With specialist veterinary clinics sprouting, man's best friend can easily get the best care

By KATIE MENZER / The Dallas Morning News

March 13, 2006

I walked out of my vet's office two months ago with a bag of vitamins, a $250-credit card receipt and a very, very sick dog.

That's when I first considered getting a second opinion.

Although Bob – my darling, 2-year-old soft-coated wheaten terrier – had been sick for most of his short life, my veterinarian has been part of my family for decades. He cared for my parents' dogs before mine, and he'd always done a good job. So I worried about asking him for a referral to a veterinary specialist for Bob, whose strange symptoms just didn't seem to match my vet's diagnosis.

Would my vet view my request as an act of treason? Would he be offended that I'm questioning his judgment? According to Dr. Sandy Wright, a member of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, the answer to those questions involving any vet should always be no.

"Most of us know that we don't know everything," said the specialist from the Seattle area. "Suggesting a referral is not implying that your vet isn't doing a good job."

Veterinary specialists have knowledge and skills in treating problems that are outside a generalist's area of expertise, and specialty care is better than ever. That improvement is spurred by increasing customer demand and veterinary advances that parallel human medical developments, experts say.

Vet ophthalmologists are now able to remove an animal's cataracts to prevent blindness, radiologists can treat a cat's hyperthyroidism with radioactive iodine therapy, and veterinary oncologists offer chemotherapy to combat cancer. The American Veterinary Medical Association recognizes 37 specialties in all.

Dr. Wright's group, which tests and certifies vets who have an additional three to six years of training in internal medicine, cardiology, neurology or oncology, has almost doubled its size in the past four years. Most urban areas are seeing specialty clinics multiply, she said.

The Veterinary Referral Center of North Texas, a facility that houses five veterinary specialist practices under one roof, opened in Dallas in 2000. Several other specialty clinics also cater to local pets.

"People now consider pets as part of the family, like one of their children," Dr. Wright said. "We're not going to treat your pet like it's a piece of property. We treat your pet like a family member."

Just as you wouldn't go to a neurologist with a passing headache, a specialist vet isn't the place to go for your pet's regular needs. Many specialists don't bother to carry vaccines or flea treatments in their offices, and going to a specialist is normally much more expensive. Most specialist vets will charge for their consultation, although the office-visit fees vary.

Dr. Bob Munger, a local veterinary ophthalmologist, said specialists are happy to discuss the estimated costs with pet owners up front.

Specialists realize that your kid's college tuition bill might be more pressing than Fluffy's endoscopy – Bob's cost me close to $750 – and the vet will work with you to prioritize and decide what can be done on your budget, he said.

"It's the specialist's job to explain what they would do ideally and what the alternatives might be," he said. "Some conditions can be pretty expensive to treat."

Dr. Munger, as with many veterinary specialists, asks for a referral from a general vet, but most specialists' offices will work with pet owners if they call directly. Most will also ask for the animal's health records, but that's so they won't have to charge owners again for tests the general vet has already performed.

Bob is now seeing a local internist, who's determined he's got the canine version of inflammatory bowel disease. I've spent more than $2,000 on tests and treatments, but he's started wagging his tail again, which he hadn't done in months.

For me, that's well worth the price.