Veterinary specialists vs. general practitioners: what is the difference?

The veterinary profession is now as specialized as the human profession.

Every veterinarian in practice has been at some point asked to provide a second opinion on a case not going well, or a diagnosis levied by another veterinarian. Every veterinarian also has been on the receiving end of a client requesting medical record transfer to another veterinarian for the same reasons. Most veterinarians in this country are called general practitioners.

In other words, most veterinarians receive very similar training of 4 years of veterinary school before going into private medical and surgical practice. And while the vast majority of clinical complaints presented to veterinarians in everyday practice can be adequately managed by a general practitioner, there are certain acute and chronic conditions where referral should definitely be considered. From what I have seen in my almost 19 years of clinical veterinary practice, such a referral is often done too far down the road, rather than initially when the problem could have been more easily resolved. One of the biggest examples of that is seen with pets with frustrating chronic skin allergies and ear problems. Many times such pets go through years of symptomatic suppressive treatments with repetitive rounds of topical and/or oral/injectable corticosteroids and antibiotics, while the causes of the underlying problem remain untreated.

At the same time the animal guardian keeps spending more and more money on their pets’ relapsing skin or ear conditions. Sometimes this leads to permanent scarring of the ears or skin. Such cases are better referred early on to an appropriate veterinary dermatologist, who can perform the necessary allergy tests or dietary trials to diagnose the underlying causes of the problem so that the skin and ear issues can be managed more effectively long term.

The veterinary profession is now as specialized as the human profession. Increasing numbers of veterinarians are now doing internships and residencies after their 4 years of veterinary school, as well as becoming certified in various specialties such as soft tissue surgery, orthopedic surgery, oncology, internal medicine, radiology and ultrasound, ophthalmology, cardiology, neurology, dentistry, emergency medicine and many others. Clients have the right to know (both legally and ethically) treatment options so they can make informed choices.

It is our job as veterinarians to make sure that clients are given the benefit of full disclosure of such options. Then if the clients refuse these referrals for monetary or ethical reasons, we have at least done our jobs both for the animal, in offering the best our profession has to offer, and for the animal guardian. This is especially true in emergency medical cases such as dog bloat, cats or dogs presented with difficulty breathing, complex trauma or fracture cases, or surgical or dental cases that are best given to specialists early on for the best possible outcome. Such an approach will insure that the best possible pet medicine is offered to the public.


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  2. what is the breed of dog in your commercial, the reddish/white small puppy she is holding at the beginning of the commercial?

  3. I think she is holding a Pomeranian.

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