We’re used to hearing the term specialist when applied to human medicine. But what about veterinary medicine? Did you know that there are many specialties in our field? I’d risk saying that the majority of the general population does not!
So, what is a veterinary specialist?
Veterinary specialists are veterinarians with advanced training that have met all of the requirements of a specialty college recognized by the American Board of Veterinary Specialties, which is part of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Examples include the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine or the American College of Veterinary Surgeons. In the above website you can find links to all the recognized specialty colleges.
Depending on where in the country one works, the awareness that there are veterinary specialists greatly varies. If by a stroke of luck, you’ve never had to seek veterinary care for your pets aside from routine vaccine appointments, you might not be aware either. Even human medical professionals are not necessarily familiar with this concept in veterinary medicine, and we usually get comments like “I had no idea you could do endoscopy or [insert diagnostic test here] in dogs and cats!!”
Just like in human medicine, a referral from a primary care veterinarian/general practitioner/family veterinarian is usually needed before you can see a specialist. Appointments with specialists work very much the same as in human medicine – if you have a heart or a neurologic problem, you’ll see a cardiologist or a neurologist, respectively.
It is worth noting that while you can see a board-certified internist as your primary care human doctor, this is not the case for veterinary medicine. Veterinary internists (such as myself) do not do primary care medicine – this is the realm of a general practitioner / family veterinarian.
The other difference is that we don’t have sub-specializations in internal medicine and other specialties as in human medicine. In other words, if you need a gastroenterologist or an infectious disease specialist, you’ll see a veterinary internist. There are however, internists with a strong interest in specific fields of medicine. For example, I have a strong interest in gastroenterology, hepatology and hematology. But I cannot call myself a gastroenterologist or hepatologist.
How do I become a specialist?
There are multiple requirements that must be met before you can call yourself a board-certified veterinary specialist:
- Graduation from vet school is obviously the first step. In the United States, this implies four years of undergraduate college and four more years of vet school. Other countries will have different requirements.
- Apply and be selected for a rotating internship. In these one year programs, the intern rotates through ER and all of the specialty services available in the hospital. They may also rotate through a primary care/community practice service if available.
- After completing a rotating internship, residency training follows. These are a lot harder to get since there are less open positions when compared to internships. Residencies usually last 3 years and some offer the option to complete a master’s degree at the same time.
- There are also specialty internships. In these programs, the intern spends most of the year on a specific service, like oncology or surgery. It is becoming more common to complete both a rotating internship and a specialty internship prior to being accepted into a residency program.
- After completing residency training, there is a rigorous exam to assess a candidate’s competencies. Some residencies have more than one exam, the first of which is taken during the resident’s second year. Passing these exams does not guarantee specialist status, as there are many other requirements that must be met before that is obtained. One of these is usually the publication of original research in a peer-reviewed journal.
If all requirements are met and a candidate passes the final board exam, they can then call themselves a board-certified specialist in [insert specialty here]. On the other hand, candidates that have finished a residency but have not yet met all requirements will be presented as “practice limited to [insert specialty here]”
If you want to know more about how to become a specialist, check out our in-depth guide to the veterinary matching program! It has everything you need to know about advanced training positions, how to evaluate training programs and how to get your application in top shape!
What about the American Board of Veterinary Specialties (ABVP)?
The ABVP certification process can be a little different from what was highlighted above and I encourage you to check their website and download the applicant handbook. They currently offer certification in 11 different specialties. You can follow the more traditional internship and residency path, or a practitioner path, where you must have at least 5 years of clinical experience as a veterinarian.
Specialists are part of the team
It is important to always remember that what we do every day as veterinarians has the ultimate goal of providing excellent quality of medicine and patient care, in order to maintain/improve the quality of life of our pets. Veterinary specialists work in conjunction with primary care veterinarians, other specialists, and the pet parent to achieve the best care possible. This team approach must always be present!