What Is a Veterinary Specialist?

When Your Pet Needs More Than General Care

Zoo vet checking seal teeth
Olga Solovei / Getty Images

There are currently over 20 veterinary specialties recognized by the American Veterinary Medical Association. Specialties range A-to-Z from anesthesiology to zoo medicine. These animal doctors are highly trained—and need to be—in order to care for the most complex medical needs of the animal kingdom.

The Path to Veterinary Specialty

Much like a specialized medical doctor for humans, a specialized veterinarian must become a veterinarian first then becomes specialized in a particular area. The road to becoming a veterinarian is already pretty long, then tack on a few more years.

To become a veterinarian, you must first earn an undergraduate degree, which takes four years on average. Admission to veterinary school is competitive, and many applicants apply to more than one school. Veterinary school is four years, and upon graduation, both national and state boards or exams must be passed to be able to practice veterinary medicine in the United States.

To become a veterinary specialist, you have to extensive training after vet school graduation, including clinical experience in the area of the chosen specialty, you have to publish a clinical case or research findings in journal articles, and you must pass a credential review and specialty board examinations. The length of time to attain the specialty certification varies with each individual but is usually a minimum of two years.

Becoming board-certified in a specialty is usually done through a university-based residency program (in a veterinary school) or in approved private specialty hospitals. Each specialty has their own requirements.

When to See a Specialist

Since these veterinarians seem to be top qualified vets, you might be thinking, "Why should I go to an ordinary pet doctor when I can get the best for my beloved pet from a super vet?" Some specialty practices only work with referrals, meaning cases sent in by general veterinarians; other specialty practices will see new patients directly, no referral needed. Although, in most cases, the costs are set at a premium.

Also, veterinary specialists and referral practices usually do not provide basic care such as vaccinations, spays/neuters, and routine check-ups unless they work in combination with a general practice.

In most cases, a general veterinarian will need to suggest a referral to a specialist if the case is difficult and outside of the realm of their general practice.

If you are concerned about your pet's diagnosis or care, speak with your veterinarian about the possibility of a referral to a specialist. If you are uncomfortable doing this, it would be wise to seek a second opinion from another general veterinarian or directly call a veterinary specialist.

Recognized Specialties

At the end of the training process, a veterinarian who has passed their boards is known as a "diplomate" in an area of expertise. There are 11,000 veterinarians in the United States who have been recognized as specialists in 40 distinct areas of veterinary medicine. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the following are the recognized veterinary specialties:

  • Anesthesia
  • Animal Welfare
  • Behavior
  • Dentistry
  • Dermatology
  • Emergency and Critical Care
  • Internal Medicine: Cardiology, Neurology, Oncology
  • Laboratory Animal Medicine
  • Microbiology
  • Nutrition
  • Ophthalmology
  • Pathology
  • Pharmacology
  • Poultry Veterinarians
  • Preventive Medicine
  • Radiology
  • Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation
  • Surgery: e.g., Orthopedics, Soft Tissue surgery
  • Theriogenology
  • Toxicology
  • Veterinary Practitioners: Avian Practice, Equine Practice, Beef Cattle Practice, Feline Practice, Canine/Feline Practice, Exotic Companion Mammal Practice, Food Animal Practice, Dairy Practice, Reptile and Amphibian Practice, Swine Health Management
  • Zoological Medicine: veterinarians who work with zoo collection animals, free-living wildlife, aquatic species, and companion zoological animals