Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Specialization Helps With Special Problems

Pet Column for the week of November 25, 2002

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Jennifer Stone
Information Specialist

Over the past 10 years, pet owners have raised the bar on what is expected from veterinary practitioners, according to Dr. Steven Marks, the head of small animal medicine at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, Ill. "People love their pets as a part of their families, and their expectations of their veterinarian have increase dramatically," says Dr. Marks.

While the general practitioner is without a doubt the backbone of the veterinary profession, problems sometimes arise that are beyond the generalist's scope. "The amount of knowledge that the general practitioner must have in order to practice medicine is much greater these days that it was 25 years ago," says Dr. Marks. "Pet owners today want such a high level of medical care for their pets that it is impossible for the general practitioner to be an expert in every area of veterinary medicine."

For this reason, the veterinary field has seen an expansion in specialty practice areas, just as the human medical field has. For example, the University of Illinois veterinary teaching hospital has specialists in small animal emergency care, critical care, internal medicine, oncology (cancer treatment), cardiology, surgery, dentistry, dermatology, ophthalmology (eye care), anesthesia, theriogenology (reproductive medicine), and radiology.

When your primary veterinarian refers you to a specialist, it is important to understand the credentials of the person you are seeing. Getting "board certified" in a specialty area requires a 1-year internship (or an equivalent in experience which can count as an internship) and a residency.

Residency programs usually last 3 years, during which the veterinarian focuses intensely on his or her specific area of interest. Only veterinary teaching hospitals, which are located at veterinary colleges and at some large urban practices, offer residencies.

After the residency the practitioner must pass an approved board examination to become a "diplomate" of a particular specialty "college"-the term for an association of specialists that regulate credentials in their area. For example, a surgeon could become a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons. This credential not only allows veterinarians to practice as specialists in that area but also to advertise themselves as specialists.

Another type of credential is awarded to practicing veterinarians who have acquired great skill in veterinary medicine and who pass an examination but have not completed a residency. These credentials are awarded in areas including feline, canine, equine, and avain clinical practice.

Specialists in veterinary medicine rely on general practitioners to refer patients to their practice for expert care, and general practitioners count on specialists to give patients help that is beyond the scope of the generalist. Together the general practitioner and the specialist can offer the highest quality medicine possible to animals.

If you have any questions regarding specialties in veterinary medicine, please contact your local veterinarian.