Choosing a Veterinary Specialty

Sep 23, 2021

As you begin thinking about pursuing a career working with animals as a veterinarian, specializing in a particular field of interest may not have crossed your mind.  You may be familiar with what veterinarians in small animal general practice do, but many people are unaware of the various types of other veterinary specialties.

Whether you want to work with small animals, large animals, zoo animals, or lab animals, obtaining a doctor of veterinary medicine (DVM) degree from an accredited veterinary school such as Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine* (Ross Vet) is the first step to pursuing veterinarian specializations.  During school, students have the option to participate in externships at other teaching hospitals to explore what are the different kinds of veterinarians and veterinary medicine career options. This is most common during the clinical year and may be a requirement. 

According to Melissa Bucknoff, DVM, DACVECC, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Sciences & Clinical Pharmacology at Ross Vet, Emergency & Clinical Care Specialist, “I started my journey toward specializing with an academic internship, during which time I could no longer deny my feelings toward emergency room (ER) and ICU medicine. My internship year was followed by a 3-year emergency critical care residency.”

TYPES OF VETERINARY SPECIALTIES

So, what can veterinarians specialize in? There are 22 different organizations recognized by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), representing 41 distinct veterinary medicine specializations. These specializations require training beyond attaining your initial DVM degree, but they are well worth it if you discover a passion for a particular area. Aside from a variety of areas of specialty for veterinarians to pursue, there are three broad categories where these specialties may be found: academia, government and industry, and private practice. The sky's the limit when it comes to a degree in veterinary medicine!

VETERINARIANS IN ACADEMIA

In academia, veterinarians generally serve as veterinary school faculty. However, veterinarians may also be found at medical schools and other institutions participating in medical research. Our Ross Vet faculty often juggle clinical duties and research along with their teaching duties. for you.

Dr. Hilari French, assistant Dean of academic delivery and director of integrative mammalian research at Rss Vet says, “I realized early in my career that my true calling was to be an educator in the field.  Since then, most of my career decisions were made to ensure I would be able to serve at a university.”  

If you have considered a career in veterinary education or research, academia may be the place for you.

VETERINARIANS IN GOVERNMENT AND INDUSTRY

Veterinarians in government may serve among the branches of the United States military, which routinely employ veterinarians to care for working animals on bases and in action. Some veterinarians serve as legislators or lobbyists and help create laws and regulations related to animal welfare, food safety, and other vital veterinary matters.

Outside of private practice and corporate animal health care, a variety of private sector jobs for veterinarians are in the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, diagnostics, contract research services, animal feeds, and agrochemical industries. Those industries offer a diversity of job opportunities to veterinarians.

VETERINARIANS IN PRIVATE PRACTICE

Veterinarians are most often found in the private practice setting. General practice veterinarians are an important “front line” of the profession and handle everything from preventative and wellness care to tending to sick animals and outbreaks of disease. Frequently, a general practice veterinarian will refer animal patients to a veterinary specialist to receive the best care possible. For example, a dog with a broken leg may require advanced surgery beyond the skills of a general practitioner veterinarian, and referral to a small animal veterinary surgeon may provide the best outcome.

TYPES OF VETERINARY SPECIALISTS

Now that you know some of the broad settings where veterinarians are found, let’s answer the question: what can veterinarians specialize in? Here are the 22 AVMA recognized Veterinary Specialty Organizations the encompass 41 veterinary medicine specializations and subspecialties.  In addition to your DVM, you will need to obtain several years of advanced training or hands-on experience in the subject area you are interested in. Generally speaking, most specialty organizations require veterinarians to spend one year in an internship practicing in their area of interest and to complete a residency training program for two to three years. After undergoing specialized training, these veterinarians must pass a board exam to be recognized as a diplomate in their respective area of specialization. 

1.       Anesthesia and Analgesia

All veterinarians are trained in anesthesia and pain relief. Veterinary anesthesiologists pursue additional studies in this area to become experts on administering and monitoring anesthesia, mitigating the risks of anesthesia, and advanced techniques in providing pain relief.

2.       Animal Welfare

Veterinarians who pursue additional training in animal welfare can provide vital insights for overall animal wellbeing. They provide animal welfare expertise by balancing scientific knowledge with ethical and societal values. Diplomates of the American College of Animal Welfare are essential in educating other veterinarians and the public about current animal welfare issues.

3.       Behavior

Veterinary behaviorists focus exclusively on animal behavior. These veterinarians may be called upon for behavior issues more extensive than house training or basic obedience. Veterinary behaviorists thoroughly review their patient’s medical history to identify issues and may use a variety of behavior modification techniques and medications as part of a treatment plan.  

4.       Dentistry

As do humans, animals also need dental care. Veterinary dentists are specialized in the diagnosis and treatment of conditions related to the teeth and the oral cavity. Veterinary dentists may perform advanced surgical extractions of teeth or even root canals.

5.       Dermatology

The skin is the largest organ in the animal (and human) body, so naturally, there are veterinary specialists to address the many conditions that affect the skin. Veterinary dermatologists specialize in treating skin conditions in a variety of species. These veterinarians also receive advanced training in immunology and internal medicine so they can accurately address skin conditions that may result from other underlying health issues.

6.       Emergency and Critical Care

Animal emergencies are inevitable. Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care undergo specialized training to handle the most critically ill patients. These veterinarians, often found in emergency hospitals or intensive care units, are experts in the stabilization, treatment, and monitoring of critical patients.

