A veterinary specialist is a veterinarian who has completed additional training in a specific area of veterinary medicine and has passed an examination that evaluates their knowledge and skills in that specialty area. Currently, there are 22 AVMA-recognized veterinary specialty organizations comprising 41 distinct specialties. Veterinarians can be specialists in behavior, ophthalmology (eye diseases), internal medicine, surgery, dentistry and many more areas. The specialty organizations are referred to as "colleges," but they're not schools or universities.
The specialist's expertise complements that of your veterinarian. You may be referred to a veterinary specialist if diagnosing or treating your pet's health problem requires specialized equipment and/or expertise that your veterinarian does not have.
It's critical that you, your veterinarian and the veterinary specialist communicate and work together to provide the best care for your pet.
Here's a list of veterinary specialties recognized by the American Board of Veterinary Specialties, with very simple descriptions of what these specialists do. For more information about the specialties, click the link to go to the website of the specialty college responsible for certifying veterinarians in that specialty:
Anesthesia: veterinarians who focus on making sure animals feel less or no pain associated with veterinary procedures
Animal Welfare: veterinarians with specialized training and experience in animal welfare
Behavior: veterinarians with additional training in animal behavior
Dentistry: veterinarians who perform procedures on animals' teeth
Dermatology: veterinarians who study diseases and conditions of the skin
Emergency and Critical Care: the "ER docs" and intensive care specialists
Internal Medicine, which includes specialties in
Laboratory Animal Medicine: veterinarians working in research or in practice, making sure that laboratory animal species (rabbits, rats, mice, etc.) receive proper care.
Microbiology: veterinarians who study viruses, bacteria, fungi, etc.
Nutrition: veterinarians working to make sure that animals' diets meet their body's needs for nutrients
Ophthalmology: veterinarians studying diseases and conditions of the eye
Pathology: veterinarians studying disease in animals
Pharmacology: veterinarians studying how medications/drugs affect animals
Poultry Veterinarians: veterinarians who work with chickens, turkeys and/or ducks, usually in food production settings
Preventive Medicine: veterinarians who study how diseases are spread and how they can be prevented
Radiology: veterinarians who focus on the study of x-ray, ultrasound, computed tomography (often called CAT scans), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and other imaging procedures that allow us to see "inside" an animal's body
Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation: veterinarians who focus on returning animals to normal function after injury, lameness, illness or surgery
Surgery: veterinarians who specialize in performing surgery. A certified surgeon will be certified in either small animal surgery or large animal surgery. Within these groups, many surgeons will focus their work in one of these two subcategories but are not limited to them:
Theriogenology: veterinarians who specialize in animal reproduction
Toxicology: veterinarians who study the effects of poisons and other toxic products on the body (and how to treat animals affected by these toxins)
Veterinary Practitioners: veterinarians in clinical practice who have additional training and expertise in certain animal species
Zoological Medicine: veterinarians who work with zoo collection animals, free-living wildlife, aquatic species and companion zoological animals