Veterinarian How to become, career path, income potential

What is a veterinarian?

A veterinarian is a medical professional who cares for the health and well-being of animals in much the same way a doctor does for people. They examine patients, diagnose diseases, perform surgery, treat sick and injured animals, and advise owners on the proper care and feeding of animals. A veterinarian may treat many different types of animals or may specialize in specific animal species, such as cats and dogs, horses, beef cattle, or birds. They use much of the same modern medical equipment and surgical tools as doctors, including X-rays, ultrasounds, and MRI equipment. These professionals can be found working in veterinary clinics, veterinary hospitals, zoos, laboratories, and on farms and ranches. They can also be found teaching in veterinary schools.  

Veterinarians, much like doctors, may perform a variety of different duties and handle many different responsibilities. The most common job functions of this medical professional in clinical practice include treating sick or injured animals, typically cats and dogs, by prescribing medication, dressing wounds, performing surgery, and setting broken bones. They advise animal owners on the feeding and general care of animals. They use diagnostic equipment such as ultrasound and radiography machines and interpret the resulting images. Other common duties include ordering lab tests, assisting in births, performing spays and neuters, performing dental cleanings and tooth extractions, and stitching up wounds. They also may perform humane euthanizations and provide comfort to grieving pet owners.

Veterinarians working in zoos, ranches, farms, stables, and aquariums perform many of the same routine procedures on specific species of animals like cattle, horses, pigs, aquatic mammals, birds, or exotic mammals. 

Qualifications and eligibility

To become a veterinarian, you will need to complete a bachelor’s degree, typically in pre-veterinary medicine, biology, or zoology. Veterinary schools have specific undergraduate course prerequisites, so it is important to make sure you check the requirements for the schools you are interested in attending. Some commonly required courses are chemistry, biology, zoology, physiology, microbiology, and anatomy.

It is highly recommended that you also perform volunteer or part-time work at a local animal hospital or shelter while completing your undergraduate studies. 

After graduation, you may be required to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) before applying to vet schools. Requirements vary by state. Veterinary school is a 4-year doctoral program. You must complete your doctoral degree at an accredited veterinary medical school. Veterinary school training consists of laboratory and classroom work as well as clinical work, where students gain hands-on experience treating and examining animals. Veterinary school is often regarded as being more difficult than medical school, as students must learn the physiology of many species instead of only one. Many students perform internships while attending school in local zoos, animal farms, veterinary hospitals, and clinics.

After completing veterinary school, you are awarded a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree. You then must sit for a state licensing exam before you can practice in that state. Each state has its own licensing board, so check in the state where you live for specific licensure requirements. Most states require that you pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination (NAVLE). The exam consists of analyzing injuries, treating diseases, laboratory procedures, and diagnostic imaging. 

The American Board of Veterinary Practitioners (ABVP) offers board certifications on the care of a variety of animal species, such as avian practice, canine and feline practice, equine practice, and swine health management. The ABVP credential demonstrates your advanced knowledge, skill, and competency in the care of a specific species of animal. Certification is not required, and most general practice medical professionals are not board-certified. Residency requirements for most specialties take up to three years to complete.   

Beyond your education, you will also need skills such as animal handling, excellent dexterity, hand-eye coordination, excellent eyesight, strong analytical and diagnostic skills, good organization skills, and solid communication and interpersonal skills. Veterinarians must be able to explain to animal owners issues, diagnoses, and treatments in terms they can understand. They also work with a staff of assistants and need to be able to communicate effectively with them. They must also have good technical skills as they take x-rays and use ultrasound, MRI, and CT scanner equipment.  Problem-solving skills are essential to diagnose patient conditions and implementing the right treatment plans. 

Work environment

Most veterinarians work in veterinary clinics and typically treat household pets. Others may work in laboratories, university classrooms, the government, or zoos. Others work on farms, at stables, or on ranches. Some may work in the wild or for food preparation inspectors. The environment an individual works in depends on the types of species they treat and their type of veterinary specialty. 

Veterinarians in clinics work inside, treating patients, performing surgeries, and doing paperwork. Those who work outside, typically treating horses and other livestock, usually travel in all types of weather to farms and stables. They may have to perform surgeries under unsanitary conditions. Those in research work in labs. Some inspect slaughterhouses and food-processing plants and write reports on their findings.  

Working as a veterinarian can sometimes be stressful and emotionally draining as they deal with sick and often frightened animals and nervous owners. They may be exposed to diseases, bites, scratches, and other injuries, and may wear gloves and masks when examining patients. Animal clinics can be noisy and full of distinct animal smells, especially those that board animals.

Typical work hours

Veterinarians in clinical practice typically work long and erratic hours. Some work nights or weekends to accommodate patient needs and they may have to respond to emergencies at any time. Those who work in labs or for inspection companies typically work a regular 40-hour week.  

