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What is a Veterinarian?

A veterinarian is a healthcare professional whose entire education and practice is focused on animals. They diagnose, treat, and research healthcare issues for cats, dogs, snakes, and all other animals. Veterinarians chiefly are found caring for pets, but they might also work with professional working animals such as racehorses, racing dogs, milk cows, cattle, and zoo animals. They must therefore have a vast body of knowledge, though most will have specific training to treat specific species; this is especially true when it comes to working animals and exotic species.

A brief list of Veterinarian specialty areas includes:

  • Avian Practice – Birds
  • Canine Practice – Dogs
  • Feline Practice – Cats
  • Beef Cattle Practice
  • Dairy Cow Practice
  • Reptile and Amphibian Practice
  • Swine Health Practice
  • Veterinarians are primarily known to work in clinics, but many vets are found in less-pubic environments. Vets help protect public health by preventing diseases that might spread from animals to humans, researching animal disease and health, and even ensuring the health of agricultural animals so that humans are protected.

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Steps to Becoming a Veterinarian

You should start your path to working in veterinary medicine by discovering a true love of animals. You also need to have an objective, scientific mind that loves animal biology. Since animals are incapable of speaking, you should in some way become an advocate for them and have a special sort of demeanor that puts them at their ease. Once you know that veterinary medicine is for you, apply to a school that offers a Pre-Veterinary Medicine program. From there, you will need to complete veterinary school, a residency, and then you can launch your career.

  • Step 1: Is this for me?

  • Step 2: Pre-Veterinary Medical Education

  • Step 3: Veterinary Medical School & Veterinary Educational Assessment

  • Step 4: Licensure Exam & Licensure


Step 1: Is this for me?

Some say that veterinarians are not made, they are born. Indeed, most veterinarians have a special love for animals that begins its expression in childhood. You should have such a love for animals and a passion for their health and welfare. This is not to say that you must be an animal rights activist, but you should still have a fantastic, even uncanny, rapport with animals to work in veterinary medicine. You must also have a great facility for science, and a passion for healing. There are many ways to qualify this drive, so it's most important to have the personal confidence that this career is for you.

Step 2: Pre-Veterinary Medical Education

You'll start your veterinary medicine education in an undergraduate Pre-Veterinary Medicine program. These veterinary medicine programs are often pre-planned for you so that you stay on track with your core curriculum as well as your major field. You should be aware, however, that your courses might or might not meet the requirements for your desired Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program. Thus, you should pre-plan for this by determining your ideal veterinary school as well as your specialty area(s). That's not to say that all is lost if you change your mind. It is always possible to take the extra courses you need to suit your desired program, it will just take you a bit longer.

During your studies, you might take Veterinary courses such as:

  • Animal Breeding
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Organismal Biology
  • Animal Feeding and Nutrition
  • Pertinent, Prescribed Electives

Keep in mind that Organic Chemistry is a course that is notorious for causing trouble for medical and veterinary students alike. If you can get a head start on the material, you should do so at your earliest convenience. You might also find a solid group of fellow Pre-Vets who would like to form a study group to tackle Organic Chemistry, and other courses.

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Step 3: Veterinary Medical School & Veterinary Educational Assessment

Now you're on your way to becoming a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. When you choose a DVM program, you will want to investigate their courses and specialty courses. After all, those will determine much of your career path. You should also check out what percent of their graduates are able to pass their NAVLE examinations. They should also be accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association, Council on Education (COE).

