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Veterinary Specialties

Veterinary Specialties

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General veterinarians care for animals' basic needs, monitoring the health of pets, zoo animals, and livestock. These doctors see animals for routine check-ups, diagnose any pertinent conditions, and offer veterinarian treatment, if possible. When animals need more specific care, they must see a veterinary specialist, a doctor with additional training in a particular area of medicine.

Overview

In addition to earning a bachelor's degree and a four-year Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), veterinary specialists must complete up to five years of additional internship, practice, and residence to hone their skills. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recognizes 40 areas of specialty, based on the type of animal treated or clinical practice performed. Over 10,000 veterinarians are part of the AVMA's specialty associations across the nation. These practitioners use their expertise to help keep animals healthy and comfortable.

Avian

Avian veterinarians specialize in treatment and care for birds, including companion birds and those in zoos. According to the AVMA, more than 3.6 million Americans own over 8.3 million birds as pets. Unfortunately, although birds should be taken to the vet for annual examination, the average bird owner only brings his or her pet in for veterinary appointments approximately every three years. Since birds are naturally predators, they often hide signs of illness, continuing to groom, vocalize, and behave normally to the untrained eye. Without an avian specialist to spot key symptoms at regular preventive care visits, your pet bird's condition may gradually worsen or even become fatal. Avian veterinarians employed or contracted by zoos regularly monitor their charges for symptoms, especially since disease can spread quickly amongst groups of birds. When properly cared for, many domesticated birds, like parrots, can live for decades.

What Do Avian Specialists Do?

Many general vets will see birds, but they tend to be more practiced in diagnosing and treating common pets like cats and dogs. Avian veterinary specialists know much more about bird behavior, common illnesses, and available courses of treatment than typical practitioners. They can help birds and their owners by:

  • Analyzing and creating plans to modify their behavior. Bird activity can be very complex and nuanced, so it may be difficult for owners or zookeepers to determine which behaviors are healthy and which are not.
  • Holding them still for lengthy examination without hurting or upsetting them.
  • Injecting medications or fluids as a form of treatment.
  • Understanding the behavioral, anatomical, and medical differences between bird species. Birds are one of the most diverse species on Earth, so distinguishing between types and providing appropriate recommendations is important.
  • Assisting with grooming procedures such as nail trimming and wing clipping. These treatments must be performed with accuracy and gentle care so as not to harm birds' delicate bodies or interfere with their quality of life.
  • Taking blood and analyzing it for diagnostic purposes.
  • Providing recommendations about feeding and cage cleaning.

Canine

Dogs are popularly considered to be "man's best friend" and are the most common pet in the United States. According to AVMA research, over 36 percent of Americans own dogs, with 69 million canine pets living in 43 million homes. Since they are such common companion animals and owners typically take their dogs to the vet several times per year, most general veterinary practitioners are equipped to address a variety of canine concerns. However, doctors may refer dogs to canine specialists for especially complex medical or behavioral cases. Canine specialists may also work in the wild with undomesticated species like wolves to ensure keep their populations healthy.

What Do Canine Specialists Do?

Canine specialists tend to focus on assisting patients with complicated medical diagnoses or particularly difficult behavioral issues, but they can provide a wide spectrum of care to dogs, which can include:

  • Offering recommendations for canine diet, exercise, grooming, and training.
  • Assisting with breeding and reproductive issues.
  • Performing surgeries or referring patients to veterinary surgical specialists.
  • Helping to socialize dogs, which may include observing their behavior and offering recommendations for overly passive or aggressive pets.
  • Prescribing treatment for infections and viruses.
  • Treating cancer, orthopedic issues, and other chronic conditions.
  • Understanding variances between canine breeds in order to diagnose and treat specific congenital conditions commonly associated with them.
  • Managing fleas, ticks, and other infestations that can occur when dogs are taken outdoors for walks and activities.
  • Administering vaccines and other preventive care treatments.
  • Neutering and spaying dogs.

