Just like your general practitioner may refer you to an internist, a cardiologist, or a surgeon, your veterinarian has similar options for obtaining advanced care for your pet. Specialization allows a veterinarian to focus on a particular area of practice to help manage very specific problems using the most current knowledge, techniques, and equipment. Your pet's primary care veterinarian is your best friend when it comes to keeping your pet healthy and the first person you should see if there is a problem. Since a primary care veterinarian can't be expected to know everything about everything, especially since the body of knowledge in veterinary medicine grows daily, they may rely on specialists to provide services that they cannot. It's the job of the specialist not only to provide the service needed by the pet, but also to educate the pet owner about the problem, the treatment, and the plan, as well as to make sure that your pet's primary care veterinarian is kept informed and involved. More about specialty care for pets.
What kind of specialized training does a veterinary nutritionist have?
While there is some variation between training programs (called residency programs), the basic requirements and outcomes are similar. In order to be admitted to a program, a veterinarian must have either completed an internship or had a significant amount of experience in clinical practice. Once admitted, the program usually takes 2-3 years (or longer if it also includes graduate studies). Residency programs require that trainees spend time working with patients, teaching, studying, and conducting and publishing research; some focus more in some areas than others. When requirements have been completed, trainees are qualified to take a certification examination. This 2-day examination encompasses biochemistry and physiology, practical clinical nutrition, the body of nutrition research, and clinical case studies. This training and examination process is overseen by the American College of Veterinary Nutrition, which is a group of veterinary nutritionists responsible for upholding high professional standards within the specialty. Once this rigorous process has been completed, the trainee becomes a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (DACVN).
Veterinary nutrition specialists are a little different from nutritionists who work with human patients
Most veterinary specialists have a counterpart in human medicine. A veterinary ophthalmologist, for example, does a job similar to that of an ophthalmologist who treats humans- albeit species differences alone make for some big differences between human and veterinary medicine. A veterinary nutritionist, however, doesn't really have a "twin" in human medicine.
In human medicine, the degree that typically makes one a specialist in nutrition is that of a registered dietician (RD). While there are a few medical doctors who are also RD's, most RD's have a bachelor's degree in addition to their professional training and are not doctors. Rather, they work together with doctors and other medical professionals to execute a nutritional plan that compliments other treatments the patient may be receiving. The term "nutritionist" is used by most RD's, as well as some others with varying amounts of nutrition training.
In veterinary medicine, it's a little different. Veterinary nutritionists are veterinarians (DVM or VMD) who have undergone extensive specialized training in nutrition and receive the title Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (DACVN). Most diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition refer to themselves as "veterinary nutritionists," but similar to human medicine; others, with a variety of qualifications may also be using the term. It's important to ask!