An orthopedic veterinary surgeon is a medical specialist who provides surgical treatment to animals with disorders of the musculoskeletal system. These surgeons can work with large or small animals, depending on their specialization. Some maintain their own clinics and others may travel to offer orthopedic surgery in areas where a full-time surgeon could not find enough work. To become an orthopedic veterinary surgeon, people must complete veterinary school and a residency in orthopedics, in addition to passing a licensure examination.
Animals are referred to an orthopedic veterinary surgeon when they have musculoskeletal disorders that a general practitioner does not feel comfortable treating, or they are particularly valuable and care of the highest quality is of paramount concern. Many of these surgeons work with horses, with some focusing specifically on care for horses used in racing and high level competition. Horses have notoriously fragile legs and can be subject to severe fractures, bone spurs, and other problems requiring the attention of an orthopedic veterinary surgeon.
The surgeon examines the patient and orders medical imaging studies to see what is happening inside the body. Charts are also reviewed to learn about the animal's medical history and see if other treatments for the disorder have been tried. If the surgeon feels that surgery is an option for treatment, the animal's owner and the surgeon can discuss the available choices and develop a treatment plan together. In emergencies, this process tends to be less leisurely, especially if the animal is in imminent danger.
Working with a surgical team, the surgeon sedates and anesthetizes the patient for surgery. In surgery, orthopedic veterinary surgeons can perform many of the same procedures human orthopedic surgeons do, sometimes using the same tools and devices. This includes everything from hip replacement surgeries to surgical correction, including pinning, of complex fractures. The orthopedic veterinary surgeon will use medical imaging to confirm the accuracy of the placement of any pins and rods before putting a cast around the injury to support it during healing and waking the animal up from anesthesia.
While this specialty initially developed among large animal practitioners working with horses and, to a lesser extent, cattle, it is also available for pets. In the 1990s, veterinary care for cats and dogs improved radically, in part in response to pressure from pet owners who wanted access to more treatment options. Today, very complex orthopedic surgeries are available for companion animals, including procedures to address issues like congenital musculoskeletal defects, or to try and preserve limbs that historically might have been amputated due to the severity of injuries.