Skye Blake, here, with answers I’ve sniffed out to that burning question, “What does a veterinarian do?”
The more you know about vets and what they do, the better your choices will be when finding the vet that’s right for you and your feline companion.
- History of Veterinary Medicine
- Types of Vets & What They Do
- Where Vets Work
- More About Types of Veterinary Practices
- Veterinary Telemedicine
- What Type of Vet is Best for You & Your Cat?
- Related Pages of Interest
- List of Sources
History of Veterinary Medicine
Knowing the history of veterinary medicine is important since it gives context to what vets do today.
While following the history trails, I discovered that dogs have been the primary focus of vet school training for many years and cats are just an afterthought… well really! imagine that!
The good news is that this has been slowly changing, now that cat owners are more interested in getting vet care for their feline friends.
Discover more at “History of Veterinary Medicine“.
Types of Vets & What They Do
There are different types of veterinarians, but the most common and familiar are “traditional vets”, who work in clinics or emergency hospitals for companion animals, particularly cats and dogs.
Some even have a mobile practice, where they come to your home.
You may have also heard some confusing terms like “holistic”, “alternative”, “functional” and “integrative” veterinarians.
No matter whether your vet is traditional, alternative or any combination, each can choose to work only with small companion animals, cats-only, dogs-only, exotic pets, large animals and livestock, or any combination.
The practice of veterinary medicine is an ever-evolving profession.
Vets are constantly learning and adding to their base of knowledge.
Is your head spinning yet??
Traditional (conventional) veterinarians rely primarily on scientific evidence to diagnose problems, using physical examinations, proven scientific research, and diagnostic tools, such as x-rays, MRI’s, blood, urine and other tests.
In difficult, complex cases, they might either refer you to a specialist or do a more in-depth consultation to determine if something in the patient’s environment, diet or lifestyle is the underlying cause.
Traditional veterinarians are trained to approach healing using only options known to be scientifically researched, tested and proven.
They use drugs, surgery and physical tools (e.g., a splint) to help your cat’s body heal diseases and injuries.
So, you’re frustrated because your cat’s sick, but your regular vet has tried everything and can’t get her well.
Now what? You still have a sick cat after spending a ton of money!
You just want your cat healthy and happy, so you don’t care what the remedy is as long as it works!
This is where alternative therapies come into play, especially for chronic (on-going) problems.
In medicine, “alternative” refers to the type of solutions or therapies used to fix health problems, particularly those that are different from what veterinarians are trained to use.
Most veterinarians who practice alternative healing methods started as traditional vets, trained in regular vet schools.
Often they’ve run into complex cases in their practices, with their own pets, or even with their own health.
The frustration of not having answers that work motivated them to begin learning about other possibilities.
These vets train and become certified in these methods, which is just as important as getting a veterinary degree.
They’re not medicine men, witch doctors, or somebody on the internet who read a few books about crystals and magnetic therapies.
The main difference between alternative and traditional vets is their acceptance of anecdotal evidence and working with therapies that aren’t always scientifically and clinically proven.
There are many alternative treatment options, but some are more reliable than others.
Some types of alternative treatments are…
- Aroma Therapy
- Flower Essences
- Herbal Medicine (tinctures used by herbalists)
- Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy
- Laser Therapy
- Nutrition (food as medicine)
Alternative Treatment Types Accepted by Traditional Vets
Many in the world of traditional vet medicine see alternative therapies as crackpot ideas, on the same unscientific level as witchcraft, faith healing and fake science.
An example of this is at “Overview of Complementary and Alternative Veterinary Medicine“.
Over time, however, a few alternative treatments have become generally accepted in the world of veterinary medicine. They are…
- Herbal Medicine (Herbal Medicine vs. Homeopathy – The Herb Society of America)
- Chiropractic (Animal Veterinary Chiropractic Association)
- Nutritional Therapy (food as medicine) (American College of Veterinary Nutrition | ACVN)
More scientific research is being done that adds to the experience of vets who have used alternative methods with consistent positive results.
Holistic Approach to Veterinary Medicine
“Holistic” is a word thrown around a lot when it comes to both human and animal doctors.
It simply means looking at the whole picture of someone’s problem. Is there anything within the body’s systems that are causing or contributing to the symptoms?
It takes extra time to do a more in-depth investigation when a vet looks beyond symptoms, so traditional vets often refer clients to specialists at this point.
Any vet can take a holistic approach to your cat’s problems, but it’s more commonly done by those using alternative therapies.
Functional vets use alternative healing methods. They take the holistic approach and work to find the underlying causes of disease.
A cat’s environment, diet, lifestyle, stress, and body systems might all be involved.
