Your Guide to Medical Professionals Who Specialize in Caring for Pets
Our pets are family, and the health care they receive matters. But as with human medicine, it can be confusing to navigate the different titles and credentials in veterinary medicine. Each designation can tell you about the education, training, and skills of the person with those credentials. But acronyms are only useful if you know what they mean to you and your pet.
That's why we've put together a guide to common titles and credentials you're likely to find within a veterinary clinic or hospital in the United States (though it's by no means exhaustive). From DVMs to CVPMs, the more you know about the people caring for your pets, the better you can partner with your veterinary health care team and advocate for your furry family members.
Veterinary Health Care Team Members
Behind every healthy pet is a veterinary health care team. Here are some of the most common pros you'll encounter as you seek medical care for your pet.
Veterinarians (DVM, VMD)
Veterinarians are like primary care physicians for both large and small animals. In addition to leading the veterinary team, their main duties include:
- Providing preventive care
- Diagnosing illnesses
- Treating illnesses
- Prescribing medications
- Performing surgery
Veterinarians undergo extensive training before seeing patients. After completing their undergraduate education, veterinary students complete four years of veterinary school. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), their training is equal to that of human medical students, but they learn to care for several animal species instead of just one. (Can you imagine the expertise required to treat a boa constrictor with parasites in one exam room and a Newfoundland with diabetes in the next?)
Upon graduating from veterinary school, veterinarians receive either a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) or Veterinary Medical Doctor (VMD) degree. Veterinarians are also required to be licensed in any state in which they plan to practice. This involves passing a national exam testing their veterinary knowledge, and some states require an additional exam covering their particular state's laws and regulations.
Finally, to keep their license, veterinarians must complete continuing education (CE) hours. The exact number of CE hours varies by state. For example, one state might require 20 hours of CE every year, while another requires 30 hours every two years.
Many veterinarians go on to complete residencies (a two- to three-year process) to become board-certified veterinary specialists in a particular area. Your veterinarian may refer you to a specialist if they are unable to provide the care your pet needs, or you can search for a specialist near you by visiting the specialty organization websites below.
If a veterinarian is a board-certified specialist, you will likely see their specialty credentials listed after their DVM or VMD credential and then the area of emphasis in parentheses if it's applicable. For example, the title of a board-certified specialist in shelter medicine might look like this: Shelly Marcum, DVM, DABVP (Shelter Medicine). The "D" in "DABVP" stands for "Diplomate," meaning they've earned a diploma in this specialty.
There are currently 22 AVMA-recognized veterinary specialty organizations, offering a total of 46 veterinary specialties:
American Board of Veterinary Practitioners (DABVP) certifies specialists in these areas:
- Shelter medicine
- Reptile amphibian
- Exotic companion animal
- Canine and feline
- Food animal
- Swine health management
- Beef cattle
American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (DACVIM) certifies specialists in these areas:
- Small animal internal medicine
- Large animal internal medicine
American College of Veterinary Microbiologists (DACVM) certifies specialists in these areas:
American College of Veterinary Nephrology-Urology (provisional recognition; still under formation)
American College of Veterinary Pathologists (DACVP) certifies specialists in these areas:
- Anatomic pathology
- Clinical pathology
American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine (DACVPM) certifies specialists in:
American College of Veterinary Radiology (DACVR) certifies specialists in these areas:
- Radiation oncology
- Equine diagnostic imaging
American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation (DACVSMR) certifies specialists in these areas:
American College of Veterinary Surgeons (DACVS) certifies specialists in these areas:
- Small animal surgery
- Large animal surgery
American Veterinary Dental College (DAVDC) certifies specialists in:
- Equine dental
Veterinary Technicians (RVT, LVT, CVT)
Veterinary technicians are essentially the nurses of pet medicine and provide both medical and nonmedical care. Some even prefer to be called veterinary nurses. They support veterinarians by helping with:
- Laboratory procedures
- Pet parent education
Most veterinary technicians have earned either an associate's or bachelor's degree from an AVMA-accredited veterinary technology program. And nearly every state requires veterinary technicians to pass the Veterinary Technician National Exam to earn their credentials.
