Preparing for an Appointment with a Veterinary Specialist

Roxanne Hawn

At some point in your pets’ lives, you’ll likely need to see a veterinary specialist of one sort or another. I’m sorry to say you may find yourself in an urgent situation, with no time to prepare. Often, however, you will have at least a little time to plan for the best possible meeting with this new veterinary expert. Here are a few tips for both scenarios.

Unless you travel full time with your pets, there is probably no reason for you to keep a complete copy of your pets’ medical records. Most often, your main veterinarian and your veterinary specialist will automatically share records with each other, electronically or by fax. Rarely, you’ll be asked to deliver things in person such as diagnostic reports.

Urgent Situations

Emergency situations typically play out in one of two ways:

  • Your primary care veterinarian sends you immediately to see a specialist, often at another veterinary hospital.
  • You go directly to the veterinary emergency room, often with access to ER/critical care and other kinds of specialists (surgery, internal medicine, cardiology, etc.).

Scenarios like this show how important it is to have written down somewhere, or to know off the top of your head, some basic information:

  • Any medications your pet takes, including dosages and frequency. If your pet takes many meds, I recommend tossing them into a bag when you make a dash for the veterinary hospital.
  • Any major medical conditions or past surgeries. For example, if the specialist recommends an MRI, it’s important to know if your pet has any metal implants. Or, if your pet has any issues with internal organs, especially the heart, your specialist will want to know that in advance of any surgeries.

Otherwise, just do the best you can to answer the veterinary specialist’s questions. It’s okay to say you don’t know.

Non-Urgent Situations

Many times the need for your pet to see a veterinary specialist is important but not urgent. In these cases, it helps to organize your thoughts, questions, and pet’s medical records in advance of your first appointment.

  • Fees and Payment Options: When you make the appointment, ask about fees for the initial consultation and typical diagnostic tests needed, as well as what forms of payments the specialist accepts. If you have pet insurance, let them know you’ll need help completing claim forms.
  • Specialist paperwork and questionnaires: In some cases, the specialist will request you complete forms or questionnaires in advance of your appointment.
  • Summary: I recommend writing a short summary of your own to send in advance, by fax or email, as well as to bring along the day of the appointment – especially if the specialist didn’t ask you to complete forms or questionnaires. See an example from my elderly dog’s first neurology appointment.

    Such summaries often include the following:
    • Symptom history and timeline (for the problem the veterinary specialist is being asked to assess)
    • Recap of the pet’s medical history (major illnesses, surgeries, etc.)
    • Full list of medications and dosages
    • Any personal notes about your pet, such as if he needs to be muzzled due to anxiety or pain
    I do this even though my main veterinarian shares medical records because I think a recap provides focus for the initial meeting with a veterinary specialist. I often write similar update summaries, if my pet needs to see the specialist on a regular basis.
  • Questions: Write down and bring your questions for the veterinary specialist. Depending upon your pet’s case, you may not know all of your questions in advance, but here are a few to get you started:
    • What, if any, tests are needed, and how will they help us make treatment decisions?
    • Will my pet need to be hospitalized for tests and treatments?
    • How soon can we get started, and how long will it take to get results?
    • How much time do I have to make a decision about how to move forward? Will anything dire happen if I think about it for a few days or weeks?
    • Will you oversee my pet’s case going forward, or will you turn everything over to our main veterinarian at some point?

Your Greater Veterinary Team

We are lucky that there has been such growth in access to veterinary specialists, both inside and outside of veterinary teaching hospitals. I encourage you to make the most of your relationships with your entire veterinary team by being an informed, organized, and grateful client.

What other preparations do you make when your pet needs to see a veterinary specialist? Share your tips.

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