing basis. An easy way to incorporate this into your routine is through our Pet Health 5 movement, where we will help you monitor your pet’s day-to-day health by doing 5 important checks each month. This includes doing a body scan to check for lumps, bumps, or other concerns, checking your pet’s teeth and gums, and logging your pet’s temperature, weight, and heart rate.
When discussing your pet, be open and honest. Your veterinarian is a healthcare professional with a wealth of education and knowledge that they can draw upon to best care for your pet, but they only see your pet during the short snapshot of time during their appointment. Just like you, they have your pet’s best interests at heart, and the more information that you can provide them, the better they will understand what is happening.
If your pet’s health is going to require specialized care, your general practice veterinarian may then recommend consulting with one, or multiple, specialty veterinarians. There are many types of veterinarians that would fall into this category, including vets that focus their career on a single system of your pet’s body, vets that specialize in a specific condition or disease, and vets that specialize in one type of medical care and treatment.
When your vet is recommending seeing a specialist, they aren’t giving up on your pet or “passing the buck.” They are suggesting bringing another highly-qualified professional onto your pet’s healthcare team to work with both of you and keep your pet’s best interests in mind.
Dr. Rachel Ammirata explains: “As a veterinarian, we should seek and most likely recommend referral to a specialist when whatever is best for the patient is beyond our diagnostic capabilities. For example, MRI for neurological issues or in-depth ocular exams for eyes such as cataracts and retinal detachments.”
9 Types of Specialty Veterinarians
The American Veterinary Medical Association recognizes 46 distinct veterinary specialties, each with its own unique postgraduate training and education requirements. This includes everything from veterinarians that specialize in a specific type of pet to those that have chosen to dedicate their efforts to learn the finer nuances of a specific system in the body.
Here are 9 common specialty veterinarians you may encounter when dealing with your pet’s health and well-being.
When we have problems related to our dental care, we seek the help of a dentist – and so too can your pet! Veterinary dentists specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of conditions that are related to the teeth, gums, and mouth.
Another special veterinarian that you may encounter when addressing your pet’s health concerns is a veterinary dermatologist. These are veterinarians who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of conditions relating to the skin, hair, ears, and nails/hooves. If you are dealing with allergies or a skin condition that you are struggling to get under control, this is the specialist that will be able to assist you in finding a solution.
If your pet is suffering from heart problems or issues related to their ability to breathe, you may be referred to a veterinary cardiologist for their expertise. They specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases relating to the heart, lungs, and respiratory system. This may include specialty testing (echocardiography or thoracic radiography), monitoring devices, the use of a pacemaker, or the need for medication for these conditions.
Specializing in the management and care of conditions relating to the brain, spinal cord, and the nervous system, a veterinary neurologist may be needed if your pet is experiencing seizures or has recently suffered from a head or spinal injury. This could involve surgical or non-surgical treatment options.
Specialty veterinarians that focus on the study and medical care of conditions relating to the eye and its associated structures and systems are called veterinary ophthalmologists. This can range from a basic eye examination to the diagnosis and treatment of diseases and conditions of the eye.
In situations where cancer may be suspected or confirmed, you may be referred to a veterinary oncologist. They specialize in the study and treatment of tumors and cancer, regardless of where they may be occurring in your pet’s body. In addition to helping you find a diagnosis, they will also oversee treatment including cancer-related surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or the use of cancer medications.
The food that your pet consumes is its fuel and making smart nutritional choices can have a significant impact on their health and well-being. Veterinary nutritionists specialize in the research and application of nutrition in the treatment and management of health and disease. They will help you to establish the ideal diet for your pet’s unique care.
Often mistaken for dog trainers, veterinary behaviorists are professionals that have had significant education and training on understanding the behavioral health of our pets. This includes understanding the relationship between a pet’s health and behavior, how the environment and experiences of a pet can impact their behavior, and the use of behavioral medications, when necessary.
While general practice veterinarians will do their best to assist with the care of your pet, if that pet isn’t a dog or cat, they may direct you to a species-specific veterinarian. These are veterinarians who have devoted their career to focusing on the unique needs and challenges faced in caring for a specific type of animal. They familiarize themselves with conditions, treatments, and medical knowledge that a veterinarian that works largely with cats and dogs may not regularly see in their general practice.
Some examples of species-specific veterinarians include Avian Veterinarians (birds), Exotic Companion Animal Veterinarians (rabbits, chinchillas, hamsters, ferrets, etc.), Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians (snakes, turtles, frogs, etc.), and Equine Veterinarians (horses).
Whether you’re actively working with your general practice veterinarian or any one of the specialty veterinarians that we have listed here, always remember that you are a team with the same priority in mind: your pet’s health. By maintaining open communication and working together, you can address any healthcare concerns early and focus your efforts on providing the best possible treatment options. This will give your pet the best chances at a long, happy, and healthy life, regardless of what challenges you may face.
Have you ever been referred to a specialist for your pet? If so, we’d love to hear about your experience in the comments!
About the Author: Britt Kascjak is a proud pet mom, sharing her heart (and her home) with her ‘pack’ which includes her husband John, their 3 dogs – Daviana, Indiana, and Lucifer – and their 2 cats – Pippen and Jinx. She has been active in the animal rescue community for over 15 years, volunteering, fostering, and advocating for organizations across Canada and the US. In her free time, she enjoys traveling around the country camping, hiking, and canoeing with her pets.