What do board-certified veterinary specialists do?

A board-certified 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™ representing 46 distinct specialties. Veterinarians can be specialists in many areas, including behavior, ophthalmology, internal medicine, surgery, dentistry, and more. The specialty organizations are referred to as colleges, but they're not schools or universities.

A board-certified veterinary specialist's expertise complements that of an animal's primary care veterinarian. An animal owner may be referred to a board-certified veterinary specialist if diagnosing or treating an animal's health problem requires specialized equipment and/or expertise that the primary care veterinarian does not have.

It's critical for the animal owner, primary care veterinarian and board-certified veterinary specialist to communicate and work together to provide the best care for animals.

Veterinary specialties

Here's a list of AVMA-recognized veterinary specialty organizations™ with very brief descriptions of what these specially trained veterinarians 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 and analgesia: Veterinary specialists who are experts at assessing and mitigating anesthetic risks, delivering anesthetic and analgesic drugs, maintaining and monitoring wellbeing of an anesthetized patient, and providing the highest levels of perioperative patient care including pain management

Animal welfare: Veterinary specialists with advanced training and experience in animal welfare

Behavior: Veterinary specialists with advanced knowledge of animal behavior and behavior modification

Dentistry: Veterinarians who specialize in diagnosing and treating dental, oral, and maxillofacial diseases

Dermatology: Veterinary specialists with advanced training and expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of allergy and diseases affecting the skin, ears, nails and/or hooves of animals

Emergency and critical care: Veterinary specialists who work exclusively in emergency rooms and intensive care units to care for animals that are often the "sickest of the sick"

Internal medicine, which includes numerous specialties:

  • Cardiology: Diagnose and treat conditions of the heart and circulatory system
  • Large animal internal medicine: Focus on anatomy, physiology and internal medicine of horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and other large animals
  • Neurology: Diagnose and treat diseases of the brain, spinal cord, and other parts of the nervous system
  • Nutrition: Focus on research and clinical application of nutrition and diet in animal health and disease
  • Oncology: Focus on cancer, including how it develops and how to treat it
  • Small animal internal medicine: Focus on the anatomy, physiology and internal medicine of cats and dogs with sub-specialties such as gastroenterology, infectious diseases, and others

Laboratory animal medicine: Veterinary specialists working in research or in practice, making sure laboratory animal species (rabbits, rats, mice, etc.) receive proper care

Microbiology: Veterinarians who specialize in research, teaching, and/or diagnosis of infectious diseases—specialties include:

  • Virology
  • Immunology
  • Bacteriology/Mycology
  • Parasitology

Nephrology and urology: Specialists in veterinary kidney and urinary medicine

Ophthalmology: Veterinary specialists who study diseases and conditions of the eye

Pathology: Veterinary specialists practicing microscopic and clinical pathology to protect and improve animal, human and environmental health to benefit society

Pharmacology: Veterinary specialists who study how medications affect animals

Poultry: Veterinary specialists who work with chickens, turkeys, ducks, and other fowl, usually in food production settings

Preventive medicine: Veterinary specialists improving animal, human, and environmental health through surveillance, recognition, outbreak investigation, and management of animal diseases; prevention and control of zoonotic diseases and foodborne illnesses; reduction of bites, injuries and other environmental and occupational human health hazards related to animals; promotion of food protection and wholesomeness; and promotion of humane animal care and the use of animals in animal-facilitated therapy

Radiology: Veterinary specialists who focus on the study of X-ray, ultrasound, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and other imaging procedures that allow us to see "inside" an animal's body; radiation oncologists specialize in treating cancer patients using radiotherapy.

Sports medicine and rehabilitation: Veterinary specialists who focus on injury prevention and improving and optimizing function, well-being, fitness, and performance of athletic, working, and companion animals, as well as diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation and pain management of patients with lameness and chronic conditions and those recovering from injury, illness, surgery and dysfunction.

Surgery: Veterinarians who specialize in performing surgery. A certified surgeon will be certified in either small animal or large animal surgery. Within these groups, many surgeons will focus their work in a sub-category, but they are not limited to the sub-category:

  • Orthopedics: Focus on the bones, joints, ligaments, muscles, and tendons that make up the body's skeletal system
  • Soft tissue surgery: Focus on the internal organs and non-bone tissues of the body
  • Neurosurgery: Focus on the brain, spinal cord and other parts of the nervous system

Theriogenology: Veterinary specialists who diagnosis and manage conditions affecting animal reproduction

Toxicology: Veterinary specialists who study the effects of poisons and other toxic products on the body, and how to treat animals affected by these toxins

Veterinary practitioners: Veterinary specialists with extensive and advanced training in specific animal species and practice areas:

  • Avian practice (birds)
  • Canine and feline practice (dogs and cats)
  • Feline practice (cats)
  • Equine practice (horses)
  • Exotic companion mammal practice (ferrets, rabbits, mice, rats and other small mammals often kept as pets)
  • Fish practice
  • Reptile and amphibian practice (snakes, lizards, salamanders, turtles, etc.)
  • Food animal practice (cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs)
  • Beef cattle practice (cattle raised for meat)
  • Dairy practice (cows that produce milk)
  • Swine health management (pigs)
  • Shelter practice (diverse population of animals in a shelter setting)

Zoological medicine: Veterinary specialists who work with zoo animals, free-living wildlife, aquatic species, and companion zoological animals