Cardiology

A vet checking a puppy's heartbeat

Most animals have hearts and blood vessel systems, so they can be prone to cardiovascular conditions, just like humans. Veterinarians who specialize in cardiology typically complete an additional seven to nine years of clinical and academic training after earning their medical degree and license. Cardiovascular diseases typically affect older pets whose aging hearts might not operate optimally. Veterinary cardiology specialists diagnose and treat:

  • Heart muscle and valve damage, defect or failure
  • Respiratory conditions that result from heart or blood vessel conditions
  • Congenital diseases that can affect the cardiovascular system

Cardiology specialists can assess for these issues by taking x-rays, monitoring blood pressure, analyzing blood samples, and using other diagnostic tests. Many recent advances in human cardiology can also be applied to veterinary care. If an animal suffers from a cardiac condition, a specialist may recommend diet and exercise changes, medications, or surgery to treat it. Installing a pacemaker may even be appropriate in certain circumstances.

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Critical Care

Animals who are in traumatic accidents or suffer from sudden onset of potentially life-threatening conditions will require the assistance of a critical care veterinary specialist. These practitioners are licensed and certified veterinarians who go through another three years of practical training to earn an additional diplomate, which must be approved by the American College of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care, so that they can efficiently and effectively handle high-risk, emergency situations.

Critical care specialists work quickly to successfully treat animals with serious symptoms.

Critical care specialists may work at clinics with other specialty practitioners (such as veterinary cardiologists or internal medicine specialists), in animal emergency rooms or intensive care units, or, occasionally, in conjunction with general veterinarians' offices. Critical care specialists work quickly to successfully treat animals with serious symptoms (such as difficulty breathing or urinating, excessive bleeding, or demonstrating signs of shock) or after severe injuries to save their lives. Many of these animals may need to see additional specialists for ongoing care to fully treat their symptoms once their condition has stabilized.

Dentistry

A dog getting his teeth professionally cleaned

Both humans' and animals' oral health can have a major impact on their overall wellbeing, so dentistry is an important veterinary specialty. Veterinary dentists train and practice to pass the American Veterinary Dental College's rigorous examination to become certified in this field. Periodontal (gum) disease is the number one disease among all pets. This condition can make them uncomfortable and lead to more serious systemic infection. Veterinary dentists take oral x-rays, perform visual assessments, brush animals' teeth, and clean their gums to fight harmful bacteria within their mouths. Depending on the type of animal, pets should have their teeth cleaned between every six months and every four years. In addition to performing routine cleanings, exams, and more advanced oral treatments as necessary, veterinary dentists can help animal caretakers learn how to brush pets' teeth for better oral hygiene.

Dermatology

Despite the fact that they may have more fur or hair to protect their skin, animals can suffer from many of the same dermatological ailments as humans. Throughout a two to three-year residency in animal dermatology and the process of studying for an examination given by the American College of Veterinary Dermatology, these specialists learn how to diagnose and treat every type of skin condition, from allergic reactions to eczema to skin cancer. Dermatological specialists also train in internal medicine, since skin conditions may develop as symptoms of other systemic ailments. These veterinarians must develop expertise in differentiating between animals' skin types, since symptoms that may be no cause for concern in one species could be serious for another. These specialists use their comprehensive knowledge of how animals' skin functions and the underlying causes for dermatological dysfunction to help animals lead more comfortable, healthy lives.

Equine

Horses are the fourth most common pets in the United States. These animals are valuable for companionship, sports, and labor. 1.5 percent of Americans keep horses, which means that 1.78 million United States households are home to more than 4.8 horses, according to the AVMA. Given the many activities they perform and the intensive care they require, horses almost always require the care of equine specialists. Since these animals have a typical lifespan of 20 years or longer, horse owners should be committed to providing routine care for their pets.

To maintain their licenses and certification, equine specialists must also complete annual continuing education through organizations like the American Association of Equine Practitioners.

Equine specialists must be board-certified in this field with three to four years of clinical practice to practice this type of veterinary medicine. To maintain their licenses and certification, equine specialists must also complete annual continuing education through organizations like the American Association of Equine Practitioners. They may work with specific horse breeders, horseback-riding companies, sports groups, or barns. Equine specialists may also travel to the households where horses reside to perform check-ups or treat conditions.

