Large animal vets specialize in horses, cows and other farm animals.
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Surprise, surprise: Your local neighborhood veterinarian doesn't treat horses. When freshly-minted veterinarians leave vet school, they normally move into one of two practice categories: small animal or large animal. In rural areas, some veterinary practices still treat both large and small animals (e.g. Dr. Pol), but in most areas, you will find that the large and small animal vets have practices focused on those types of animals.
Small animal veterinarians treat dogs, cats, hamsters, turtles, and the wide variety of pets that are found in homes. Large animal veterinarians treat cows, goats, llamas, horses and other large animals that live outdoors. Some large animal veterinarians focus exclusively on equines - the horse doctors.
Veterinarians in the United States generally start with an undergraduate degree, and then attend a four-year veterinary school that ends with a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) or Veterinary Medical Doctor (VMD) degree.
Competition to enter a veterinary school is extreme, virtually equivalent to entering medical school. Like medical doctors, veterinarians follow a rigorous program focused on developing the knowledge and skills to successfully treat their patients. The best veterinarians couple the scientific skills along with great interpersonal skills to both treat their animal patients, and communicate with the animal owner.
Following veterinary school, veterinarians may enter a private practice, an internship or a residency program. Increasingly veterinarians are specializing, and such specialization required additional training and experience obtained through internships and residency.
A systematic approach is best used to find a veterinarian that is compatible with your horse health goals. You should consider the following:
- Location of practice
- Support staff, equipment and facilities
- Personal style
In the case of an emergency, you will be glad that your veterinarian is located closer to your animals. Virtually all large animal veterinarians are mobile, and come to your animal for treatments or emergencies. You will generally be charged a ranch visit fee for this service. Many veterinarians also offer an office location where you can haul your animal for treatment without incurring a ranch visit fee. In all cases, it is easier for both you and your veterinarian if your animals are located close to the home base of your veterinarian
Much of veterinary medicine is learned in the "trenches." Experienced veterinarians will have been exposed to more situations, and most likely developed a better intuition, regarding diagnosis and treatment of equine diseases and conditions. Fortunately, many practices have an experienced veterinarian that works closely in a support role of younger veterinarians.
Younger veterinarians will generally be more available for appointments, as the experienced veterinarian are more heavily booked. So, depending on the issue, you can balance the availability and enthusiasm of a younger veterinarian for most activities, but call on the experience of the senior veterinarian for those difficult cases.
There is a large range of veterinary practices, from the mobile-only single veterinarian practice to a full-fledged referral hospital practice with surgical and other advanced medical services for advanced cases of disease or accidents. In most cases, the mobile veterinarian will provide you with excellent service, reasonable prices and individualized attention.
In those cases when you require advanced or in-patient medical care, virtually all veterinarians work within a hospital network where they refer patients as needed. Another concern is the availability of a veterinarian that may be ill, traveling, or involved in a time-consuming case when an emergency occurs on your farm. Virtually all private practice mobile veterinarians have associates to handle the work load in these situations. Ask your veterinarian about their back-up plans so that you can be prepared.
This is an important consideration for many horse owners. Your ability to develop a relationship with your veterinarian is very important. Ideally, the veterinary relationship is long-term. Your veterinarian learns more about your animals, their history, behavior, even their personalities, over time. This value of the doctor patient relationship grows over time.
Do you want to be involved in the healthcare process? Are you curious about the condition of your animal and want to learn more? Do you need emotional support in times of emergency?
On the other hand - Are you too busy or too stressed to participate in hand-on care? Do you lack confidence, or interest in learning the details of your animals disease or condition?
Different veterinarians work better for different types of horse owners. Make sure that you use a veterinarian that provides you with the support and information you need. This is an important consideration as the right veterinarian for you is the right veterinarian for your horses.
Finding a veterinarian
If you own a horse, you need to have an equine veterinarian. Don't wait for a horse health issue, and then frantically try to find a veterinarian to treat your horse. To find the right veterinarian, you should develop the relationship before you need the service.
The following strategy may serve you well as you begin the search for a long-term veterinarian:
- Survey all of the veterinarians that practice within a reasonable distance of your animals. Set a criteria, say all veterinarians within 20 miles, and then search candidates. Use every available means to get information about all of the veterinarians within this distance. Ask your horse friends, farrier, small animal veterinarians, trainers, who they would recommend. Also, an online search  may uncover other candidates.
- Based on personal recommendations, start with the first recommended veterinarian closest to your animals and give them a call. You want to talk to the doctor and not their assistant. Be prepared with the following questions: Are you taking on new patients? How long have you been practicing in this area, and what are your services? What would you charge me for doing a wellness exam on my horse(s), and how do I set up an appointment.
- If you are happy and satisfied with the responses, make an appointment. Yes, this is going to cost you in most cases, but it is well worth the investment to meet and observe the candidate prior to making a long-term commitment.
- If you are not satisfied with the response to your telephone call and your visit, look for the next closest veterinarian.
How to get the best service from your veterinarian
Veterinarians are small business owners, and they provide a services business model. Because of this, time is the most important factor for many veterinarians. Always be mindful of this when calling your veterinarian. You should prepare for your veterinarian visit by have the patient caught, haltered and tied and ready for the veterinarian. You should also do your best to provide an area with good lighting and ideally covered where the veterinarian can work.
Equipment that is used by the vet requires electricity, and availability of water is also desired. Select a location, and prepare it so that you veterinarian can work comfortably and efficiently.
We recommend that you be available to the vet during the examination so that you can ask questions to understand why the condition is present, and what preventative measures you can take to reduce the chances of recurrence. Also, you need to fully understand what after-care you need to provide to fully participate in your horse's recovery.
Lastly, be aware of the time issues with your veterinarian, and be understanding of circumstances when your veterinarian may be late, or need to rush off to attend to another patient. Veterinary medicine is a demanding job with often a hectic and unpredictable schedule.
Horse owners are always confronted with this basic question: When to call the vet?  This article provides guidelines that may be helpful for you to understand when calling the veterinarian is important or not. If in doubt, call you veterinarian in all cases and ask their advice.
Want to find a veterinarian in your area? We suggest trying EquiMed's health services finder .
About the author
Mark is the founder of EquiMed. Prior to EquiMed, Mark was the CEO and founder of Pacific Crest Corporation, a maker of wireless communication devices and now a subsidiary of Trimble Navigation.
Mark trains and shows reining horses, and is a member of the West Coast Reining Horse Association, the NRHA affiliate in Northern California. Mark also breeds and exhibits Mediterranean Donkeys.
Mark has a strong interest in equine health. This website is the result of Mark's and numerous other contributor's efforts to make equine health information accessible to the horse owner.