Careers in Veterinary Medicine

When most people think about working with animals, the first job they consider is "veterinarian." After all, many children's first contact with a professional concerned with animal welfare is on a trip to the family vet.

For anyone who wants to help animals by preventing and treating illnesses and injuries, considering veterinary medicine is a logical step in thinking about possible humane careers. And once you see how many career choices exist in the field, it may look even more attractive.


Veterinarians play an important role in preserving the bond between people and their pets. A veterinarian should be a pet's next best friend - a competent professional, wise counselor, and compassionate listener who is committed to caring for pets and educating people about their responsibilities as pet owners. People want from pets what pets want from people -companionship. Healthy, well cared for pets are more likely to live indoors and be included in human activities. Dogs and cats not spayed or neutered or lack veterinary care are at higher risk of being given up to an animal shelter. Pets that have been spayed or neutered tend to be more gentle and affectionate; do not suffer from diseases of the reproductive systems, and do not contribute to the tragedy of pet overpopulation. Veterinarians who refuse to perform unnatural and unnecessary cosmetic surgeries, such as ear cropping of dogs and declawing of cats when done solely for the convenience of the owner and without benefit to the animal, champion humane veterinary medicine.

Most veterinarians work with small animals such as dogs, cats, birds, and small mammals in privately owned veterinary practices. Some veterinarians work in animal shelters, humane societies, and animal protection organizations. Others work with larger animals, such as horses, farm animals, laboratory animals, or animals at zoos and aquariums. A number of veterinarians engage in research or education and sales and technical support. For positions in research and teaching, a master's or Ph.D. degree is usually required. Veterinarians who seek specialty board certification in fields such as dermatology, radiology, or surgery, must complete two to five year residency programs and must pass an examination.

Others may find a career with a state or federal agency as regulatory agents charged with the responsibility of controlling livestock diseases and making sure those diseases don't affect the public, or for city, county, state, or federal agencies in pubic health as epidemiologists charged with investigating outbreaks of diseases, checking the safety of water supplies, or working on immunization and quarantine programs. Veterinarians are also employed in private industry in pharmaceutical companies, biomedical research firms, and pet food companies in technical support, management, and clinical research. A book about non-traditional veterinary careers in international work, pharmaceutical companies, government, non-profits, and animal is Career Choices for Veterinarians: Beyond Private Practice by Carin A. Smith.

Job Options for Veterinary Medical Doctors

Private practice 72.9%
College or university teaching 6.1%
Pet food, pharmaceutical, or other industry 2.4%
Federal, state, or local government 2.1%
Other 16%

2004 Data from American Veterinary Medical Association.

By far, the majority of veterinarians work in private practice. But few clinics treat every type of animal.

  • Small animal vets see mostly dogs and cats, plus small mammals and caged birds.
  • Large animal vets may treat horses, cattle, sheep, and other livestock.
  • Wildlife veterinarians often work for wildlife sanctuaries, treating injured and ill wild birds, mammals, and even reptiles.

Types of Clinical Veterinary Practices

Small animal 75.1%
Large animal 9.4%
Small and large animal 8.2%
Horses 4.8%
Wildlife and other 2.5%

2004 data from American Veterinary Medical Association.

The type of practice may affect a veterinarian's earning potential.

Speciality Earnings
Private Clinical Practices $46,399
Large Animals $48,303
Small Animals,exclusively $48,178
Small Animals $46,582
Large Animals, predominantly $45,087
Mixed Animals $43,948
Equine $34,273

2002 data from Labor Department Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Specialists often earn more - but they also need additional education and training. Veterinary specialties include:

  • Anesthesiology
  • Animal behavior
  • Dentistry
  • Emergency Care
  • Oncology
  • Microbiology
  • Nutrition
  • Phamacology
  • Epidemiology
  • Surgery
  • Toxicology

To discover which type of veterinary medical career might interest you the most, read the career profiles.

You don't have to be a veterinarian to help improve animal health. Clinics and other places that employ veterinarians also hire other types of workers such as

  • Veterinary technologists
  • Veterinary assistants
  • Animal caretakers
  • Animal behaviorists
  • Pharmacologists
  • Business managers
  • Clerical workers
  • Research biologists
  • Acupuncturists

Education and Background

Students interested in a career in veterinary medicine should take science and math courses in junior and high school. Most students who decide to pursue this career obtain a three or four year college degree in a biological science and then go on to veterinary school. Completion of preveterinary requirements established by each veterinary college does not guarantee admission, which is highly competitive. In 1998 about one in three applicants were accepted into veterinary school.

There are 27 schools of veterinary medicine in the United States accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Most are located at state universities, and residents of that state make up the largest number of applicants accepted. In most colleges of veterinary medicine, the professional program lasts four years. In the beginning, most of the students' time is spent in the classroom and laboratory studying such subjects as anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, and microbiology. These are followed by courses in pathology, radiology, anesthesiology, surgery, preventive medicine, diseases, toxicology, professional ethics, and business practices in the classroom and through hands-on clinical experience.

Students who receive a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M.) or Veterinary Medical Doctor (V.M.D. is conferred by the University of Pennsylvania) degree from an accredited college of veterinary medicine must pass standardized national exams as well as state exams before being licensed to practice veterinary medicine. Veterinarians must pass the state exam and be licensed in each state in which they practice. To maintain their licenses, veterinarians may be required to attend continuing education courses.

Learn more about careers in veterinary medicine:

Check out these Suggested Readings:

Sirch, Willow Ann. 2000. Careers with Animals. Fulcrum. (Part Two: Careers in Veterinary Medicine).

Croke, Vicki. 2000. Animal ER: Extraordinary Stories of Hope and Healing. Plume Books.

Gutkind, Lee. 1998. The Veterinarian's Touch: Profiles of a Life Among Animals. Owl Books.

Karesh, William. 2000. Appointment at the Ends of the World: Memoirs of a Wildlife Veterinarian. Warner Books.

Fact Sheet

Find out more about a one or two-week program offered by Tufts University for middle school, high school, college students, and adults. Adventures in Veterinary Medicine includes clinical and surgical rotations with fourth-year veterinary students, hands-on exercises with animals, discussion, and practical advice about preparing for the challenge of being accepted to veterinary school.

Also see FutureVet, an educational partnership program between
the American Veterinary Medical Association and the Banfield Charitable Trust.