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Veterinarian Career Guide

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. These professionals may treat many different types of animals or specialize in specific animal species, such as cats and dogs, horses, beef cattle, or birds. 

The role is necessary for maintaining the health and welfare of animals, ensuring they receive appropriate medical care. They contribute to individual animal well-being and play a significant role in public health, food safety, research, and environmental conservation. Their work is valuable to pet owners, farmers, public health officials, and society as a whole.

Duties and responsibilities

Veterinarians, much like medical doctors, may perform various duties and handle many different responsibilities. Their most common job functions 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 typical 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.

These professionals 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 must communicate effectively with them. They must also have good technical skills as they take x-rays and use ultrasound, MRI, and CT scanners. Problem-solving skills are essential to diagnose patient conditions and implement 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. Their work environment depends on the types of species they treat and their type of veterinary specialty. 

Veterinarians in clinics work inside, treating patients and performing surgeries. Those who work outside, typically treating horses and other livestock, usually travel to farms and stables and may have to perform surgeries under unsanitary conditions. Those in research commonly work in lab and food-processing plants.  

Working in this role 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. 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 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. Despite the job’s demands, this career offers the rewarding opportunity to contribute to animal health and welfare, and by extension, to human health and the environment.

How to become a veterinarian

Becoming a veterinarian is a long journey that involves extensive academic study, hands-on clinical training, and a passion for animal health.  The path to this career is rigorous and requires a deep commitment to the sciences and a readiness to devote many years to education and training. Here is a step-by-step guide to becoming a veterinarian.

Step 1: Obtain a bachelor’s degree

Your journey starts with obtaining a bachelor’s degree. While there’s no specific major required for admission to veterinary school, a degree in a science-related field such as biology, animal science, or chemistry can provide a strong foundation. Make sure to take courses required by veterinary schools, which usually include biology, chemistry, physics, nutrition, and animal science.

Step 2: Gain experience with animals

Veterinary schools look favorably upon applicants who have practical experience working with animals. This could include volunteering or working at animal shelters, farms, stables, veterinary clinics, or research labs. Such experiences enhance your application and help you confirm your interest and commitment to this career.

Step 3: Pass the Graduate Record Examination (GRE)

Most veterinary schools require applicants to submit scores from a standardized test like the GRE, although some schools may accept MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) scores instead. Preparing thoroughly for this test is crucial, as a good score can improve your chances of admission into veterinary school.

Taking online courses is an excellent way to prepare for standardized tests. You may want to consider the following options:

  • Offered on Udemy, this GRE Complete Prep course is a great choice for those seeking a high score on their GRE. You will be taught everything you need to know in order to pass, from the basics to advanced concepts and strategies.
  • If you’re worried about the math section of this exam, check out the course called GRE Math Prep. With over 500 solved questions and practice quizzes, you’ll learn to solve even the most complex problems easily.
  • The Premium Prep Course is another great option when studying for the GRE. This comprehensive, fully-animated course will help you confidently take the exam and achieve your maximum potential score. 

Step 4: Earn a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree

Once accepted into veterinary school, you’ll spend the next four years earning your DVM degree. The curriculum typically includes two to three years of classroom and laboratory work, followed by clinical rotations during the final years where you’ll get hands-on experience diagnosing and treating animals.

Step 5: Pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination (NAVLE)

After earning your DVM, you must pass the NAVLE to become a licensed veterinarian. This comprehensive exam tests the knowledge and skills necessary to practice veterinary medicine effectively.

Step 6: Consider a specialty

While not required, some specialize in areas such as internal medicine, surgery, dermatology, or exotic animal care. Specialization requires additional years of residency and passing a board certification examination in the chosen specialty.

Step 7: Apply for jobs

With your DVM degree and NAVLE passage, you can start applying for jobs. Whether you’re interested in working in private practice, for a government agency, or in a research institution, tailor your resume and cover letter to the specific job posting and emphasize your academic achievements, clinical experience, and any specialty training you might have.

How much do veterinarians make?

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

Highest paying industries

  • Veterinary Care – $140,320
  • Boarding Kennels and Grooming Salons – $112,950
  • Social Advocacy – $119,150
  • Support Activities for Animal Production- $110,030
  • Zoos and Aquariums – $110,990

Highest paying states

  • Hawaii – $129,834
  • Massachusetts – $118,467
  • Nevada – $117,651
  • Rhode Island – $116,235
  • Oregon – $114,509

Browse veterinarian salary data by market

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. 


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


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.


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.


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


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


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


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


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


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.


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.  


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


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


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.

Top skills for veterinarians

Veterinarians play a crucial role in healthcare for animals. They diagnose and treat diseases, perform surgeries, and provide preventative care and education to pet owners. Success in the profession requires strong medical knowledge, communication skills, problem-solving abilities, manual dexterity, and compassion.

