Specialists, generally speaking
When your eyes are bothering you, you see the optometrist; for eye surgery, it’s the ophthalmologist. When you have a toothache, you see the dentist; for malaligned teeth, it’s the orthodontist. Theallergist and pulmonologist will help you with your asthma. Pregnant? See the obstetrician. Need a colonoscopy? You’ll probably need an internal medicine specialist and a proctologist. Found a suspicious mole? See the dermatologist. The mole is on your nose? See the plastic surgeon. Your cardiologist will address your heart rhythm problem and your hypertension. When a horse steps on your big toe, you’ll first see an emergency room doctor, then a radiology nurse/technician. A radiologist will read your X-ray pictures, and then you’ll see an orthopedic surgeon. The anesthetist is the last person you’ll see before you drift off to sleep during your surgery. A physical therapist will help you through the recovery phase, and probably a podiatrist, too.
Ever get into your car, begin driving to your doctor’s appointment, and realize you haven’t the foggiest idea to which doctor’s office you’re supposed to be headed? I have. I’ll do you one better: I’ve actually shown up to the wrong doctor’s office (on-time, naturally) for an appointment across town. And I’m not even old. (Unless you talk to my teenage children. To them, if you’re over 30, you’re ancient.) Spending much of my “free” time in the car chauffeuring my kids here and there and taking them to their various appointments (dentist, sports medicine, pediatrician, sports medicine, orthodontist, sports medicine, eye doctor, sports medicine …), it’s no wonder I’m feeling addled.
When you’re not sure which doctor you need, but you know you need a doctor, you go to your family practice physician. The one you see for your annual checkups. Or, for some folks, the one you see for your once-in-a-blue moon checkups. When you have a cold that won’t quit, or a bellyache, a bothersome rash, dizzy spells or any number of vague complaints, your family doctor, or “GP” (stands for “general practitioner”) is the go-to guy (or gal) for you.
I’m that kind of doctor — for animals. And while veterinary medicine and human medicine are similar, there are some distinct differences. One biggie is that veterinarians in general practice are expected to be more of a Jack-of-all-trades than our human doctor counterparts. We not only care for more than one species of animals (cats are NOT small dogs, and snakes are from outer space), but often perform duties that are normally the job of specialists in the human medical field.
So if it were, say, a dog that had its toe crushed by a passing horse, his veterinarian would examine the dog, order, perform, and interpret the radiographs and any other preliminary tests (like blood and urine tests), prescribe and administer medications, oversee the anesthesia, and perform the surgery and follow-up care. Depending on the skilled help available, veterinarians also draw blood, run lab tests, and perform all the nursing care required — even in the biggest, most well-staffed hospitals, veterinarians are expected to be able to jump in and do it all, if needed. We’re a highly skilled, adaptable bunch. And we’re also pretty used to our patients trying to wiggle, kick, bite and scratch their way out of our healing hands, so we’re practiced at various techniques in “mind control.” No, not really. But that’d be handy. If anybody can come up with a new “mind control” technique, it’ll be us veterinarians. And we’ll be happy to pass it on to our pediatrician friends first.
Pet owners are sometimes surprised to learn of the existence of veterinary specialists. Veterinary Medicine has evolved right alongside human medicine, and both have a tiered system of expertise. A patient first sees a general practice doctor for routine checkups and initial problems, but is referred to specialists for more specialized problems. Very difficult, complicated cases are typically referred to research/teaching hospital doctors. The nice thing these days is that well-equipped, tech-savvy veterinarians in general practice can consult with specialists on a variety of cases via electronic communications, sharing digital X-ray pictures, ultrasound images, photographs and videos, helping to speed along diagnoses and continuity of care for their patients. That said, nothing substitutes for using our five senses and seeing the patient in person.
Gone are the days when the guy who gave you a shave and a haircut would also pull that bothersome, infected tooth for you. Unless you’re a cat or dog — your friendly, neighborhood veterinarian says, “Bring it on.” We can not only do that (and a whole lot more), but do it painlessly and safely. Might cost a little more than “two bits,” but totally worth it.
Daverio is a veterinarian at Williamsport West Veterinary Hospital. Her column is published every other Sunday in the Lifestyle section. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.