When people find out I’m a veterinarian, they often say to me, "I used to want to be a veterinarian, but I wouldn’t be able to deal with euthanizing animals." Well, if you must know, that actually annoys us. It’s not like we like euthanizing animals either, but sometimes it just comes with the job. Much to these people’s surprise, euthanizing animals isn’t the reason why we wanted to become veterinarians either. Seriously.
What people do really want to know (and we’re happier about answering) is what it takes to become a veterinarian. To become a veterinarian, one must take a science-dominant, "pre-med" course load (including anatomy, physiology, organic chemistry, biochemistry, and physics) during undergraduate — which typically takes 2-4 years. Some veterinary schools allow you to apply as a sophomore or junior in undergraduate school, which allows you to enter veterinary school 1-2 years early (I personally don’t agree with doing this, but that’s a whole other story). Once getting into veterinary school, you undergo a rigorous four year graduate-level training (more "-ology" classes, like pharmacology, physiology, toxicology), with your last year acting as your clinical year in the hospital. Once finishing veterinary school, you are a "full-fledged" veterinarian and can practice as a general practitioner or family doctor.
In the United States, there are currently about 90,200 total veterinarians (including small animal [dogs and cats], exotic [birds, zoo animals], large animal [cattle, sheep], equine, and other), with approximately 41,400 exclusively in small animal practice. Of these 90,200 veterinarians, approximately 15,300 are in public or corporate employment (including research, government, academic, etc), while approximately 10,210 are veterinary specialists.
So, what’s the difference between a veterinarian and a veterinary specialist? Well, as human medicine has gotten progressively more specialized, veterinary medicine has been slower to do so … until the past few decades. Veterinary specialists have advanced training beyond veterinary school — it’s someone who has gone on to complete secondary training through a rigorous internship and further training in a residency or fellowship (typically 2-4 additional years). In order to be board-certified following your residency, you have to publish a scientific research paper (in a peer-reviewed, scientific, accredited research journal) and pass an intense 2-3 day exam (similar to a lawyer’s bar exam). So, not easy at all!
There are currently multiple specialties, such as veterinary anesthesiology, behavior, cardiology, dentistry, dermatology, emergency critical care, internal medicine, neurology, nutrition, ophthalmology, pathology, radiology, surgery, wildlife/zoo medicine, etc. So, why would you need to see your regular veterinarian versus a veterinary specialist? Specialists typically see referral cases that may be more complicated or critically ill, or need advanced procedures performed that your veterinarian doesn’t routinely perform. For example, if your dog or cat requires advanced surgery (a total hip replacement, for example) or an ultrasound of his heart, he may need to see a board-certified veterinary specialist in surgery or cardiology, respectively. If your pet is in advanced kidney failure, a consultation with an internal medicine specialist may be imperative. If your animal needs 24-hour care and is critically ill, he may need to be evaluated by an emergency critical care specialist. More information on specialists can be found at the AVMA's veterinary specialists page, or specifically at the specialties website.
The best way to tell who the specialist is, is by looking for extra letters behind a veterinarian’s name (e.g., Justine Lee, DVM, DACVECC). These letters stand for something. For me, it’s Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Emergency Critical Care. That said, more recent "specialties" have been popping up, some less "rigorous" than others (i.e., some not even requiring additional training nor a publication). I worry about where this is going, so don’t be deceived when you see alphabet soup behind your veterinarian’s name. When in doubt, ask your veterinarian for advice or how to find the best specialist who fits your needs — or more importantly, your pet’s needs.
Dr. Justine Lee