What is a Veterinary Specialist?

There are two main groups of veterinarians. The first group is composed of “general practitioners”. These veterinarians have graduated from vet school and some have even completed an internship (an additional year post vet school of intensive training). These are the ones we are most familiar with. They provide much needed preventative care such as vaccines, dentals, spays, Compassionate Heart Veterinary Care Gentle in-home euthanasia for cats dogs

“Specialists” form the second broad category of veterinarians. After graduating from vet school and completing a year long internship, they have completed 3 more years of intensive training during a residency.  The residency is in one speciality such as Surgery, Critical Care, Internal Medicine or Oncology, to name a few. Their expertise is in that one speciality and they only see patients that require their specialized skills. Because they have so much experience and knowledge about one area of veterinary medicine, general practitioners will often refer their patients to see them. It can be very helpful for families to get at least a second opinion from a specialist if they are faced with a significant illness to get more ideas on how to diagnose or treat a certain malady. Veterinary Surgeons, Criticalists, Internists and other specialists usually work at large referral centers equipped with a 24 hour ICU and emergency veterinarians. More in depth diagnostics such as, endoscopy, flouroscopy, MRI/CT scan and ultrasound can often be performed at these referral centers. Animals can receive 24 hour intensive monitoring and supportive care in the ICU. For some medical conditions, this ability to provide such intensive care can mean life or death for that patient. This is why a general practitioner may feel it would be in the best interest of the patient to transfer to a facility with an ICU and the support of specialists. Once a companion animal has been transferred to a referral facility to receive a highly specialized surgery or treatment, the specialist and general practitioner continue to keep in touch about their patient through phone communication or faxes. Thereby, creating a strong team of doctors to support the cat or dog through their medical crisis.

Has your veterinarian suggested consulting with a specialist or hospitalization at a facility that can provide 24 hour care? This is a good thing and demonstrates that your vet is being very thorough. It’s great to have options and get as many opinions, as one feels comfortable getting, when faced with a severe illness. However, if you feel you don’t want this in depth treatment or second opinion, that’s OK to refuse the referral, too. You just have to trust your heart. On the other hand, if you feel you want more information than what your veterinarian is providing, ask for a referral to a specialist!

Here is a list of 24 hour referral centers staffed with Specialists in the Chicago area:

Here is a list of Veterinary Specialties:

Here is a complete list of the 22 veterinary specialties.

Fascinating, right!? When I was working in 24-hour Referral Emergency clinics, so many families were confused, exhausted and concerned about why their family veterinarian had transferred them to our facility…usually at the end of the day. So, I hope this brief overview helps increase the understanding of the role veterinary specialists perform in the world of veterinary medicine. May your cat or dog stay happy, healthy and never need the expertise of a specialist! (But, it’s good to know they are there!)






Dr. Alicia Harris