The health of people, animals, and our environment are each inextricably interconnected. Understanding and addressing the health issues created at this intersection is an interesting concept. However you may be surprised that this is not a new concept. The theory was supported in the 1800s by William Osler and Rudolf Virchow, the Father of Comparative Pathology. The increasing interdependence with animals and their products has spurred the veterinary profession to collaborative efforts of multiple disciplines working locally, nationally, and globally, to attain optimal health for people, animals, and the environment.
More than ever, veterinarians protect not only animal health, but through them, the health of all the human beings on the planet. The demand for food from animals to feed the world will increase by 50% over the next decade. Veterinarians make certain those animals are healthy. Animal populations are under pressure to survive and are leading to a loss of biodiversity. Veterinarians working in ecosystem heath and natural resource management ensure the viability of all species. Of the 1,461 diseases now recognized in humans, approximately 60% are “zoonotic.” Like West Nile Virus, which can infect both horses and humans, zoonotic diseases impact multiple species. Over the last three decades, approximately 75% of new, emerging human infectious diseases have been zoonotic. By preventing and managing disease in animals, veterinarians protect humans.
Veterinary medicine is in a unique position, well-grounded in population health, comparative medicine, and preventive medicine. By working together with other medical professionals, veterinarians are leading the way on improving health worldwide.
The facts don’t lie. Every year pet owners are willing to spend more money on keeping their animals healthy. This means that owners are willing to spend more money on more complicated treatments and surgeries if their pets get sick. Accordingly, veterinary medicine is making it easier for owners to access unusual treatments. Chemotherapy, orthopedic surgery, and neurological evaluation are a few of the many more specialized treatments available. Someday your pet may end up in the hands of a specialist. This article will explore the current state of specialists in veterinary medicine.
Just like in humans, veterinary specialists are located at referral practices. That is, your regular veterinarian (where your pet gets its vaccinations) must refer you to a specialist; you can’t just make an appointment and go without a referral. However, you should become involved in the decision to refer your pet. You can request to be referred to a specialist. Your veterinarian will then make an appointment for you and will make sure that the specialist has all the relevant information about your pet.
How did that veterinary specialist your going to see get so special? Well pet owners can rest assured since it isn’t easy to become specialized in veterinary medicine.
To become a veterinarian, one must first earn an undergraduate degree, which takes 4 years (on average). Admission to veterinary school is competitive, and many applicants apply to more than one school. Veterinary school is 4 years, and upon graduation, both national and state boards (exams) must be passed to be able to practice veterinary medicine in the United States.
To become a veterinary specialist, one must undergo additional extensive training after vet school graduation, clinical experience in the area of the chosen specialty, publish a clinical case or research findings in journal articles and pass a credential review and specialty board examinations.
Becoming board-certified in a specialty can be via a university-based residency program (in a veterinary school) or in approved private specialty hospitals. Each specialty has their own requirements.
The length of time to attain the specialty certification varies with each individual, but is usually a minimum of two years.
One thing to keep in mind is that there is often a wait to get into a referral hospital. These specialists are in high demand, so often the wait can be anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. If your pet needs to be seen sooner than that, most referral practices also take emergency referrals.
Just remember that a referral practice is expensive to go to, and going as an emergency is even more expensive. It’s more costly because the veterinarians at referral practices are board certified, which means that they went through a more extensive education, after veterinary school, to become specialized in a certain area of medicine.
What kind of specialists are there? Let’s go through a few. There are cardiologists. Most regular veterinarians (general practitioners) can tell if your pet has a heart murmur for example. But in order to find out what is causing the murmur, your pet will have to go to a cardiologist. These specialists do everything from evaluate x-rays to implant pacemakers.
Dermatology is a growing area of veterinary medicine. This is partially because many pets are developing allergies to their food or the environment. At a referral practice, you can have your pet undergo allergy testing. Itchy skin is something that every general practitioner sees every day, but sometimes the problem is so complicated that they send the pet to a dermatologist.
Pets can even see an oncologist. Though not as advanced as human cancer therapy, veterinary oncology offers pets with cancer the chance at a better quality of life. Chemotherapy, and sometimes radiation therapy, is available. As our pets live longer and healthier, it is becoming more common for them to develop cancer as they age.
There are many types of specialists. There are surgeons and medicine specialists. There are dentists, neurologists and exotic animal specialists. The information in the veterinary world has become so extensive that it has become impossible to know everything about all animals. These days, most veterinarians choose to work on only a few species of animals. Some only work on a few types of health issues and these are the specialists.
Veterinary specialist and referral practices do not usually provide basic care such as vaccinations, spays/neuters, etc., unless they work in combination with a general practice.
And technology such as imaging techniques are improving as well. Imaging is just any method that a veterinarian uses to understand parts of the body that they cannot see with the naked eye. X-rays are a type of imaging. It is also becoming more common to use ultrasound. Ultrasound will allow the vet to see different soft tissues that would normally blend together on an x-ray. Ultrasound can also help give more of a 3D view of the body. There are other technologies being used such as fluorescent dyes that can help pinpoint a blockage or a leak. A few places even offer MRIs, which are expensive, but can provide an incredible 3D view of structures in the body.
Is this the way of the future? It is probable that veterinary medicine is following the path of human medicine, with more specialists to deal with various complicated health issues.
General practitioners are very good at treating the majority of cases, but once in a while they run across a problem that is either puzzling or needs a type of treatment that is not available at the average veterinary clinic.
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