Veterinary school programs are typically four years long. At most schools, the first three years involve classroom-based learning, and the final year allows the students to work in the clinic, seeing cases with the guidance of interns, residents, and University faculty. The student needs to pass a competency exam after vet school is completed and then must pass a licensing exam in the state they choose to practice.
Most students will become small animal general practitioners after vet school (treating dogs and cats); this is what most people have in mind when they think of a veterinarian. Others will become large animal (dairy or beef cows, goats, sheep, etc.), equine, mixed (a combination of all types of animals), or exotic practitioners (birds, reptiles, pocket pets, etc.). Additional training beyond four years of veterinary school is not needed for any of these specialties.
Some students want to get a bit more training before jumping into practice, so they will complete a one-year rotating internship at a University clinic or large specialty practice. Others will decide that they want to specialize.
A veterinarian that chooses to specialize is committing to four to five additional years of training. They all complete a one-year rotating internship in medicine and surgery (they usually see quite a few ER cases that year as well), many complete a one-year internship in the specialty of their choice (oncology, for example), then a three-year residency. During the residency, they are seeing cases every day in their specialty. They typically have to pass two rigorous board certification exams and have to publish an original research paper in their field.
Once the residency is completed and they've both published and passed their board certification exams, they are considered board-certified and diplomats of the college that oversees their specialty. They're an expert in their field. This person doesn't give routine vaccinations, they only see cases related to their specialty.
There are board-certified veterinary medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, surgeons, dermatologists, internists, cardiologists, nutritionists, dermatologists, behaviorists, dentists, ophthalmologists, radiologists, neurologists, criticalists, etc.
If you have a dog with cancer or heart disease, it is very likely that an oncologist and cardiologist are going to be able to give you a more thorough diagnosis, more accurate workup, more treatment options, and the possibility of having a better prognosis than a general practitioner.
It's not really fair to think that a general practitioner can be an expert at everything. Most vet schools only give students about 8 hours of training in oncology (for example) - this obviously cannot compare with someone that has completed an oncology residency and practices oncology every day.
A general practitioner has a very difficult job and does their best, but things change so quickly that it's impossible to keep up with every specialty. They also don't have access to all of the diagnostics and tools that a specialist uses on a daily basis to make a diagnosis and decide on a treatment plan.
Something that I consider an easy diagnosis or an easy case might take someone that isn't an oncologist weeks to figure out (whether they're a general practitioner or a different type of specialist) - just because they're not used to seeing that type of disease.
If your dog is diagnosed with cancer, or another serious disease, consider seeing a specialist (just like you would if you had a serious disease) or asking your vet to contact one for you. Don't worry about offending your regular vet. We should all just want what's best for your dog.
Dr. Lori Cesario
Board Certified Veterinary Oncologist
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