What Do Equine Specialists Do?

These practitioners perform a wide variety of tasks, which may include:

  • Examining and making recommendations for improving horses' physical fitness.
  • Researching environmental hazards in the region where horses reside and exercise.
  • Assessing orthopedic conditions, especially for horses that are frequently ridden.
  • Conducting comprehensive annual examinations and diagnostic testing, which can be a particularly complex undertaking for such large animals.
  • Helping horse owners or caretakers practice proper breeding and reproductive care, including overseeing equine pregnancy and foal development.
  • Overseeing the care of horses' feet and horseshoes by farriers, who specialize in equine foot maintenance.
  • Performing routine diagnostic tests such as blood analysis and radiography.
  • Treating infectious and viral diseases with proper medication and procedures as needed.
  • Making recommendations about horses' diets.

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Feline

Cats are one of the most popular household pets, second only to dogs. The AVMA reports that approximately 30 percent of Americans own cats. There are 74 million felines living in 36 million homes in the United States. On average, cat owners bring their pets to the vet between one and two times per year. Like birds, cats need to be taken to the vet at least once per year (preferably for biannual appointments), since they are predatory creatures and tend to conceal symptoms of their illnesses. Given the popularity of domesticated felines and the frequency of their vet visits, most general veterinarians can handle the majority of feline medical conditions that arise.

Many cat owners choose to bring their pets to feline specialists to take advantage of their expertise and avoid general clinics where their cats might have to deal with the stress of waiting with other types of animals.

Feline specialists usually have more comprehensive raining than other doctors-vets who seek board certification in feline specialty from the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners must have at least six years of clinical experience and pass a test to qualify. Many cat owners choose to bring their pets to feline specialists to take advantage of their expertise and avoid general clinics where their cats might have to deal with the stress of waiting with other types of animals (general clinics that treat cats often have separate entrances for feline patients). Zoos or wildlife foundations may also employ feline specialists to work with wild cats like bobcats, cheetahs, lions, and jaguars.

What Do Feline Specialists Do?

Feline specialists help keep cats healthy, happy, and comfortable by:

  • Observing their behavior to assess their wellbeing, mood, and quality of life. This is especially important for households with multiple cats, since these animals can be territorial.
  • Diagnosing and treating conditions unique to cats, such as FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus) and Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV).
  • Making suggestions for nutrition and exercise.
  • Assisting with congenital issues, which can vary across more than 90 domestic cat breeds.
  • Offering general preventive care such as examinations, vaccines, flea management, and other prophylactic treatments.
  • Neutering and spaying cats.
  • Providing chemotherapy for cats with cancer.
  • Monitoring and treating kidney conditions, which are particularly common in felines.
  • Analyzing blood, urine, and fecal tests, as well as performing other diagnostic assessments.

Internal Medicine

Internal medicine is one of the broadest veterinary specialties. It encompasses cardiology, oncology, neurology, and all other systemic diseases. Veterinarians who have studied and practiced to become diplomates with the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine often collaborate with other specialists to help veterinarians effectively diagnose, manage, and treat complicated medical cases. Many general veterinarians refer patients to internal medicine specialists when typical treatment courses are not resolving animals' symptoms.

Neurology

Less than 100 American veterinarians specialize in neurology, which is the treatment of animals' spinal cords, nerves, muscles, and brains. These rare doctors train for years to earn certification from the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine. They use advanced techniques such as CT (computed tomography) scans and spinal fluid taps to assess animals' delicate and complex nervous systems. The most common reason animal caretakers bring their pets to neurologists is seizures, but spinal cord injuries, traumatic head injuries, and certain cancers may also warrant a trip to the neurology specialist's clinic. These practitioners may recommend behavioral changes, physical therapy, or medications to treat neurological issues. In severe cases, they may need to perform surgery to keep your pet comfortable and healthy.

