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How to Become a Veterinarian

Updated on March 14, 2021
drmiddlebrook profile image

Former university professor of marketing and communications, Sallie is an independent publisher and marketing communications consultant.

A Q & A Session for People Considering Veterinary Medicine

This Hub presents questions and answers to help anyone thinking of pursuing either a first or a second career as a veterinarian. Whether you are considering a new career to replace an old one, or a first career, this Hub may be of interest to you. I’ve edited facts found in different places, such as in the governmental publication called the Occupational Outlooks Handbook, in order to provide answers to common questions about becoming a veterinarian. At the end of this Hub you will find links to other topics I’ve included to shed more light on the profession and/or practice of veterinary medicine.

Q: Is a veterinarian a doctor?

A: Yes, veterinarians are doctors, but they practice in a different field from other medical doctors. The veterinarian works not only with pets, but also with pet owners who may be under a lot of stress. They have to handle animals that are sometimes dangerous, and they must diagnose problems with patients that cannot tell them what’s wrong. In addition, most veterinarians run their own practice and must deal with management and accounting issues and concerns, as well as staff, equipment, and facilities.

Q: What does a veterinarian do?

A: Veterinarians care for the health of animals. The work they do every day involves diagnosing, treating, or researching medical conditions and diseases of pets and livestock, as well as that of animals in zoos, at racetracks, and in laboratories. Veterinarians working in private practice run a clinic where they treat the injuries and illnesses of pets and farm animals. They use a variety of medical equipment, including surgical tools and x-ray machines in their daily practice, and they provide treatment for animals that is similar to what doctors provide to treat humans. Veterinarians typically do the following:

  • Examining animals to diagnose health problems
  • Treating and dressing animal wounds
  • Performing surgery on animals
  • Testing for and vaccinating animals against diseases
  • Operating medical equipment such as x-ray machines
  • Advising animal owners about general care, medical conditions, and treatments
  • Prescribing medication
  • Euthanizing animals

Q: What does it take to become a veterinarian?

A: Veterinarians have to complete a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M. or V.M.D.) degree at an accredited college of veterinary medicine. There are currently only 28 U. S. colleges with accredited veterinary medicine programs. It usually takes 4 years to complete the program which has classroom, laboratory, and clinical components.

Q: Do I need a license to practice veterinary medicine?

A: Yes. All states and the District of Columbia require veterinarians to have a license. Licensing requirements vary by state, but all states require prospective veterinarians to complete an accredited veterinary program and to pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam (NAVLE). The NAVLE is a 360-question, multiple-choice exam, and it can only be taken during two annual windows (periods of time). Prior to practicing in most states, veterinarians must pass not only the national exam, but also a state exam covering state laws and regulations. Few states accept licenses from other states, so those desiring to be licensed in a new state must usually take that state's exam covering laws and regulations relevant to veterinary practice in a particular state.

Q: Is veterinary school a “vocational/technical school” type program?

A: No. Veterinarians are medical doctors whose patients are animals. All medical doctors must attend medical school of some sort. Many people have the mistaken belief that veterinarians complete a "vocational training" type of degree, but that is not the case. To become a doctor of veterinary medicine one must attend and complete a medical school degree program.

Q: Do I need to have a bachelor’s degree in order to get into a veterinary medicine degree program?

A: While a bachelor’s degree is not required, most applicants to veterinary school have earned a bachelor's degree. Applicants to veterinary medical colleges usually have a background including many science classes, such as biology, chemistry, anatomy, physiology, zoology, microbiology, and animal science. Some degree programs also require students to have courses in math and humanities or social sciences.

Admission to veterinary programs is competitive, and, in 2010, less than half of all applicants were accepted.

Q: Why do I need to have completed certain required courses in science, such as biology and chemistry?

A: Those studying veterinary medicine must take courses on normal animal anatomy and physiology, as well as disease prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. Students have to become familiar with everything involved in general medicine. That includes internal medicine, preventative medicine, nutrition, clinical and diagnostic pathology, obstetrics, gerontology, oncology, radiology, surgery, anesthesiology, orthopedics, dentistry, infectious and noninfectious diseases, and behavior. Program requirements are demanding because veterinary students must understand the anatomy and physiology of numerous species. For that, a solid background in the sciences is needed. In addition, programs usually include 3 years of classroom, laboratory, and clinical work. The final year of the 4-year program is usually spent doing clinical rotations in a veterinary medical center or hospital.

In addition to a good background in the sciences, veterinary schools today are including courses in general business management and career development. Since many veterinarians run private practices, these classes help prepare new veterinarians to run a practice effectively.

Q: Do students have to take standardized entrance exams to get into veterinary school?

A: Schools may require certain scores on standardized pre-admission tests such as the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), Veterinary College Admission Test (VCAT) or Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).

Q: Do I need to have previous experience working with animals in order to get into veterinary school?

A: Yes. Most veterinary schools require previous work with animals. You can gain the experience you need through an internship or a volunteering arrangement at an animal shelter, veterinary clinic, zoo, or wildlife rehabilitation center. Some students get their experience from working with livestock on farms.

Q: How long does it take to complete the education requirements to become a veterinarian?

A: Graduates of veterinary programs can begin practicing once they receive their license. Many veterinarians go on to achieve further education and training, such as through a 1-year internship programs. Others, after completing veterinary school and obtaining a license to practice, take advantage of the option to complete either a 3- or a 4-year residency. The residency provides veterinarians the opportunity to specialize, to become an expert in one of the specialties recognized by the American Veterinary Medical Association, such as exotic small animals, oncology, dentistry or preventive medicine.

Q: How much money might someone earn as a veterinarian?

A: According to the Occupational Outlooks Handbook, the median annual wage of veterinarians was $82,040 in May 2010. The median wage represents the “middle” of the wage spectrum. It is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than the amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent of earners brought in less than $49,910, while the top 10 percent raked in more than $145,230.

Average starting salaries for veterinary medical college graduates in 2011 in different private specialties were as follows (results from a survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association): Working exclusively with Food animals,$71,096; working exclusively with companion animals, $69,789; working mostly with companion animals, $69,654; working mostly with food animals, $67,338; mixed animal workers, $62,655, and equine (horses) workers $43,405.

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