Everyone thinks I became a vet because I love animals. While there is much truth to that, it’s not the full picture. I became a vet because I want to be good at everything. It sounds egotistical, I know. I love that I can start my day as a radiologist looking at chest X-rays on a 4 year old Bulldog that’s been coughing all night, move on to a pediatrician as I talk a young couple through their new kitten’s first vaccines, and spend the afternoon as a surgeon removing a sock from the stomach of a Labrador with a penchant for mischief and resecting a mass from an elderly rat’s side.
I’m what you call a generalist. Veterinary school in Quebec is 5 years of learning the anatomy, physiology and specific diseases and treatments for all different species. Most vets are classified as “large animal” or “small animal” practitioners; the former treating mostly animals in the food industry- milk and beef cows and pigs, and companion or working horses. I fall into the latter category; Small animal vets concentrate their expertise on treating companion animals- mostly cats and dogs, as well as exotic pets such as birds, ferrets, rabbits and reptiles. I even treated a tarantula once, but to be honest I’d rather not do that again.
The truth is (and this may be the only time I admit it publicly) I can’t do everything. Luckily, I have a lot of help. Besides conferring with the other vets at the clinic, generalists can refer heavy, complicated cases to various specialists. The owners of a 6 year old Boston terrier were surprised when I told them a referral to an ophthalmologist was in order when 2 weeks for 4-times-a-day eye drops had failed to heal an ulcer on their pet’s cornea (surface of his eye).
“They have ophthalmologists for dogs?”
Yes. And cardiologists, radiologists, dermatologists, surgeons, acupuncturists, oncologists and more.
These specialists do 3 or more years of extra training in their field, completing research studies and taking an exam to become Board Certified. As science has advanced, and as pets have become more a part of our families, the need for specialised medicine has grown. It wasn’t too long ago that people wouldn’t even think of chemotherapy for a dog with lymphoma, or metal plate implants to fix a cat’s fractured leg, but these are now the standards of care.
I’m glad to be a part of the fast-evolving field of veterinary medicine, and love to see all the interesting and challenging cases the job brings. And I’m especially glad that there are vets putting in years of study to become specialists in their field, so that when I need to send a paralyzed Daschund for an MRI and the owners ask “They can do that for dogs?” I can say “Yes!”
Share your experiences with a veterinary specialist in the comments below.
Dr. K.J. Goldenberg is a veterinarian at the Pierrefonds Animal Hospital.