Veterinary Referral: When Should I Ask for a Second Opinion?

So, your pet is experiencing a rather complicated issue and while you really like and trust your veterinarian, you are wondering if bringing some additional expertise and experience to bear on the problem might be in order. Or, after a number of treatment attempts, your pet is still not responding as hoped or planned.  

Your veterinarian is by no means giving up, but now you are becoming a bit uneasy about “trying something different.”  What do you do now?  Are you wrong to want to pursue a second opinion or a referral? Are you a bit worried about hurting your veterinarian’s feelings? By seeking another opinion are you, in essence, implying that your veterinarian is “in over his or her head?”  

Absolutely not!

When might I get a second veterinary opinion?
Sometimes, despite everyone’s best efforts, your pet doesn’t respond to treatment and an accurate diagnosis of the problem is proving elusive. In this case, there is nothing wrong with asking for a second opinion. There is an accepted etiquette and possibly a few rules involved in the process, but, in my opinion, second opinions or referrals are sometimes completely appropriate.

I am, very happily so, the quintessential general practitioner—a “jack of all trades,” yet a master of none. Having been in practice for almost 30 years, I think I’m pretty good at what I do. But sometimes I encounter some very challenging cases.  When I encounter difficult cases, involving a specialist can help me and my client get to the bottom of the issue. Sometimes, when I can tell my client is beginning to have doubts, I’ll actually recommend that a second opinion be sought even though I am totally confident and comfortable that I am on the right track.

Second opinions: veterinary specialists versus other general practitioners
When I recommend a second opinion, which is usually the case, I always advise that my clients see an appropriate specialist for the problem at hand. Potential specialists include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Surgeons
  • Internist
  • Neurologist
  • Dermatologist
  • Ophthalmologist
  • Oncologist
  • Dentist
  • Behavior specialist  

Occasionally, my client will ask for a second opinion, and I have no problem with accommodating. However, I typically recommend that you visit a specialist rather than another general practitioner.

I don’t think it is necessarily productive to make a lateral move from one G.P. to another. If the case is a challenging one, the chances of another general practitioner solving the case after a thorough work up from your original G.P. will be much less than a specialist’s chances of solving the case. If you want to make a move, it’s best to move upwards (to a specialist)—not laterally (to another general practitioner). Practically speaking, it will be money better spent.

Obviously, veterinarians are in business to help your pets, we like to see our patients responding positively to treatments. We really want to do what is best for them. The way I see it, by referring a case to the appropriate specialist, everyone wins.  If that specialist is able to make the correct diagnosis or choose the correct treatment path, then (of course) the patient wins, you will be happy, and you’ll thank your veterinarian for making the referral.  If the case is so challenging that it even stumps the specialist or is a case where the specialist confirms your own veterinarian’s diagnosis, then you’ll have a new appreciation for your veterinarian. You’ll know that he or she did a very thorough job on a case that was even difficult for the specialist.  

So if the situation should ever arise that a case involving your beloved pet isn’t proceeding as planned, do not hesitate to ask for a referral, preferably to a specialist.  

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian -- they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.

The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author's and do not necessarily represent the beliefs, policies or positions of, IDEXX Laboratories, Inc. or its affiliates and partner companies.

Reviewed on: 
Monday, May 5, 2014