Ten Ways to Know If Your Pet Needs a Veterinary Specialist

Medical articles
Veterinary Specialists

If you’ve been unlucky enough to THINK you might need a specialist, you probably have. But I’d bet plenty of you have sat on the fence wondering when –– exactly –– it’s time to leave the warm embrace of your well-trusted veterinarian in search of more advanced pet care.

Every veterinarian has his or her own personal philosophy on this issue, but since this is my post, I’ll offer you my ten ways to know whether your pet needs a vet specialist:

#1 Second Opinions

Any time you think you need a second opinion, you should see a specialist –– not another general practitioner. By the way, some veterinarians may call themselves specialists or limit their practice to only one kind of veterinary care, but they’re not always what they’re chalked up to be. In general, you should look for specialists who are “board-certified,” meaning they’ve undertaken a residency and passed a rigorous examination in their field.

#2 Legal Trouble

Any time there’s something legal amiss, you should see a specialist. Whether it’s a legal issue with an individual (a neighbor or pet sitter), a company (such as a groomer, trainer, or kennel) or even another veterinarian, you need an expert. Don’t mess a round with a generalist.

#3 Certain Surgeries

Any orthopedic surgery, thoracic surgery, or exploratory surgery should ideally be done by a specialist. Though some generalists are really proficient in surgery, it’s my personal opinion that these surgeries are ALWAYS best performed by board-certified surgeons. Experience is everything in these cases.

#4 The Three-visit Rule

With some exceptions, any time it takes more than three visits to solve a problem you should consider seeing a specialist to help suss it out. Sure, some issues are well-understood to require several follow-up visits (and your vet will usually tell you about this up front), but if you find yourself frustratingly fighting an increasingly difficult problem, it’s probably time to see a specialist.

#5 Fancy Equipment

Most specialists offer better equipment than regular vets do. If you know you need a CT scan or radiation therapy, your pet’s condition is way out of your regular vet’s league.

#6 Heart Trouble

ANY time I hear a heart murmur or cardiac rhythm abnormality I mention the services of a cardiologist. Now, strictly speaking, there may not be an imminent need for a specialist in every case, but I always inform my clients that they may need to start thinking about a cardiologist in their pet’s future.

#7 X-ray or Ultrasound Images

It’s my belief that every questionable X-ray or ultrasound image should see a radiologist. In fact, some veterinarians send every single X-ray image to a radiologist. The widespread use of digital equipment makes this more technically and economically feasible. Sure, it costs more. But sometimes that’s the price you have to pay for greater knowledge.

#8 Some Poisonings

Though most generalists are well-versed in most kinds of poisonings, the expansion of the toxicology specialty area means that your veterinarian can access world class care on behalf of your pet through a simple telephone call. Plenty of these services are available for a relatively small fee ($50 to $200). If you’re facing a toxic emergency, ask your veterinarian about talking to a toxicologist. It may or may not be necessary but it never hurts to ask.

#9 Every Time Critical Care is Required

High, unrelenting fevers, blood transfusion cases, respiratory trouble, complicated diabetes, severe arrhythmias, non-routine post-operative patients (among others): they all do best under 24 hour watch at a specialty hospital.


So those are nine great reasons.

Trouble is, not everyone is willing or able to spend gobs of money on saving their pets. We all draw the line at a different dollar value and various treatment levels based on our philosophical beliefs with respect to pet care and animal welfare along with very practical considerations regarding the condition of our bank accounts.

Some pet owners observe that the plethora of choices in care seems overwhelming, especially given the disparity among veterinarians with respect to specialist referral policies. (Some veterinarians still refuse to refer their patients to specialists –– at all. Meanwhile, others seem intent on offering everyone the option.)

Other pet owners embrace the new choices with grateful fervor, happy to spend whatever it takes… which is not as difficult as it may seem given that chemotherapy and orthopedic surgery typically cost less than a leather interiors package on a luxury car.

In any case, specialists in veterinary medicine are here to stay. We’ll doubtless have more in years to come as more students opt for specialization as a way to meet their hefty financial obligations.

And if the trend toward pets in all things American continues apace as it’s done for the past twenty years, we can expect demand for these services to continue to drive even more veterinarians to enter the medical morass that is specialized veterinary medicine.

Will we miss James Herriot? The romantic in me already does. But that doesn’t mean I’ll play ostrich to the kind of sophisticated medicine I’ve come to expect for my patients as well as for my own pets. Which brings me to the tenth way I know it’s time to send a patient to a specialist:

#10 If I’d rather have MY pet see a specialist for this condition, it’s probably time you consider seeing a specialist.