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

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Veterinary Specialty Hospitals Address Advanced Animal Health Needs

Pet Column for the week of October 31, 2011

Related information:

Related site - University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital
Species - Exotics
Services - Veterinary Profession

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

Like people, pets can get most of their lifelong medical needs met by an excellent primary care practitioner. But when problems arise that require expertise or technology unavailable to the generalist, for pets as for people, specialty hospitals are ready to help.

Dr. Brendan McKiernan has seen a proliferation both of veterinary specialties and of specialty hospitals in his nearly 40 years in practice. An internationally recognized expert in respiratory diseases of dogs and cats, Dr. McKiernan spent the first 24 years of his career on the faculty at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana. He recently rejoined the faculty as director of the college's Veterinary Teaching Hospital after thirteen years in large private specialty practices in Colorado and, most recently, in Oregon.

"People are often surprised to learn how many areas of specialization are offered in veterinary medicine, and how rigorous the training is that goes into them," says Dr. McKiernan.

There are currently 40 distinct specialties overseen by more than 20 veterinary specialty organizations in the United States and a similar number in Europe. Areas of specialization range from surgery and internal medicine to nutrition and behavior. There are specialty organizations for practitioners in zoological medicine and laboratory animal medicine.

The Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana has more than two dozen specialists, some with board certification in more than one area. Expertise represented includes both large and small animal internal medicine, surgery, dentistry, ophthalmology, anesthesiology, radiology, emergency and critical care, dermatology, oncology (cancer care), theriogenology (animal reproduction), and more.

Dozens of other veterinarians are in training at the hospital to become specialists.

Becoming a board-certified specialist takes many years. After finishing veterinary school and passing the national board examination, a veterinarian pursuing board certification typically completes either a one-year internship or two years of practice. He or she then applies for a residency position at an approved program—a very competitive process.

During the two- or three-year residency, candidates take courses and see patients under the direction of a veterinarian already boarded in that field. They usually also conduct research and publish scientific articles and often will present their work at conferences. At the end of the residency, candidates must pass a credential review and an examination conducted by the specialty organization of their focus.

Dr. McKiernan is board certified by the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, subspecialty of Small Animal Internal Medicine. With a special interest in respiratory medicine, he founded and was the first president of the Veterinary Comparative Respiratory Society and has trained several of the world's top experts in this field.

"Veterinary specialty hospitals bring a range of expertise and other resources under one roof so that patients benefit from the best in diagnostic and treatment capabilities," says Dr. McKiernan. "For example, an animal may be referred to an oncologist, but a clinical pathologist, imaging specialist, surgeon, anesthesiologist, and rehabilitation specialist may all contribute to the patient's diagnosis and treatment."

Specialty hospitals also have technology that is not likely to be available at local clinics, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT), endoscopy, echocardiography, and nuclear scintigraphy.

In addition to serving animal owners, specialty hospitals like the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital play an important role in educating general and specialty practitioners and developing treatment advances. The specialists at Illinois are routinely invited to speak at continuing education conferences across the United States and throughout the world.

Increasingly, people expect medical care for their pets that equals the care available for human patients. The number of veterinary specialty hospitals is growing to meet that demand. As in human medicine, there are usually a range of treatment options from which owners are able to choose.

"The well-being and quality of life of the patient and the wishes of the owner are our chief concerns," says Dr. McKiernan. "Our goal is to work as a team to provide the level of care that best fits their needs."