Types of veterinarians

Many people only think of veterinarians as working at the local clinic treating cats and dogs. But there are many different types, from those in private practice to health research organizations to community animal shelters. There are almost as many veterinary specialists as there are in human medicine. The American Veterinary Medicine Association (AVMA) currently recognizes 22 veterinary specialties, including internal medicine, ophthalmology, radiology, and critical care. Most specialties require an additional 2-3 years of residency to complete. 

Anesthesia and analgesia

Although all veterinarians are trained in anesthesia, veterinary anesthesiologists focus exclusively on administering anesthesia and pain management.

Animal welfare

Animal welfare veterinarians specialize in overall animal well-being, combining scientific knowledge with ethical and societal values. 

Behavior

Veterinary behaviorists study animal behavior, develop and use behavior modification techniques, and use medications to treat behavioral issues in animals.   

Dentistry

Veterinary dentists diagnose and treat animals for conditions related to the teeth and the oral cavity. They may perform advanced surgical extractions of teeth or root canals.

Dermatology

Veterinary dermatologists specialize in treating skin conditions in animals. They require advanced immunology and internal medicine training to accurately address skin conditions that may result from other underlying health issues.

Emergency and critical care

Critical care veterinarians handle critically ill patients and emergencies much the same as critical care doctors. 

Internal medicine

Internal medicine veterinarians treat and manage complex conditions affecting the internal organs of animals, typically resulting from chronic conditions.  

Laboratory animal medicine

Lab animal veterinarians study animals such as rodents, rabbits, and primates, in a laboratory setting and ensure that the animals are treated ethically and humanely.

Microbiology

Veterinary microbiologists study infectious diseases in a lab setting. They might specialize in other specialties in bacteriology, immunology, and parasitology.

Nutrition

Veterinary nutritionists are concerned with the diet and nutritional needs of animals. They are often employed to develop healthy, and safe foods for animals. 

Ophthalmology

Veterinary ophthalmologists treat animals with many different types of eye conditions. 

Pathology

Veterinary pathologists analyze and interpret fluid and tissue samples of animals to diagnose diseases.

Pharmacology

Veterinary pharmacologists develop drugs for animals and study the effects of medication on them.

Poultry

Poultry veterinarians specialize in treating chickens, turkeys, and ducks and ensuring the safety of meat and egg products.

Preventive medicine

Preventive medicine veterinarians specialize in recognizing, investigating, and managing animal diseases.

Radiology

Veterinary radiologists use X-rays, ultrasounds, computerized tomography (CT) scans, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to interpret internal issues in animals. 

Sports medicine and rehabilitation

In sports medicine and rehabilitation, veterinarians treat animals after injury or surgery to help them regain health and normal function. Many of these specialists work with dogs or horses.  

Surgery

Although general practice veterinarians perform routine surgeries, including spays, neuters, and dental cleanings, surgical veterinarians perform more complex surgeries. 

Theriogenology

Veterinary theriogenologists focus on all aspects of animal reproductive health, including artificial insemination, pregnancy checks, and surgical procedures.

Toxicology

Veterinary toxicologists study poisons and toxins that affect animals and provide advice on how to treat animals exposed to toxic substances.

Veterinary practitioners

Veterinary practitioners specialize in caring for specific animal species. Common specializations include birds, beef cattle, cats and dogs, reptiles and amphibians, and horses.

Zoo medicine

Zoo veterinarians care for zoo animals, wildlife, and aquatic species. 

Income potential

The earning potential for a veterinarian can vary greatly depending on geographic location, education, experience, and acquired skills.  

  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for veterinarians was $100,370 in May 2021. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $60,760, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $165,600. In May 2021, the top industries for veterinarians were:
    • Veterinary services – $100,460
    • Social advocacy organizations – $99,340
    • Government – $96,120
    • Educational services; state, local, and private – $93,770
  • The 5 states with the highest annual pay for veterinarians are listed as:
    • Hawaii – $119,834
    • Massachusetts – $118,467
    • Nevada – $117,651
    • Rhode Island – $116,235
    • Oregon – $114,509
  • The bottom 3 states are:
    • Florida – $81,540
    • Georgia – $76,025
    • Louisiana – $75,265
  • The highest-paying cities in the US are:
    • San Francisco, CA – $139,434
    • Seattle, WA – $128,114 
    • Philadelphia, PA – $120,325
    • Portland, OR – $118,904 
    • Dallas, TX – $118,876 

Position trends

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the overall employment of veterinarians will increase by 19% from 2021 to 2031, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. An average of 4,800 openings are projected each year. The trend of owners spending more on their pets is expected to continue, as is expanding treatment options.

This combined with a growing pet population is expected to drive the employment growth of these medical professionals. Advancements in veterinary medicine allow veterinarians to offer many of the same types of services doctors provide for humans, including cancer treatments and kidney transplants. 