7.       Internal Medicine

Internal medicine covers several different specialty areas for veterinarians. Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine can choose from such specialties as:

  • Cardiology
  • Neurology
  • Small or Large Animal Medicine

8.       Laboratory Animal Medicine

Lab animal veterinarians are critical in a research setting. Lab animal veterinarians ensure that such lab animal species as rodents, rabbits, and primates are treated ethically and humanely.

9.       Microbiology

Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Microbiologists are infectious disease experts. These veterinarians often work in a lab setting and play an important role in public health because many animal diseases also affect humans. Choosing this path results in such areas of specialization for veterinarians as:

  • Bacteriology/ Mycology
  • Immunology
  • Parasitology
  • Virology

10.   Nutrition

Veterinary nutritionists are highly trained in the diet and nutritional needs of animals. These veterinarians consider the individualized nutritional needs of each patient and formulate diets for them. Veterinary nutritionists are often employed by pet food companies to ensure accurate, healthy, and safe diet preparations.

11.   Ophthalmology

It may seem to be a small area of specialization for veterinarians, but maintaining healthy eyes is an important aspect of animal health. Veterinary ophthalmologists utilize medical and surgical techniques to handle a wide range of complex and chronic eye conditions.

12.   Pathology

Veterinarians commonly sample tissues or fluids for analysis, but it is often an expert in pathology who analyzes and interprets the samples. Veterinary pathologists may also conduct necropsies—post-mortem animal examinations. Veterinary pathologists can be found in industry and government organizations and are often involved in pharmaceutical research.

13.   Pharmacology

Just as there are individuals who specialize in understanding human medications, there are veterinarians who specialize in animal medications. Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Clinical Pharmacology play an important role in drug development and studying medication interactions.

14.   Poultry

If you want to work in a food production setting, poultry medicine may just be the veterinary specialization for you. These veterinarians work with such species of fowl like chickens, turkeys, and ducks to ensure the safety of meat and egg products.

15.   Preventive Medicine

The prevention of diseases is equally important as the treatment of diseases. Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine are trained in surveillance, recognition, outbreak investigation, and management of animal diseases.

16.   Radiology

Veterinary radiologists are specialists in such forms of diagnostic imaging as X-ray, ultrasound, computerized tomography (CT) scans, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). These experts are invaluable to other veterinarians seeking advanced imaging and interpretation.

17.   Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation

Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation focuses on the unique needs of athletic and working animals and provides physical therapy. These types of veterinary specialists aim to sustain health or return animals to normal health and function after surgery or injury. Specialists within animal sports medicine may choose to work with dogs or horses.  

18.   Surgery

General practice veterinarians perform such routine surgeries as spays, neuters, and dental cleanings, but there are many complicated surgical procedures that require the hands of a specialist. Veterinary surgeons may choose a small or large animal path and they often have specialized equipment and facilities to perform the most complicated procedures.

19.   Theriogenology

These types of veterinary specialists handle all aspects of animal reproductive health. Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Theriogenologists may be involved with artificial insemination, pregnancy checks, and surgical procedures.

20.   Toxicology

Animals may encounter poisons in numerous situations outside of the home, so the veterinary medicine specialization in toxicology is vitally important. Veterinary toxicologists study poisons and toxins and can provide superior advice on how to treat animals exposed to these substances.

21.   Veterinary Practitioners

Many types of veterinary specialists are required to address the unique needs of different animal species. By becoming a Diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners, you may choose from such areas of specialization for veterinarians:

  • Avian Practice
  • Beef Cattle Practice
  • Canine and Feline Practice
  • Dairy Cattle Practice
  • Equine Practice
  • Exotic Companion Mammal Practice
  • Feline Practice
  • Food Animal Practice
  • Reptile and Amphibian Practice
  • Shelter Medicine Practice
  • Swine Health Management

22.   Zoo Medicine

Have you dreamed of working with tigers, polar bears, or giraffes? Diplomates of the American College of Zoological Medicine are experts in all manner of zoo, wildlife, and aquatic species. These veterinarians also play an important role in conservation efforts around the world.

WHICH VETERINARY SPECIALTY IS RIGHT FOR YOU?

You may be overwhelmed after reading about all the veterinarian specializations, but rest assured, you have time to figure out which veterinary specialty is right for you. The first step to becoming a veterinary specialist is to graduate from veterinary school and obtain licensure. 

During veterinary school, you will be exposed to classes on many subject matters that can help you determine if pursuing a specialty is something you want to do. It may be helpful to take such personality assessments as the DISC Assessment or Myers-Briggs Test to hone in on qualities that might make you a better fit for certain veterinary specialties. 

You may have opportunities during veterinary school for externships with various specialists, so definitely take the chance to learn about these specialties and discover where your passion lies within the field of veterinary medicine.  

Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine is dedicated to helping students achieve their fullest potential and engage in the veterinary career that best suits their goals. Take the next step on your path to becoming a veterinarian. Apply for admission to Ross Vet.

Related Resources:

*Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine confers a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree, which is accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association Council on Education (AVMA COE), 1931 N. Meacham Road, Suite 100, Schaumburg, IL 60173, Tel: 800.248.2862. For more information please visit: https://www.avma.org/education/accreditation-veterinary-colleges.

The AVMA COE uses defined standards to evaluate veterinary medical education programs, including facilities, clinical resources, curriculum, faculty, student outcomes and research programs. The standards are interpreted and applied by the AVMA COE-accredited veterinary medical education programs in relation to its mission.

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