There are currently over 20 veterinary specialties recognized by the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association). Specialties range from anesthesiology to zoo medicine.
To become a veterinarian, one must first earn an undergraduate degree, which takes 4 years (on average). Admission to veterinary school is competitive, and many applicants apply to more than one school. Veterinary school is 4 years, and upon graduation, both national and state boards (exams) must be passed to be able to practice veterinary medicine in the United States.
To become a veterinary specialist, one must undergo additional extensive training after vet school graduation, clinical experience in the area of the chosen specialty, publish a clinical case or research findings in journal articles and pass a credential review and specialty board examinations.
Becoming board-certified in a specialty can be via a university-based residency program (in a veterinary school) or in approved private specialty hospitals. Each specialty has their own requirements.
The length of time to attain the specialty certification varies with each individual but is usually a minimum of two years.
How does one arrange to see a veterinary specialist? In many cases, your veterinarian will suggest a referral to a specialist if the case is a difficult one. Some specialty practices only work with referrals, meaning cases sent in by veterinarians; other specialty practices will see new patients directly, no referral needed.
Veterinary specialist and referral practices do not usually provide basic care such as vaccinations, spays/neuters, etc., unless they work in combination with a general practice.
Should your pet see a specialist? If you are concerned about your pet's diagnosis or care, please speak with your veterinarian about the possibility of a referral to a specialist.
If you are uncomfortable doing this, it would be wise to seek a second opinion or advice of a specialist.