According to the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA), because each state regulates its veterinary technicians differently, some are registered (RVT), some are licensed (LVT), and some are certified (CVT). Many states also require veterinary technicians to complete a certain number of continuing education hours every one to three years to remain in practice.
Like veterinarians, veterinary technicians can receive extra training in a specific area and then take a specialist certification exam. The title of a veterinary technician specialist might look like this: Terri Bunkle, LVT, VTS (Anesthesia and Analgesia), in which the area of specialty is included in parentheses.
There are currently six specialty academies that meet NAVTA's Committee on Veterinary Technicians Specialties (CVTS) requirements for full recognition. They include the following areas:
Another 10 academies have earned provisional recognition by NAVTA's CVTS. This list includes the following specialty areas:
Veterinary assistants support veterinarians and veterinary technicians, and they're more likely to be found in larger hospitals. Their duties include things like:
- Kennel work (e.g. cleaning)
- Animal restraint and handling
- Feeding and exercising animals
- Setting up equipment
- Clerical tasks
There aren't any credentials available for veterinary assistants. NAVTA says that most receive on-the-job training, though the organization has recently created a training program for the role.
Veterinary Practice Manager (CVPM)
While a clinic's veterinary practice manager might not be directly involved in pet care, they play an important behind-the-scenes role. As with veterinary assistants, not every veterinary hospital will employ a practice manager and they're more common in larger facilities.
Veterinary practice managers oversee the business side of running an animal hospital. Their duties can include:
- Budget and inventory management
Veterinary practice managers can become Certified Veterinary Practice Managers (CVPM) through the Veterinary Hospital Managers Association. Applicants must pass a written exam to become certified and complete continuing education hours to keep their credentials.
Receptionist/Client Service Representative
We would be remiss if we didn't mention one of the most important (but often overlooked) roles in veterinary clinics. Receptionists are typically the first and last point of contact for pet parents. They schedule appointments, answer questions, check in patients, and handle other clerical tasks that keep the clinic running smoothly.
Common Veterinary Hospital Credentials
Individual members of the veterinary health care team aren't the only ones who can earn credentials. The hospital itself can become accredited and even certified with one of these designations:
American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) Accreditation
Accreditation with the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) is voluntary. Currently, about 15 percent of U.S. and Canadian veterinary hospitals have earned the designation. AAHA says that accreditation candidates are evaluated on approximately 900 quality standards that encompass all aspects of veterinary medicine, and those that earn accreditation are regularly updated to ensure they stay on the forefront of the profession. Hospitals must also undergo comprehensive onsite evaluations every three years to maintain their AAHA credentials.
Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society (VECCS) Certification
The mission of the Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society (VECCS) certification program is to raise the standard of patient care in emergency and critical patient care facilities. Hospitals are designated as Level I, Level II, or Level III facilities based on their operating hours, equipment, and personnel—with Level I being the highest possible designation. Certification is determined by a committee that evaluates the hospital's facilities, infrastructure, business hours, ER and ICU staff credentials, staff schedules, ongoing training and education, medical records, equipment and supplies, reference books, and resources.
Fear Free Certified Practice
The Fear Free program focuses on the emotional wellbeing of pets and provides education on how to reduce their fear, anxiety, and stress. Veterinary professionals, pet professionals (like trainers and groomers), and even veterinary practices can become Fear Free Certified. To earn certification, practices must ensure that at least 25 percent of their staff are actively Fear Free certified, implement a comprehensive set of practice standards, and complete a successful visit with a practice certification veterinarian.
Cat Friendly Practice (CFP)
Created by the American Association of Feline Practitioners and the International Society for Feline Medicine, the mission of the Cat Friendly Practice Program is to reduce the stress of veterinary care for both cats and their caregivers. The program consists of a 125-point checklist that gives practices a guide to better feline care, and practices can achieve either CFP Silver or Gold status. Veterinary professionals can also earn a Cat Friendly certificate.
Understanding these professional designations can help you find the pros who are the right fit for your pet when they need medical attention.