If some of your best friends are animals or you love helping animals, then a career as a veterinarian may be right for you. Veterinarians are highly educated professionals dedicated to animal health. Though the public is most familiar with those who diagnose and treat their pets, medical veterinarians also specialize in:
- Farm animals
- Wild animals
- Marine animals
- Zoo animals
- Animal research field
No matter which specialization is most appealing, the job outlook is extremely strong as pet ownership continues to grow and Americans spend increasing amounts on their companion animals. Additionally, all veterinarian positions earn a generous income, with a median salary of $99,250, and many specialist positions earning substantially more.
Jump To A Section:
- What Does a Veterinarian Do?
- Veterinarian Salaries and Career Outlook
- How to Know if You’d Enjoy Being a Veterinarian
- How Long Does It Take to Become a Veterinarian?
- Steps to Becoming a Veterinarian
- Best Veterinarian Degree Programs
- Veterinarian Resources
What Does A Veterinarian Do?
Veterinary responsibilities vary based on the career. Companion animal and food animal veterinarians focus on direct care for the animals that they see, conducting well checkups, administering protective vaccines, diagnosing and treating illnesses, and performing surgery when needed. They prescribe medication, perform and order diagnostic tests, perform dental procedures, and euthanize animals.
By contrast, food safety and inspection veterinarians focused on protecting the human food chain from major animal diseases through inspection, testing, and research. They develop and provide medications, vaccines, and programs that improve animal health and welfare and work to prevent and control diseases that can spread from humans to animals.
Veterinarian skills and tasks can include:
- Maintaining animal health by diagnosing and treating diseases or injury through a combination of examination, medication, therapy, or surgery.
- Preventing and treating diseases such as rabies and heartworm through testing, medication, and vaccination.
- Advising owners on care, feeding, exercise and sanitation to promote the health of their animals.
- Maintaining documentation regarding individual animals.
- Preparing and publishing information to update animal owners regarding infectious diseases, feed recalls, availability of new vaccines or treatments, and more.
- Reporting diseases to public health officials as appropriate.
Veterinarian Salary And Career Outlook
While veterinarian salaries vary depending upon the specialty that is chosen, the geographic area, and the specific work environment, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that veterinarians earn a median annual income of $99,250.
According to Televet, an industry platform, veterinary specialists have the opportunity to earn substantially higher incomes, with Veterinary Ophthalmologists earning annual incomes of over $199,000, Veterinary Pathologists earning $157,000, and Lab Animal Specialists earning $169,000. Even the lowest-paid veterinary specialist, Veterinary Radiologists, earn an average annual salary of $121,000, though it is important to remember that these high salaries are accompanied by the need to work nights and weekends.
In addition to a generous salary, veterinarians and others involved in pet-related fields are able to feel extremely confident in their job stability. Though projections can’t be viewed as a guarantee, the Bureau of Labor Statistics is anticipating job growth of 17 percent from 2020-2030. This is largely driven by a 56% growth in pet ownership in 1988 to 70% in 2021, according to the 2021-2022 APPA National Pet Owners Survey.
How To Know If You Would Enjoy A Job As A Veterinarian
Though the most obvious trait for becoming a veterinarian is a love of animals, there is a lot more to the career than just spending time with dogs and cats. Veterinarians need to be mentally nimble enough to quickly access their extensive education, knowledge, and experience through an endless array of conditions and situations. You need to remain calm in emergent situations while at the same time reassuring your patient – and your patient’s owners. Excellent communication skills are a must.
The best veterinarians have empathy for the animals they’re treating and their owners. The job requires careful listening, the ability to ask probing questions, keen powers of observation, and deductive reasoning — after all, your patients can’t tell you what is hurting or why they are acting the way that they are.
Being a veterinarian also has certain physical requirements. You need to be physically strong enough to manage your patients and have the manual dexterity needed to perform surgery and other tasks.
How Long Does It Take To Become A Veterinarian?
As is true for doctors who treat human patients, becoming a doctor who treats animal patients represents a significant investment of time and effort. Earning a four-year undergraduate degree is just the start.
After earning a bachelor’s degree, prospective veterinarians then move on to veterinary school, which takes an additional four years. Those who are interested in pursuing a specialty like ophthalmology, radiology, dentistry, or surgery should anticipate another two years of training conducted in residency programs that expose them to the techniques necessary to their practice. All-in-all, most veterinarians spend between 8-11 years preparing for their careers.
How To Become A Veterinarian
Veterinarians are highly respected both for what they do and for the significant amount of knowledge and education that they possess. The minimum amount of education required to earn a DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine) degree is eight years, with specialists spending additional time acquiring knowledge and experience. Those willing to put in the time and effort are rewarded by a career that is meaningful and fulfilling.
Step One: Earn A Bachelor’s Degree
The first step to a career as a veterinarian is earning a bachelor’s degree. Because basic biology, chemistry, and math classes are likely to be prerequisites for admission to veterinary schools, it’s a good idea to include them in your curriculum, but there is no need to major in those subjects.
Most veterinary schools welcome students who come to them with diverse areas of knowledge, so prospective veterinary school applicants can feel free to study whatever they find most appealing.
Step Two: Apply To Vet School
Admission to veterinary school is extremely competitive, so whatever your undergraduate major you should work to maintain excellent grades. It is also helpful to pursue activities that demonstrate your sincere interest in animal health. Some ideas include:
- Volunteering at an animal shelter
- Helping to care for laboratory animals within your college’s science department
- Participating in 4-H programs
Many programs require that applicants take the GRE exam and achieve a minimum score, and most use the centralized application service operated by the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges.
