What is a veterinary specialist?

What is a veterinary specialist? Why should you visit one?

It is not uncommon for family physicians to refer patients to specialists dedicated to managing cases related to their field of specialty. The veterinary health system is very similar to ours in that sense: there are general veterinarians (like family physicians) and veterinary specialists.

Veterinary specialists mainly work in centres that look like hospitals. Their specialized training allows them to practise in their specialty area of choice. What is the difference between a general veterinarian and a veterinary specialist? Why should you visit a veterinary specialist? The following article will answer these questions and allow you to gain a better understanding of the difference between these two types of veterinarians.


What kind of training does a veterinary specialist have?

Veterinarians must enroll in a 5-year program to earn a doctor’s degree that allows them to practise veterinary medicine. Some of them choose to pursue their studies further and specialize in a specific area. Today, for most veterinarians, earning the title of veterinary specialist means at least an extra 3 to 5 years of study!

Similar to human medicine, there are many specialty areas in veterinary medicine: internist (ACVIM), emergency veterinarian (ACVECC), radiologist (ACVR), surgeon (ACVS), ophthalmologist (ACVO), dermatologist (ACVD), and pathologist (ACVP). Each specialist must complete a 3-year residency program supervised by other specialists, then pass the competency examination at the end of the program in order to practice as a veterinary specialist.

The residency program and the final exam are both managed by one of the American colleges of specialists (depending on the specialty), an institution that ensures quality in the training of its graduates.

Earning this degree allows specialists to add the corresponding college’s abbreviation next to their signature, as outlined above. These abbreviations help pet owners ensure that their animal is being assessed by a veterinary specialist.


What specific skills do veterinary specialists have?

Veterinary specialists deal with a much more focussed area of health problems compared to general veterinarians. This allows them to achieve a greater level of expertise in managing these same issues. Specialists must keep their knowledge and skills up to date in order to be the best person for handling the cases presented to them. Specialists often serve as speakers at veterinary conferences and assist with the continuing education of general veterinarians.

Specialists primarily work in referral centres where all specialty areas can be found under one roof, like at a hospital, which fosters communication and helps improve patient management. For example, a dog presenting with abdominal bleeding will be seen by an emergency veterinarian, have an ultrasound performed by a radiologist, receive anesthesia from an anesthetist, undergo an operation carried out by a surgeon, and then be seen by an oncologist if the bleeding was caused by a cancer.


Why should you visit a veterinary specialist?

You can always visit a veterinary specialist if you think it would benefit your animal. Your veterinarian must refer your pet to a specialist when its condition requires specific expertise. The role of specialists is to support general veterinarians in their practice so that pets have access to the best veterinary care possible. Work carried out by a specialist will always complement that of a veterinarian, who ensures the overall health of your furry friend!