Although not as many specialists exist in veterinary medicine as in human medicine, the kinds and the number of certified veterinary experts grow every year. And that's good news for our pets.
Current companion-animal specialties include such "system" areas of expertise as cardiology, dentistry, dermatology and oncology. There are also "species" specialists, such as those veterinarians certified as experts on bird health. Behavior specialists are becoming more common as well. These veterinarians help people and their pets work through such problems as house-soiling or separation anxiety with the aid of medication and behavior-modification techniques.
"System" specialties usually require additional study in a two- to five-year residency program, followed by a rigorous examination. These certifications are handled by a board such as the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, which is why certified specialists are sometimes referred to as "boarded" or "board-certified."
For veterinarians already in practice, the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners also offers specialty certifications, including those in feline and avian practice. The certifications also require passing a difficult examination.
What kind of specialty a veterinarian has will be reflected by the letters after his or her name. Once certified, they are referred to as "Diplomates," abbreviated either as "Dipl." or sometimes just "D," followed by the initials of the certifying body and the nature of the specialty. For example, a veterinary cardiologist would have the following alphabet soup after his name: DVM, Dipl. ACVIM (cardiology). An avian specialist would be DVM, Dipl. ABVP (avian practice).
Many urban centers support independent specialists or specialty practices, but in less populated areas you're more likely to find a full complement of specialists at the closest university with a school or college of veterinary medicine. Only veterinarians who are board-certified are allowed to call themselves specialists.
While species specialists such as avian veterinarians serve as primary health-care providers as well as consultants, system specialists are usually called on a case-by-case basis to work on specific problems in which they have more experience than most veterinarians.
The relationship between your pet's regular veterinarian and a specialist is one of cooperation and trust. Your veterinarian will consult with or refer you to a specialist knowing that when the situation he sent you there for is resolved, you will be sent back to his practice. Without this understanding, your regular veterinarian would be understandably reluctant to refer a client he will not get back.
You have a role in keeping the specialty system healthy as well. If you believe your pet has a problem that could use the expertise of a specialist, talk to your veterinarian about a referral. Let your veterinarian know that you aren't questioning his care but want to bring more specialized expertise in to help your pet. If you have a cooperative relationship with a good veterinarian, calling in a specialist is never a problem.
If your veterinarian is reluctant to refer you to a specialist, remember that the final decision in your pet's care is always yours. Keep the lines of communication open with your veterinarian if you can, but realize your pet's care is your responsibility and seek a second option or specialist on your own.
PETS ON THE WEB
I'm of the opinion that we as a society don't always do a fabulous job taking care of dogs and cats, so we really don't need to add exotics to the list of animals that too many of us will buy on impulse and dump just as quickly, or kill through ignorance or neglect. But a lot of people disagree with me, and the pet trade is happy to provide these folks with everything from tarantulas to tigers.
The People for Domestic Skunks Web site (www.domesticskunks.com) doesn't make any effort to be neutral on the subject of exotic pets; the folks behind it love and care for their skunks and are fighting for the right to keep them. It's an interesting site, full of strongly worded statements that should raise an eyebrow or two. You'll also find pictures of pet skunks (who come in brown-and-white and all-white in addition to the familiar black-and-white markings), along with stories, a petition, and links to other sites dedicated to these unusual pets.
Performing any kind of surgery on rabbits was until recently considered too risky to try except in life-threatening emergencies, which is why veterinarians sometimes discouraged spaying and neutering. That's not the case today. As with dogs and cats, there are more rabbits than homes, making population control important for these pets who breed like, well, rabbits. Male rabbits are neutered around the age of 14 weeks, while females are usually done a little later, from 16 weeks to 6 months. Of course, these procedures can also be done on adult rabbits.
The benefits go beyond avoiding babies. Altered rabbits have fewer health and behavior problems than ones who haven't had the procedures done. Not all veterinarians feel comfortable working on rabbits, though, so it's important to find one with experience in caring for them. The House Rabbit Society keeps a list of "bun-friendly" vets. Call the society at (510) 521-4631, or visit the Web site at www.rabbit.org.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I have a 9-week-old Yorkie mix. He seems to be almost totally uninterested in food. He eats only a few bites a day of his dry food, and I spend most of my waking hours trying to dream up things he might be interested in eating, most to no avail.
He is not ill in any way. He is incredibly playful and seems to be full of energy and vigor, but I don't know what the eating deal is. -- C.Y., via e-mail
A: You are single-handedly teaching your dog to be a finicky eater. Look at it from his point of view. He's a normal, active puppy, easily distracted and wanting to play, play, play. Food? Just not that exciting.
You put down dry food. He'd rather play. You add something yummy, it catches his interest and he eats. But the next day, he'd rather play. So you try something else ... and something else ... and something else.
What have you taught your pup? You've shown him that if he waits, something better (or at least different) will come along. Stop, or you'll be sauteing tender strips of organically raised chicken breast or opening cans of caviar for him.
Puppies should be fed three times a day until the age of 6 months or so, when they can go to the twice-a-day schedule that adult dogs should be on. Don't keep food available at all times. It makes house-training more difficult and removes the power of food as a training tool. (Fresh water, on the other hand, should always be accessible.)
Give your little guy a quiet place to eat with no distractions. A crate is ideal, but a small room with a baby gate across it will also do. Put the food down and leave your pup alone for a half-hour. Then pick up the food, eaten or not, and give your pet no food until the next scheduled feeding. Repeat at noon and at night.
Don't worry if he misses a meal. He won't starve. Resist the temptation to give him treats in between, because it doesn't take much to fill up a small dog.
If you want to add something to increase palatability, warm and add a little low-sodium, nonfat chicken broth. But that's it. Don't fall back into the habit of constantly finding something "better." Give your pet a high-quality kibble and teach him to eat what's offered. You'll both be better off.
Q: At what age is a puppy considered an adult dog? I have a collie, and I'm trying to figure out if she is fully grown. -- Amy, via e-mail.
A: In general, the larger the dog, the longer it takes to become mature. Small dogs such as the toy breeds and most terriers may be pretty much full grown before they reach their first birthday, while giant breeds can still be filling out beyond the age of 2. Your collie will probably reach her full height by a year, but may still be adding bulk and coat for a year or more after that.
You'll find some differences within the breeds, too. For example, my youngest dog, Heather, comes from a line of dogs who develop physically somewhat slowly compared to other flat-coated retrievers. She's nearly 3 and is just now looking like other girls her age in the show ring.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to WriteToGina(at)YourPetPlace.com.
4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600