Medical knowledge is the foundation of a veterinarian’s skill set. They need a deep understanding of animal physiology, disease processes, and surgical techniques, which is critical for diagnosing illnesses, devising treatment plans, and performing medical procedures. A knowledgeable vet can provide effective care and improve the health outcomes for their animal patients.

Communication skills are vital to explain complex medical conditions and treatment options to pet owners who may lack basic animal health and care knowledge. They also need to communicate effectively with veterinary technicians, assistants, and other healthcare professionals. Strong communication can lead to better understanding and cooperation from pet owners and more efficient teamwork in the veterinary practice.

Problem-solving abilities are another key skill for these professionals, who often encounter complex cases and need to determine the best course of action based on the available information and resources. They must be able to think critically, make sound judgments, and adapt to unexpected situations. This ability to solve problems effectively can lead to better patient care and more successful treatment outcomes.

Manual dexterity is essential, as many of their duties, such as performing surgeries and administering treatments, require a steady hand and precise movements. Good manual dexterity can improve the success rate of procedures, minimize the risk of complications, and ensure the safety and comfort of animal patients.

Finally, compassion is a must for any veterinarian. They work with animals who may be stressed, scared, or in pain, and with pet owners who may be anxious or upset. Vets must show empathy and kindness in these situations, providing reassurance and support. A compassionate veterinarian can make the experience less stressful for the animals and their owners, fostering trust and strengthening the human-animal bond.

Veterinarian career path

The career path for a veterinarian often begins with an entry-level role in an animal care setting, such as a veterinary assistant or veterinary technician. This experience provides a practical understanding of animal care and veterinary practices.

Upon earning a DVM degree and achieving state licensure, you can start practicing as a veterinarian. As a new vet, you’ll likely work under the supervision of more experienced colleagues and gradually take on more responsibility as you gain confidence and expertise.

With several years of experience, you may specialize in a specific area of veterinary medicine, such as surgery, internal medicine, dermatology, or emergency and critical care. This typically requires additional education and certification but can lead to more advanced roles and increased earning potential.

After a substantial period of successful practice and with demonstrated leadership skills, you may progress to a senior veterinarian or veterinary medical director role. These roles often involve overseeing the medical operations of a veterinary clinic or hospital, mentoring junior veterinarians, and making key decisions regarding animal care and treatment protocols.

Ultimately, some professionals may choose to open their own practice, while others might move into roles in veterinary public health, academia, research, or the pharmaceutical industry.

The veterinary profession is evolving due to technological advancements, changes in societal attitudes toward pets, and emerging challenges in public health. One significant trend is the increasing use of advanced diagnostic and treatment technologies in veterinary medicine. This includes digital imaging, minimally invasive surgical techniques, and telemedicine platforms. These professionals are expected to be proficient in these technologies and use them to provide high-quality care.

Another key trend is the humanization of pets, which has led to a greater demand for specialized and premium veterinary services. More pet owners are willing to invest in preventive healthcare, advanced treatments, and specialty services for their pets, creating new opportunities for veterinarians.

These professionals also play a crucial role in addressing public health issues, such as zoonotic diseases, food safety, and antimicrobial resistance. This has increased the demand for veterinarians in non-traditional roles, such as public health, research, and policy-making.

Employment projections for veterinarians

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the overall employment of veterinarians will increase by 19% through 2031, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. 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. 

Veterinarian career tips

Develop strong communication skills

As a veterinarian, you’ll regularly interact with pet owners, staff, and other professionals. Effective communication is vital to delivering quality care and building strong relationships. This includes explaining complex medical conditions and treatments and showing empathy and understanding when dealing with worried or distressed pet owners.

Cultivate a compassionate demeanor

Compassion is a fundamental trait for a success in this role. You’ll often be dealing with sick animals and their anxious owners. Showing empathy, understanding, and genuine care can make a meaningful difference in these situations.

Stay updated with advancements in veterinary medicine

Veterinary medicine is a rapidly evolving field, with new treatments and techniques constantly being developed. Staying updated with these advancements can enhance your ability to provide the best possible care for your patients.

Build a professional network

Networking can provide opportunities for learning, collaboration, and career development. Consider joining professional organizations related to veterinary medicine, such as:

  • American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)
  • World Veterinary Association (WVA)
  • American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA)
  • Veterinary Medical Association Executives (VMAE)

Improve stress management skills

Working as a veterinarian can be emotionally challenging and stressful. Improving your stress management skills can help you maintain your well-being and perform at your best, even in difficult situations.

Commit to continuous learning

Continuous learning is paramount in the field of veterinary medicine due to ongoing changes in treatments, technologies, and best practices. Here are some suggestions for continuous learning:

  • Attend veterinary conferences and workshops
  • Participate in continuing education courses
  • Read the latest veterinary research in academic journals

Enhance decision-making abilities

In this role, you’ll often need to make quick and difficult decisions about an animal’s treatment. Enhancing your decision-making abilities can help you make the right choices under pressure, ensuring the best possible patient outcomes.