Functional vets approach their clients as partners in healing an animal’s disease and keeping them well.
They focus on the uniqueness of each animal, rather than using a “one-size-fits-all” approach.
“Functional medicine vets are specifically trained to assess the underlying causes of complex, chronic disease and to apply strategies such as nutrition, diet and naturopathic remedies to both treat and prevent these illnesses.
They can ably help the increasing number of pets suffering from complex, chronic health issues such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, allergies, arthritis, seizures, bowel and bladder problems and immune system disorders.”2“Functional Medicine for Pets: Why the Best Vets Use It”, by Shawn Messonnier, Natural Awakenings Magazine, December 28, 2016
Some vets use the integrative approach, which simply means using both traditional and alternative solutions to help their patients.
They believe in using any healing method that works with the least amount of side effects.
These vets focus on both healing an illness and using nutrition to build up and maintain the animal’s health.
Often integrative vets started out using only traditional methods to help their patients, but got frustrated at having to tell people they had no answers.
They have a foundation of traditional, scientific knowledge and add to it as they believe worthwhile.
Think of it as having a tool box with a few tools and you keep adding more as you work.
“Vet schools provide invaluable training for, for example, managing infectious diseases and acute traumatic illnesses.
What they don’t do is a good job of is preparing students to manage life-style related diseases.
Practicing integrative veterinary medicine doesn’t involve ditching anything — it involves adding to the conventional training we receive in vet school.”3 Integrative Medicine: A Functional Approach to Healing (mercola.com)
Find out more about Integrative Vet Medicine at the College of Integrative Veterinary Therapies.
If you’re concerned about over-vaccination, bad diet, and chemical flea treatments, find out more at “The Beginner’s Guide to Natural Animal Health (vitalanimal.com)“
Another word that’s thrown around a lot is “natural” to evoke the feeling that you’re dealing with something pure and healthy.
Alternative vets often use “natural” treatments because they involve nature-made remedies (e.g., herbs) and not man-made (e.g., drugs).
Where Vets Work
Veterinarians usually train for both what they love and what’s needed in the location where they’ll be working.
In cities or suburbs there are mostly small animal practices, but equine (horse) or exotic animal vets are also found in these areas.
Some vets work exclusively at animal shelters, where they deal with abandoned, rescued, and abused animals of all types.
In rural areas, vets often must handle both small and large animal care. They often have a clinic and also go on the road to farms and ranches.
These vets help farmers, ranchers, kids raising animals for 4-H, strays, animal control, and people with pets.
There are also vets who specialize just as human doctors do. A few examples are anesthesiologist, oncologist (cancer care), dentist, and cardiologist.
More About Types of Veterinary Practices
Companion/Small Animal Vets
According to the AVMA, in 2018 about 75% of all vets are in private practice for companion animals. 5“U.S. veterinarians 2018″ | American Veterinary Medical Association (avma.org)
Think of them as similar to your primary care physician.
A small animal vet typically sees patients in a clinic and does exams, vaccinations, diagnosis and treatment of emergencies, diseases or other conditions.
Primary vets do basic surgeries (such as spaying and neutering), advise clients on proper diet and care, and prescribe medication where needed.
Depending on the needs of the practice, surgical or other specialists can be on-staff.
If your cat has a difficult diagnosis or complex condition, the vet may refer you to a veterinary school, hospital or other specialist for further, more in-depth diagnosis and treatment.
In some cases, they may even refer you to an alternative vet.
Some vets, whether traditional or alternative, prefer a mobile office rather than regular clinic.
The advantage to this is that in-home visits give a vet a much better picture of your cat’s daily life.
The vet can help detect things in your cat’s environment that can cause or aggravate stress-related conditions like cystitis.
In-home visits are also helpful for nervous cats and dogs who normally have to be sedated at a regular clinic, since they’re often more relaxed in their own home.
In some areas of the U.S., there are now feline-only vet practices… yay!
These are vets who specialize in the care and healing of us crazy cats.
They even have their offices set up to make us as comfy as possible… and no scary barking dogs!
This speciality has developed because…
- Cat owners are now more willing to take their cats to the vet and spend money on medical care
- The world of veterinary medicine is starting to acknowledge the fact that cats aren’t little dogs… their bodies process things differently
- Drug companies are more willing to develop drugs specifically for cats
The focus for a long time in vet schools has been primarily on dogs and how their anatomy works.
(Humph! How could they ignore our fabulous feline forms?)
Drug dosages have been based on how a dog’s body processes them safely according to their weight.
Until recently, cats have been an afterthought… just make everything smaller to fit them.
This has been found to be an inadequate way of dealing with feline needs.
