From time to time your pet’s illness or symptoms may fall outside the expertise that can be provided by your general practice vet. To offer your pet the best possible care your vet may ask your permission to refer your pet to a specialist or referral centre. 

In this article, we will look at what referral is, why it is needed and how this works.

What is a referral?

Referral is a process whereby professionals work together to provide the best available care for your pet. A specialist is a vet that has undergone extensive training in a specific area or discipline, for example, surgery, and has considerable experience in that area. The services offered by referral centres will vary from practice to practice depending on their specialisms, equipment and facilities. Most centres have access to specialist equipment that is not available in general practice. 

Why does my pet need referring?

There are many reasons why your vet may recommend referring your pet to a specialist. The reasons will be individual to you and your pet. Examples might include: 

  • Complex surgical procedures that your general practice cannot provide or when specialist equipment is needed, for example, for spinal surgery.
  • If specialist imaging is required for diagnosis, for example, CT or MRI scans.
  • Second opinions in complicated or unusual cases.
  • Treatment of exotic species (such as rabbits and reptiles) with unusual conditions.

How does referral work?

Your vet will inform you if they believe your pet needs referring. Only your vet can refer your pet to a specialist. It is not possible for you to book an appointment with them directly. This is because referral centres offer specialist treatment only and therefore if you’re concerned about whether referral is necessary, you will need to discuss this with your own vet first. If your vet does not recommend referral and you’re still concerned, you may wish to seek a second opinion.

Once a referral has been agreed your vet will contact the specialist or referral centre to discuss your pet’s condition. Your vet will send a copy of your pet’s medical history for their assessment. Your vet may charge for this service. Depending on the referral centre, they will either call you to arrange an appointment or it may be that you need to call them – your own vet will be able to advise further. The referral centre will discuss their processes with you thoroughly before you arrive for your appointment. 

Pets can be referred for specialist consultations or they may be scheduled to stay in for a day or two for further investigations or procedures. Your own vet will be able to give you an estimate of how long they suspect your pet may need treatment for, but your specialist will give you all the information after your consultation. 

If your pet’s condition is an emergency, then your vet will communicate with the referral centre urgently. If the case is accepted, you may be asked to arrive at the referral centre immediately.

Where is the referral centre?

There are referral centres all over the country. The referral centre your vet recommends will depend on the expertise and equipment needed. Occasionally you will need to travel some distance to get your pet to the most appropriate referral centre. If you have concerns about getting your pet to the referral centre, please contact your vet and they’ll be able to advise further.

What happens when I am at the referral centre?

Referral clinics operate differently and will vary depending on the circumstances of the referral. When the first contact is made between you and the referral centre, this is an excellent opportunity to ask any questions you might have about the process. The centre will not be able to comment on your pet’s condition until your pet has been examined. If you still have questions or do not understand something relating to your pet’s condition, it is best to speak to your own vet.

Once you are at the referral centre your specialist will have access to your pet’s medical records and they will then examine your pet. They will discuss with you the treatment options, initial costs and expected outcomes. If you decide to go ahead you will be asked to sign a consent form. 

The centre will keep you updated with regards to your pet’s condition. If you wish to visit your pet during their time at the referral centre, then this must be pre-arranged. It is unlikely that unscheduled visits will be accommodated since these can interfere with the daily running of the centre.

Once your pet has been assessed and treated by the specialist, the referral centre will send your vet a referral summary. In many cases, your follow-up visits (if required) will be with your own vet. Your specialist will let you know if they need to see your pet again.

Am I going to be able to afford it?

Specialist treatment is typically more expensive than you might be used to. The referral centre will provide you with an estimate for anticipated costs. From time to time, unexpected costs can arise, but the centre will keep you updated should anything change.

Most pet insurance policies will cover the cost of specialist treatment. For your reassurance, and as best practice for any condition your pet may have, it is important to discuss any potential treatment with your insurance provider, as soon as possible. This discussion helps ensure that your pet is covered for the condition in question. 

If you have concerns about the type of cover in your policy, you can ask your referral centre about pre-authorisation. Pre-authorisation is a process whereby the vet presents the likely condition and treatment needed for your pet, to the insurer for their confirmation of coverage or otherwise. This may take a few days to set-up, so it is important to arrange this in advance of your visit to the referral centre.

You should be aware of any limits on your policy as costs for specialist treatment may exceed the limit. If you are concerned, you should discuss your financial situation with both your own vet and the specialist.


Referring your pet to a specialist is sometimes necessary if your pet’s condition cannot be treated by your own vet. This is to offer your pet the best possible care. If your pet requires a referral and you are uncertain about something, contact your veterinary practice who will be able to help.