Similar to the human medicine field, veterinary medicine is slowly migrating to an increase in specialty medicine. The goal of this process is to expand the standard of care for veterinary patients and offer the most current treatments and diagnostics available. This process has resulted in the veterinary specialty fields which currently include surgery, internal medicine, theriogenology (reproduction), cardiology, dermatology, and ophthalmology, among others. Interestingly, there is currently no specific specialty in equine sports medicine or lameness and these conditions are combined into the specialties of surgery and internal medicine. These specialists are referred to as being Board-certified in their field. The specialties are governed and organized by the specific specialty veterinary colleges of the field. For example, the American College of Veterinary Surgeons oversees Board-certified veterinary surgeons and the the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine is the specialty college for internal medicine specialists or internists for short. Board-certified Veterinary Specialists are designated as Diplomates of their specialty college. These credentials are usually abbreviated as DACVS and DACVIM, for surgeons and internists, respectively. A Board-certified Veterinary Surgeon’s credentials would be listed as John Doe, DVM, DACVS.
What is a veterinary specialist? How are they different from my regular veterinarian? In addition to completing 2-4 years of undergraduate education and four years of veterinary school, Board-certified Veterinary Specialists are similar to their human medical counterparts in that they have completed an internship and residency in their specialized field (an additional 3-5 years of training). In addition to this extensive training, a Board-certified Veterinary Specialist must pass rigorous examinations, publish scientific literature, and a variety of other hurdles to achieve certification. Some specialists also obtain advanced academic degrees in this process including a Master’s degrees or PhD.
Why do some horses need to see a Board-certified Veterinary Specialist? Specialists bring a greater understanding in the area of their field and have knowledge of the complicated, unusual, uncommon, or rare conditions that affect veterinary patients. In addition, a specialist may have diagnostic equipment not generally used by your regular veterinarian, including imaging (x-ray, ultrasound, MRI), non-invasive and invasive diagnostics (laparoscopy, biopsy, endoscopy), and skills in performing difficult diagnostic and therapeutic options.
Veterinary specialists may serve as the primary veterinarian in some situations or may serve a consulting role in others. The veterinary specialist and your regular veterinarian often work closely to achieve the most successful outcome for you and your horse. Locating a specialist in your area is easy and can be achieved in a couple ways. Discussing the option of referral to a Board-certified Specialist with your veterinarian or by searching for a specialist through the specialty veterinary college’s directory would be the most common ways. The specialty colleges have websites that include resources for owners to search for Board-certified Veterinary Specialists in their area. Keep in mind that not all referral veterinary hospitals have Board-certified Veterinary Specialists and are therefore not specialty practices. In reality, the numbers of true specialty equine practices are limited, particularly in certain geographic regions of the United States.