Nurture a detail-oriented approach

Attention to detail is crucial in veterinary medicine, where small details can make a big difference in a patient’s diagnosis or treatment. By nurturing a detail-oriented approach, you can improve the accuracy and effectiveness of your work.

Develop business acumen

If you’re planning to run your own veterinary practice, developing business acumen is important. This includes understanding how to manage a budget, market your services, and manage staff. Consider taking courses in business management or seeking mentorship from a successful veterinary practice owner.

Maintain physical fitness

Veterinary work can be physically demanding, often requiring long hours, and the ability to lift or restrain animals. Maintaining physical fitness can help you carry out these tasks effectively and reduce the risk of injury.

Where the veterinarian jobs are

Top companies

  • Banfield Pet Hospital
  • VCA Animal Hospitals
  • BluePearl
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture
  • National Veterinary Associates

Top states

  • California
  • Texas
  • Florida
  • New York
  • Pennsylvania

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • LinkedIn
  • AVMA Career Center
  • iHireVeterinary


What qualifications are typically required for a veterinarian role?

To become a veterinarian, you typically need a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM or VMD) degree from an accredited college of veterinary medicine. Admission to veterinary school is competitive and generally requires a bachelor’s degree and completion of prerequisites in science courses. After earning a veterinary degree, all states require passing the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination, and some states have additional requirements for licensing.

What skills are important for a veterinarian?

Important skills include strong problem-solving skills, as they need to diagnose complex medical problems in animals that can’t communicate what they’re feeling. Communication skills are also crucial, as these professionals must communicate effectively with pet owners about treatment options and care instructions. They should also have strong manual dexterity for performing surgeries and other procedures, and emotional resilience, as they often deal with stressful situations, such as euthanizing animals or dealing with distressed pet owners.

What are the typical duties of a veterinarian?

Their typical duties include conducting examinations to diagnose illnesses and injuries in animals, administering vaccines to prevent diseases, performing surgeries, and educating pet owners on general care, medical conditions, and treatments. They also often prescribe medication and treat wounds. Some may specialize in a particular type of veterinary medicine, such as small animal practice, large animal practice, wildlife medicine, or research.

What role does a veterinarian play in public health?

Vets play a crucial role in public health by controlling animal and human diseases, ensuring the safety of food supplies, and promoting conservation. They conduct research to prevent and treat animal diseases, many of which can spread to humans. Those who work in food safety and inspection ensure that animal products destined for human consumption are safe.

What’s the difference between a small animal veterinarian and a large animal veterinarian?

Small animal veterinarians typically work with pets such as dogs, cats, and small mammals, while large animal veterinarians treat livestock and other large animals, such as horses and cows. Large animal veterinarians often travel to farms or ranches, and they focus more on herd health management as well as individual animals. On the other hand, small animal veterinarians typically work in clinical settings and interact more with pet owners.

What is a specialty in veterinary medicine?

A specialty in veterinary medicine is a focus area that requires additional training and certification beyond the general veterinary degree. These specialties include internal medicine, surgery, dermatology, ophthalmology, oncology, and more. To become a specialist, they typically need to complete a residency program in their chosen specialty and then pass a board certification exam.

What ethical considerations must a veterinarian keep in mind?

Veterinarians, like all medical professionals, face various ethical considerations in their work. They must ensure they provide the best possible care for their patients while also considering the wishes and financial constraints of the pet owners. They also often face ethical decisions related to end-of-life care and euthanasia. Additionally, vets are responsible for reporting cases of animal abuse or neglect and must adhere to laws and regulations associated with the practice of veterinary medicine.

What are some challenges a veterinarian might face?

They can face various challenges, including dealing with emotionally difficult situations, such as sick or dying animals, and managing the stress of emergency or high-stakes situations. The high cost of veterinary school and the potential for student loan debt can also be challenging. Vets also often need to manage business and administrative tasks, especially if they own their practice.

What’s the role of a veterinarian in animal behavior and training?

In animal behavior and training, they might diagnose and treat behavioral problems, provide advice on basic training, or refer pet owners to qualified animal trainers or veterinary behaviorists. They can help determine if a behavior is normal or indicative of a medical problem, and they may prescribe medication if appropriate.

How does a veterinarian participate in wildlife conservation?

Contributing to wildlife conservation in several ways, they can work in zoos or wildlife rehabilitation centers, where they treat injured or ill wildlife and work to reintroduce animals into their natural habitats. They may also be involved in research related to wildlife diseases, population management, or the impacts of environmental changes on wildlife health. Some work with conservation organizations or government agencies to develop and implement wildlife management and conservation plans.