Nutrition

A healthy diet is key to pets' wellbeing, but many people don't understand how to feed their animals. Balanced, appropriate nutrition can help pets' bodies function properly so they can experience an excellent quality of life and fight disease. Some practitioners who did not even earn a veterinary degree may claim to be "certified" in animal nutrition due to online programs on the subject, but true veterinary nutrition specialists must complete two years of study and one year of practical training, as well as writing reports and passing written exams, to earn recognition from the American College of Veterinary Nutrition. These advanced doctors help pet owners understand what to feed their pets based on their breed, medical condition, and unique preferences. They can also devise nutritional plans to help manage illnesses. Veterinary nutritionists often help diagnose and perform treatment for animals with allergies and those who have consumed poisons.

Ophthalmology

A dog getting eye drops in his eyes

These practitioners complete four years of additional training to earn a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists. General veterinarians can address basic ocular issues, but will most likely refer patients to a veterinary ophthalmologist if they need assistance diagnosing or treating more complex cases. The most common ophthalmological conditions for animals include glaucoma (high intraocular pressure), cataracts (clouding of the lens), corneal ulcers, and entropian, an eyelid issue. For the most part, animals' eyes are very similar to humans', but some animals may have conditions particular to their species. For example, animals that need to see at night have a different ophthalmological anatomy from those that don't. If you notice any changes to your animals' eyes or changes to their behavior that appear to be related to sight, contact a veterinary ophthalmologist.

Radiology

As with humans, taking x-rays is an important step in diagnostic processes for veterinary conditions. Radiology specialists study and complete clinical training to learn how to perform radiological exams and assess their results. These practitioners understand how to keep animals of all sizes, from rodents to horses, still while they take x-rays and diagnose conditions based on the images produced. They also utilize the right equipment so that animals are exposed to minimal radiation throughout x-ray procedures. Veterinary radiologists typically work in conjunction with other specialists, such as oncologists, dentists, orthopedists, critical care doctors, and internal medicine experts.

Rehabilitation

Veterinary rehabilitation specialists are trained to help animals suffering from an injury or long-term illness return to normal activity and health. These doctors complete graduate education in animal nerves, bones, muscles, ligaments, and tendons so they understand how to improve their function. Veterinary rehabilitation specialists create customized treatment plans, guide patients through exercises, and collaborate with general veterinarians or other specialists to ensure they remain comfortable and recover well. Rehabilitation practitioners provide a wide variety of treatments, from physical therapy to orthopedic surgery, depending on their area of specialty and their patients' particular needs.

Reproductive Medicine

Some veterinarians choose to complete additional education and training to focus on reproductive medicine. These specialists perform a wide variety of tasks relating to animal procreation, including:

  • Assessing the health of an animal's pregnancy with blood tests, radiography, and ultrasound examinations
  • Performing biopsies or diagnostic tests as needed for animals with symptoms of uterine or testicular disorders
  • Assisting with breeding-related issues such as mate matching, infertility, hormonal imbalances, and examination
  • Utilizing assisted reproductive technology to make breeding more precise and successful
  • Delivering and caring for young animals

Reproductive medicine specialists most often work with breeders to maintain animals' health throughout the process, but they may work with any pet suffering from a condition related to the reproductive system.

Sports Medicine

A vet working with a horse

Veterinarians can become board-certified by the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation by earning a veterinary license, completing a residency in this field, and passing a comprehensive exam on sports medicine. These doctors perform many of the same functions as human sports medicine practitioners. They most often work with animals used in organized sporting activities, such as horses, but they can also work with any pet to make sure it is getting proper exercise and recovering well from physical injury. Sports medicine specialists assist patients with treatments, training programs, or surgeries to improve their athletic performance. They usually collaborate with other specialists such as orthopedists, internal medicine specialists, or rehabilitation veterinarians.

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Surgery

Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons complete an internship and a residency for at least four years, during which they learn how to perform advanced procedures. Veterinarians in other specialties may operate on their patients, but surgeons typically have more experience, greater expertise, and more sophisticated equipment. These doctors often cooperate with a wide variety of specialists, from veterinary dermatologists to neurologists, lending their skills whenever an animal's condition merits surgical intervention.

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