A cat’s body processes toxins and drugs more slowly than a dog’s, which is a major factor in determining safe types of drugs and their dosages.
Find out more at “In Veterinary Medicine, Cats Lag Behind Dogs, and I’m Sick of It – Catster“
Livestock/Large Animal Vets
Farmers and ranchers need vets to care for all types of livestock, like cattle, hogs, and chickens.
These vets specialize in knowing the anatomy, biology and diseases of these animals.
They take additional training to specialize in large animal care.
Livestock vets usually go to where the animals are, typically on a farm or ranch, but may also work from a clinic.
Cattle, horses, sheep, goats, poultry, hogs, even bison, emus, ostriches, alpacas and llamas are all livestock.
They contribute meat, eggs, fiber, and other things to society and the livelihood of the farmer.
In the U.S., horses, donkeys, and mules are in the livestock/large animal category as beasts of burden, not meat producers.
Equine vets also work at racetracks, horse shows, and horse rescue farms.
Research veterinarians specialize mostly in microbiology, pathology, and biomedicine.
They study and develop vaccines and other ways to prevent, control, or cure diseases that affect animals (and sometimes people).
These vets usually work for governmental agencies or vet schools and are not part of private practices.
Food Industry Vets
Vets who work in the food industry help develop pet foods.
They inspect food at meat processing plants, and ensure that farmers and ranchers raise their animals in humane conditions.
Food Safety & Inspection vets are related to the food industry, but work mostly in government positions enforcing safety and health regulations.
Ever seen the “USDA” inspection stamp on meat packages?
Find out more at “Grades and Standards | Agricultural Marketing Service (usda.gov)“
Some vets specialize in working with wild animals in zoos, sanctuaries, and wildlife rehabilitation centers.
Their patients run the gamut from tigers to eagles, anacondas to peacocks, snakes to walruses.
Marine veterinarians specialize in aquatic mammals, fish and amphibians, in captivity or in the wild.
Some focus on research related to marine life.
A vet specialist chooses to focus on one area of animal medicine, becoming an expert in that field.
Specialists can choose to work only with one specific type of animal, such as equine, canine, feline, or avian.
Or they can work in one field on many types of animals (e.g., eye care, dentistry).
These are veterinarians with an advanced degree of training (Diplomate) and access to equipment your regular vet may not have.
They have to study and intern for a number of years after earning a DVM or VMD degree to have the extra level of knowledge and expertise.
Many specialties are familiar to most people from human medicine (e.g., internal medicine, ophthalmology, radiology, and advanced surgery).
Others are unique to the veterinary profession (e.g., animal welfare, poultry or laboratory animal medicine, animal reproduction).
The professional organization American Veterinary Medical Association (avma.org) currently recognizes…
“22 AVMA-Recognized Veterinary Specialty Organizations™ comprising 41 distinct AVMA-Recognized Veterinary Specialties™.
More than 16,500 veterinarians have been awarded Diplomate status in one or more of these specialty organizations after completing rigorous postgraduate training, education, and examination requirements.”6 “Veterinary Specialties” | American Veterinary Medical Association (avma.org)
Find out more at “Veterinary Specialists – What Kinds Are There?“
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, seeing a patient by phone or computer in both human and animal medicine wasn’t considered a good idea.
But now, telemedicine has become a necessity and is helpful in certain situations.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) defines telehealth and telemedicine for us.
“Telehealth is the use of technology to remotely gather and deliver health information, advice, education, and patient care.
Telehealth is divided into categories based on who is involved in the communication.
For communication between veterinarians and animal owners there are two important categories that are distinguished by whether a veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR) has been established.
• General advice, educational information, and teletriage are aspects of telehealth that may be delivered without an already established VCPR.
This includes reminder emails, patient portals, and newsletters.
AVMA Telehealth Subcategories
Find out more at “Talking About Telehealth” (AVMA.org)
Limitations of Telemedicine
Since a vet can’t do a physical exam remotely, it’s difficult to properly assess your cat’s needs and provide a diagnosis.
There are also legal restrictions requiring the establishment of a veterinary-client-patient relationship (“VCPR”) before any diagnosis is given or medication prescribed.
A VCPR can only be done by an in-person examination and consultation, which the law requires as a protection for you and your pet.
An in-person physical exam and consultation helps your vet find clues to your cat’s current condition.
Consulting with you as that kitty’s owner contributes to his ability to diagnose and treat any problems.
It’s also necessary for your cat to be at the vet’s office to get vaccinations, medications or other treatments.