In addition to academic achievement, veterinary programs want confirmation that applicants are well-suited to the profession. They may assess personality through one-on-one interviews, essay submissions, and the content of personal referrals submitted from educators and employers. The characteristics that they value the most include compassion and resilience, as both are needed to meet the needs of patients and to withstand the stress that can come with the job.
Step Three: Gain Experience
Unlike physicians who care for human patients, veterinary school graduates are not required to participate in internships or residencies before they begin to practice (unless they choose to pursue a specialty). They will, however, need to apply for state licensure wherever they intend to work. This generally entails proof of graduation from an accredited veterinary school and passing the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination.
Best Degrees To Become A Veterinarian
There is only one degree path to becoming a veterinarian. Students must earn a bachelor’s degree from an accredited undergraduate program and must earn a DVM degree from an accredited veterinary school.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association’s guide for aspiring veterinarians, having a deeply-held love for animals is far more important than what major a student chooses to pursue as an undergraduate degree. Still, majors like psychology that provide insight into pet owners’ personalities, or animal behavior to help interpret what is going on with their patients, may prove particularly useful to a veterinarian.
Similarly, those choosing to work in an area with a large immigrant population may benefit from studying the language that is most commonly spoken in their community. Degrees like biology and chemistry can also teach valuable skills.
Best Veterinarian Schools
There are 32 accredited or accreditation-pending veterinary medicine programs in the United States, and graduating from any of them will provide you with the education and knowledge you need to become a veterinarian. Of these 32, Universities.com has identified ten that have distinguished themselves. They are:
With locations in Philadelphia and Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, the University of Pennsylvania was founded in 1884 and is recognized internationally as a leader in veterinary education, research, and care. The school offers students the ability to work with animals ranging from companion animals to agricultural animals, as well as avian, exotic, and sport animals. Approximately 120 students graduate each year.
The Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences offers a professional DVM program that encompasses large and small animal clinical sciences, as well as integrative biosciences, veterinary pathobiology, and veterinary physiology and pharmacology. The program is one of the oldest and most prestigious in the country. Approximately 130 students graduate each year.
Established in 1899, the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine has its own veterinary teaching hospital and several campuses that provide its students the ability to work with companion animals, horses, livestock, and exotics, and to learn hands-on at primary-care veterinary clinics in the area. Their mission is to improve the lives of animals and people through enhancing health and wellbeing. Approximately 125 students graduate each year.
Based in Gainesville, Florida, the program’s goal is to provide graduates with both academic and clinical skills needed to work in clinical practice as well as industry, government, or biomedical research. The program also offers a unique veterinary public health program and degree that is a collaboration between the College of Veterinary Medicine and the College of Public Health and Health Professionals. Approximately 111 students graduate each year.
The Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University offers a professional DVM program, dual degree programs that combine practice with research, and master’s-level graduate programs in Animal and Public Policy, Conservation Medicine, and Infection Disease and Global Health. Approximately 100 students graduate each year.
Minnesota’s only veterinary school, the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine was established in 1947. It is nationally and internationally recognized for teaching and research excellence and its dedication to transforming knowledge into better health for animals, people, and the environment. It offers a DVM program as well as MS and PhD programs and dual degree programs. Approximately 100 students graduate each year.
Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine provides hands-on instruction from the first day of class and all the way through clinical rotations. Students spend most of their early training in a state-of-the-art educational space and move on to providing primary care training in the Frank Stanton Veterinary Spectrum of Care Clinic during their fourth year. They also participate in research and are offered invaluable education in business. Approximately 150 students graduate each year.
Combining academic study with clinical skills training, the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis program begins with a broad foundation of knowledge and skills in comparative veterinary medicine, then asks students to choose a species-specific stream in small or large animals. Later they can narrow their focus further to small animal, large animal, equine, livestock, zoologic, or mixed animal practice, as well as poultry, laboratory animal, aquatic medicine, pathology, public health or research. Approximately 130 students graduate each year.
The College of Veterinary Medicine has three departments: Biomedical and Diagnostic Sciences; Large Animal Clinical Sciences; and Small Animal Clinical Sciences. The program’s first year emphasizes basic science, while the second and third years emphasize the study of diseases, their causes, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. The curriculum includes small group applied learning exercises, dedicated clinical experiences, and elective course opportunities focusing on specific educational and career goals. Approximately 85 students graduate each year.
The School of Veterinary Medicine’s program provides an understanding of the normal animal and instruction in recognition of disease conditions through academic and clinical experiences. Significant instruction is provided surrounding career specialties, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills to maximize effectiveness, as well as basic managerial skills, instruction in husbandry and management practices of food animal production, and the opportunity to understand the relationship of veterinary medicine to public health. Approximately 80 students graduate each year.
Where Can I Learn More About Becoming A Veterinarian?
Veterinarians play a key role in the quality of life of domestic animals and their owners, wild animals, marine animals, and others, as well as in the areas of public health, the food chain, and more. If you are interested in learning more about the profession from those in the know, contact any of these organizations:
- American Veterinary Medical Association
- American Animal Hospital Association
- American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges
- American Holistic Veterinary Medicine Association
Becoming A Veterinarian FAQs
Becoming a veterinarian requires graduating from a four-year undergraduate program and a four-year veterinary medicine program. In addition to that eight-year investment of time, some veterinarians choose to pursue specialization through another 2-3 years of internship.
Salaries depend upon numerous variables, including the type of organization a veterinarian practices in and where in the country they are located. The median annual salary for a veterinarian is $99,250, though specialty veterinarians can make significantly more.
Most veterinarians spend their time caring for animals. This includes conducting well check-ups and seeing them when they are sick or injured, diagnosing their illnesses, and treating them through medication, therapy, or surgery.
The median annual salary for a veterinarian in the United States is $99,250.