Specialist treatment for your dog


03 October 2014

Call in the experts

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If your dog needs specialist treatment at a veterinary referral centre, where do you start? Journalist Sarah Shephard explains.

If your dog is ill or injured you want to be sure he's in the very best hands. Normally this will be at your local vet's, but sometimes your dog may need more specialist attention, which can only be provided by a referral practice. In the same way that your GP might refer you to a consultant at a hospital, so might your local vet wish to refer your dog - but how do you go about choosing a suitable centre?

There are different types of referral practice, including single-vet, single discipline concerns; referral practices associated with first opinion practices; and large, multi-specialist, multi-discipline hospital practices. Also, most of the veterinary schools run teaching hospitals with referral clinics.

Your vet should be able to discuss the options available suitable for your dog's situation and your circumstances.

To get to grips with why a particular referral practice has been recommended for your dog, it helps to have an understanding of the level of qualification that a referral vet may have, beyond the veterinary degree:

  • Special interest: Veterinary surgeons are allowed to state that they have a special interest in a subject, whatever their level of qualification.
  • Certificate holder: This is the first level of post-graduate qualification awarded by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) and indicates that the holder is a competent clinician and has passed an examination in that subject area.
  • Diploma holder: This is someone who has achieved a high standard of academic and professional expertise in the chosen subject and passed a specialist level examination. Those who have passed a European college diploma may call themselves a European veterinary specialist.
  • RCVS recognised specialist: This is similar to a consultant in the NHS. To be included on the list of recognised specialists, an individual must have achieved a diploma level qualification (or equivalent). They must have made an active contribution to their speciality (such as an academic publication) to the satisfaction of the RCVS. This is the only time-bound status, and the individual must re-apply for recognition every five years. 

Costs can vary and aren't always a good determinant of value, so it's important to compare like with like services. It's reasonable to expect a cost estimate to include both initial consultation costs and a range of possible further investigation and/or treatment costs. Payment terms may be significantly different to your usual practice and you should make sure these are explained to you before beginning the referral process. If your dog is insured, you may be required to contact the insurance company before embarking on any referral treatment. Policies differ so it is important you read your insurance documents carefully and follow the specified procedures.

Do your research

Recommendation is always a good starting point for fi nding out about clinics, and you should also visit their websites; most are geared up for easy navigation by pet owners. You can also request brochures and newsletters in many instances, which will help you to get a feel for a practice and its level and breadth of expertise and equipment.

In some cases a multi-disciplined centre has the ability to consider, evaluate, and treat the whole patient. This can be especially valuable in more complex cases where several body systems may be involved, requiring more than one specialist discipline.

RCVS advice

A spokesperson for the RCVS said: "In the UK, it's customary for referrals to be made via a primary veterinary surgeon. This ensures that all the relevant history is forwarded and, equally importantly, that when your dog returns to the primary vet for aftercare, a good relationship continues between the referring vet and the referral practice.

"You have a right to ask your vet to make a referral at any stage. In many cases, your vet may in fact instigate discussions about referral because of the complexity of the case or the special equipment and facilities required. Ideally, your first opinion practice should refer you to a referral practice that employs an RCVS recognised specialist in the relevant field."