Pet Points: Network of local veterinary specialists on call around the clock

There is a new team in town, but it has nothing to do with sports. The veterinary health care team has actually been around for years, but it is taking on a new, more local approach.

In the past, if a pet needed advanced care, local veterinarians would refer the case to another experienced local practitioner, the veterinary school at Ohio State University or the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in Philadelphia. Now, with a growth in the number of local practices employing veterinary specialists, 24-hour emergency and critical care and specialty referral are available at well-equipped, state-of-the-art facilities in the Pittsburgh area.

This is not a slight on veterinary schools. After four years getting a college degree, we take four additional years to become veterinarians. Studies include advanced science and then medicine and surgery on multiple species. I have heard faculty say the veterinary educational experience is like drinking knowledge from a fire hose -- there is so much to learn. To fully understand all that the profession demands, additional education and experience are needed to reach the full potential at the professional level. Even with extensive continuing education, keeping current in every aspect of veterinary medicine is next to impossible.

By incorporating consultation and referrals to a specialist, veterinarians learn and provide the best care for their patients. Board-certified specialty veterinarians partner with primary-care veterinarians and evaluate cases to help pet owners decide appropriate treatment. There is a critical need for the entire team to communicate with each other to provide the best care. When a veterinary office is not available at night and weekends, emergency facilities with oversight by a specialist can care for cases and often provide intensive care for pets.

To become a specialist, graduate veterinarians complete three to four years or more of additional training and must pass rigorous testing.

Specialists add additional initials after their veterinary degree to identify their accomplishment. For example, ACVS is the abbreviation for American College of Veterinary Surgeons and ACVIM stands for the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine.

To become eligible to even take the exam, veterinary candidates usually spend a year as interns at a teaching or specialty hospital and additional years completing a residency. Only about 15 percent of veterinarians are board-certified as specialists. By concentrating on a single veterinary discipline, the specialist can focus in just one area of the profession with extensive expertise. There are 22 specialty organizations designated and recognized by the American Veterinary Medical Association and a total of 41 distinct specialties.

Some specialists work out of emergency veterinary centers that never close. Some of the larger centers are under the direction of and staffed by emergency and critical care specialists who provide expertise over and above what a general practice could provide. They also may have equipment that is not commonly available. By extending the day to 24 hours, critical care specialists take health care to a new and advanced level.

Surgical specialists treat difficult cases with a much higher frequency than a general practitioner would normally see. For example, arthroscopic surgery is routine to some surgical specialists. Internal medicine consultations may require additional laboratory testing or endoscopy and ultrasound examinations.

Other specialists may do cataract removal with lens replacements or advanced cardiac work-ups. Neurology cases often require advanced imaging to be reviewed by a veterinary radiologist.

Referral to a specialist is often needed for these complex cases.

Other specialists may never see the actual pet patient. A clinical pathologist may consult after reviewing laboratory results, or a nutritionist may formulate a diet for a specific case.

By working together with a specialist, veterinarians can follow their goal of improving the health and quality of life for their patients.

Lawrence Gerson is a veterinarian and founder of the Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic. His biweekly column is intended to educate pet owners. Consultation with a veterinarian is necessary to diagnose and treat individual pets. If you have a question you'd like addressed in Pet Points, email Please include your name and municipality or neighborhood.