“For many states, establishing a VCPR requires at least one in-person exam for your pet and for you to sign a document stating that you give permission for the hospital to provide care for your cat.”8 “When Telemedicine Works Well” – Catwatch Newsletter, February 22, 2021
What Type of Vet is Best for You & Your Cat?
As you can see, there are many different types of vets available to help you care for your cat.
So how do you know who’s best for you?
Here’s the simplest way to look at it…
Traditional veterinarians work well for basic wellness care and acute, crisis situations, dealing with injuries and life-threatening emergencies.
Their diagnostic tools and methods are great for determining all kinds of diseases and conditions.
If your regular vet is unable to find answers for a particular problem, an alternative vet might be able to help.
Just be aware that the therapies they use aren’t all scientifically proven and may not work for your cat.
Traditional vets will sometimes refer a client to a vet who has expertise in alternative therapies, such as chiropractic, acupuncture, or nutritional medicine.
A traditional vet can be an excellent primary care doctor and can work well in conjunction with an alternative care vet.
Look around your area to see who’s available and ask questions to find the best vet partners for your kitty’s needs.
Discover more about your cat’s health at these related pages…
Related Pages of Interest
Sources used on this website are either primary or secondary.
Primary sources are always preferable and have the most reliable information because they’re original and directly referenced.
Scientific abstracts and data are good examples of primary sources.
Secondary sources are weaker because they usually consist of opinions or articles that give no sources of their own.
However, sometimes they refer to primary sources.
When I use secondary sources most are those with some authority, such as veterinarian or cat behaviorist books and articles.
List of Sources
“5 Types of Veterinarians and What They Do“, VET PRACTICE, December 14, 2018
“8 Things People Don’t Realize About Being a Veterinarian | PetMD“, PetMD Editorial, Published: April 17, 2019
“The Advantages of In-Home Veterinary Care” , by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker, Healthy Pets, May 27, 2021
“The Beginner’s Guide to Natural Animal Health” (vitalanimal.com), Dr. Will Becker
“Could Integrative Medicine Help Veterinarians Avoid Burnout?“, Interviews by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker with Dr. Liza Schneider and Dr. Cynthia Lankenau, Mercola.com, June 23, 2020
“The Disadvantages of Being a Veterinarian (careertrend.com)“, Janice Tingum, Updated December 28, 2018
“Functional Medicine for Pets: Why the Best Vets Use It”, by Shawn Messonnier, Natural Awakenings Magazine, December 28, 2016
“Game Changer Veterinarian Reimagines Curbside Care“, Interview by Dr. Karen Shaw with Dr. Brian Gray, Healthy Pets, December 17, 2020
“Grades and Standards”, Agricultural Marketing Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, usda.gov
“The Holistic Cat, A Complete Guide to Natural Health Care”, by Holly Mash, The Crowood Press Ltd, Ramsbury Marlborough, Wiltshire, England, 2014
“Homeopathic Game Changer: How to Raise ‘Wildly Healthy’ Pets”, Interview by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker with Dr. Will Falconer, Mercola.com, September 24, 2020
“How Much Does a Veterinary Orthopedic Surgeon Get Paid? (careertrend.com)“, Donald Harder, Updated August 08, 2019
“How Much Money Do Veterinarians Make a Year? (careertrend.com)“, by Horacio Garcia, CareerTrend.com, Updated July 05, 2017
“In Veterinary Medicine, Cats Lag Behind Dogs, and I’m Sick of It”, by Dr. Eric Barchas, August 20, 2013 – Catster
“Integrative Medicine: A Functional Approach to Healing”, Interviews by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker with Dr. Jean Dodds and Dr. P.J. Broadfoot, Mercola.com, June 24, 2020
“Integrative Practitioners Are Seekers and Searchers“, Interviews by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker with Dr. Susan Wagner and Dr. Joyce Harman, Mercola.com, June 26, 2020
“Interesting Facts About Marine Veterinarians (careertrend.com)“, Jennifer Hicks Updated September 03, 2019
“Online Vet Visits: What to Expect”, by Ellen Malmanger, PetMD, July 21, 2021
“Overview of Complementary and Alternative Veterinary Medicine – Management and Nutrition – MSD Veterinary Manual”, by Narda G. Robinson, DO, DVM, MS, Curacore Vet, msdvetmanual.com, last full review/revision Aug 2013, content last modified Aug 2013″
U.S. Veterinarians 2018“, American Veterinary Medical Association (avma.org)
“What is the USDA mark of inspection?”, findanyanswer.com, April 30, 2020
“What Specific Types of Veterinarians Are There? (careertrend.com)“, Stephanie Fagnani, Updated July 05, 2017
“When Telemedicine Works Well”, Catwatch Newsletter
Updated February 2, 2023