Career path

Many veterinarians begin their careers working for other veterinarians in animal clinics or assisting other veterinarians in treating livestock. After a few years, many will purchase their own practice. Others continue their education and focus on a veterinary specialization. Still, others decide to teach at a college or university or do full-time medical or agricultural research. Some common career paths for veterinarians include:

Veterinary medicine specialist

With several years of experience and advanced training, you can become board certified in one of the 22 recognized specialized areas of veterinary medicine. Some specializations offer even further specialization, like internal medicine and veterinary practitioners, so you can choose from 41 different specializations. To complete a specialization, you typically must pursue an internship and residency with a board-certified specialist. The American Board of Veterinary Practitioners awards a board certification after the residency requirement is met and you pass a certification exam.

College or university instructor

Teaching is a career path for those who typically already have clinical experience working as a veterinarian. They typically start as assistant professors before advancing to associate professor and full professor positions after several years of teaching experience. 

Medical scientist

Medical scientists conduct research to find ways to treat and prevent diseases in livestock, wildlife, pets, and aquatic animals. They might work in private laboratories, veterinary schools, and government agencies. 

Agriculture or food scientist

Agriculture and food scientists with veterinary experience are usually employed in the public health arena, such as the USDA. They evaluate animal health through inspection, testing, and research to help prevent diseases that can be transferred to humans when the animal is eaten. 

Consultant

Veterinarians can become consultants, giving expert advice to a variety of businesses such as ranches, dairy farms, poultry farms, and meal processing plants. 

Steps to becoming a veterinarian

1. Take the right courses in high school

Students should start preparing for a career as a veterinarian as early as high school by taking mathematics, chemistry, biology, and physics courses to build the foundation they’ll need as an undergraduate and when in veterinary school.  

2. Get a bachelor’s degree

It is recommended that you earn your bachelor’s degree in biology, animal science, wildlife science, pre-veterinary science, or biochemistry. Course study should include chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, molecular biology, biology, physics, and anatomy. 

3. Gain clinical experience

While in college, volunteer at different local veterinarian clinics and animal shelters to gain a wide variety of animal and clinical experience. This will help with your application to veterinary school and give you a good idea of what a career as this type of medical professional will be like.   

4. Take the GRE

Most veterinary schools require that you pass the GRE before applying, although some schools require the MCAT. Check the requirements for the schools you are applying to. 

5. Complete veterinary school

When choosing a dental school, make sure the program is accredited by the Council on Education of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Veterinary school is a 4-year program for full-time students. After completing school, you earn a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM).  

Some of the top veterinary schools in the US include:

6. Get your state license

After earning your DVM, you will typically need to take the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination (NAVLE). After passing the exam, you can apply for your state license. Some states have their own exam and some may have additional licensing requirements.  Check with your state for specific requirements. 

7. Consider a veterinary specialty

About 79% of all veterinarians work as general practitioners, but with additional experience and education, you can gain certification in a veterinary specialty and take your career to an advanced level.   

8. Join a professional veterinary association

Many veterinary associations exist for veterinarians. The benefits of membership typically include access to journals and newsletters, veterinary professionals, published literature on the latest veterinary trends and topics, job opportunities, and a wealth of resources for continuing education. Here are some of the top organizations for veterinarians:

Tips for becoming a veterinarian

If you are planning to become a veterinarian, here are a few tips:

  • Determine whether you have an aptitude for math, science, and medicine. Becoming a veterinarian includes taking a lot of math, science, and medical courses. 
  • Consider the time involved. It takes 8 years to complete a doctorate in veterinary medicine. If you are planning to complete a specialization, it can take 2 to 3 years more. The commitment is big, so make sure you are willing to put in the time.
  • Have a passion to care for, treat, and help animals, as well as compassion and empathy toward sick and injured animals and their owners.  
  • Learn how to communicate. As a veterinarian, you will need to be able to effectively communicate with animal owners, other clients, other veterinarians, and employees.
  • Volunteer in different environments such as animal clinics, shelters, zoos, and aquariums to see what these medical professionals do in these environments and get a better idea of what your career path will look like.   
  • Find internship opportunities. These can greatly expand your understanding of what they do and give you valuable hands-on experience. 
  • Aim for academic excellence. Your GPA will tell a lot about how you will perform in veterinary school and admissions offices look for students with high academic standing.
  • Find a mentor who can help you navigate the path to veterinary school. A mentor can help with letters of recommendation and all the other nuances involved.
  • Make sure you have three excellent letters of recommendation from people who know you well. At least one should be written by a veterinarian. 
  • Prepare yourself financially as becoming a veterinarian is expensive. Research all the scholarship opportunities you can. Look for every resource available to help you pay for school.  

Veterinarian interview questions to expect

  1. How would you handle a situation where an animal’s owner is upset about a diagnosis?
  2. What would you say to an owner who isn’t following your treatment plan?
  3. How well do you know the local wildlife?
  4. Do you have experience working with exotic animals?
  5. What are the steps to perform a spay or neuter?
  6. How often do you believe pets should see a veterinarian? What’s the protocol for a healthy animal?

Veterinarian FAQs