Your DVM program will likely take up to four years to complete and the curriculum is bound to be fairly restricted to the courses you need. A few courses you might be required to take include:

  • Large Animal Medicine
  • Practice Management
  • Gross Anatomy
  • Immunology
  • Veterinary Virology
  • Principles of Surgery

After your second year, your program might ask that you take the Veterinary Educational Assessment (VEA.) This test codifies your general medical knowledge and is a checkpoint that covers science and pre-clinical subjects such as:

  • Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Pharmacology
  • Microbiology
  • Pathology

In your fourth year, however, you will be able to investigate specialty areas. You might take specialty courses such as:

  • Clinical Cardiology
  • Pet Practice
  • Equine Dentistry
  • Wildlife Safari
  • Ornamental Fish Medicine

Step 4: Licensure Exam & Licensure

Examinations are a huge part of most any professional path that requires state or federal licensure. To become a licensed veterinarian, you must pass the NAVLE exam. This test contains 300 items. 280 of the items are divided equally between Data Gathering and Interpretation, and Health Maintenance and Problem Management. Specific test areas include:

  • Recording Pertinent Information – 11 items
  • Differential Diagnosis List – 47 items
  • Implement Plan of Action – 47 items
  • Assess Outcome – 29 items
  • Professional Behavior, Communication, and Practice Management – 20 items

The NAVLE is offered at two times per year: spring and autumn. The testing windows are rather narrow, so make sure to clear your schedule for this extremely important part of your veterinary career.

Once you pass the NAVLE examination, and submitted your scores to the state board, you will need to make sure that you satisfy all of your state's specific requirements. Some states might ask that you take a rather short ethics exam. Other states require four hours of HIV/AIDS training. You will also need to submit your transcripts, and possibly include a letter of recommendation.

What Does a Veterinarian Do?

As a Veterinarian, you will spend your days examining, diagnosing, and treating various animals that are covered in the scope of your practice. Your daily appointments might include routine check-up examinations, critical emergency visits, and operations of various sort. For instance, you might regularly schedule operations to spay or neuter dogs and cats. You might also have less routine procedures to perform as well. Sometimes animals eat things they shouldn't, which then require human extraction.

Though we commonly think of Veterinarians practicing in a stand-alone clinic, you might take your practice into a zoo, horse stables, farms, or diagnostic laboratories. Other vets make a practice in public health and thus spend their days in offices. Yet another option, among many, is to work in research. Researchers could work in a laboratory or even outdoors, collecting data on animal populations.

Skills to Acquire

Veterinarians need a host of skills. You are sure to acquire skills throughout your education. Here is a brief list of the skills you might need to develop as a vet:

  • Diagnostic skills
    All vets need to be able to discern what is wrong with an animal, despite the animal's inability to communicate. Further, different species will display their symptoms in different ways, some that are direct and others that require professional discernment.
  • Surgical skills
    As a veterinarian, you will need to understand how to sedate and prepare an animal for surgery. You must also be skilled with a scalpel and have a very steady hand as well as a comprehensive knowledge of contemporary surgical technologies and procedures. Lastly, you must also know when a surgery is actually necessary.
  • Communication
    You will need to be able to communicate effectively with your staff, patients, and their owners. That is, you must be able to work with animals when they are in a state of extreme stress. You must also be able to communicate very good and bad information to the owners.
  • Business skill
    If you open your own clinic, you must be able to market and manage that business. Until you establish a solid office manager, you will also need to conduct employee interviews and manage personnel information.

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Veterinarian Career & Salary

Where Might You Work?


Veterinarians can work in a wide range of environments. You could have your own clinic that you manage as the head veterinarian. You could also join a veterinary practice as a partner. Other vets work in diagnostic laboratories, research labs, or cattle ranches.

In fact, the USDA hires veterinarians more than any other single employer. USDA Veterinarians are hard at work protecting the human population from animal diseases. For instance, veterinarians were instrumental in shielding the human population from Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, otherwise known as Mad Cow Disease. You can also work in the armed forces. The Army and Air Force both own animals that serve the nation in various capacities.

Potential Career Paths

If you have a love for animals and science, there are many different routes for you to take. The following list contains jobs that ask for similar skill sets and aptitudes as those needed by veterinarians. Consider the following alternative career paths:

You can work as a microbiologist that specializes in animal pathology. For instance, you might investigate the bacteria in cow intestines to help reduce their methane output, thus slowing global warming. On the other hand, you could work on new approaches to parasitical infection.

While animals have no need for vision correction, you could work to help humans with their vision issues. Whether you help young people with their early onset myopia or older patients who suffer with cataracts, you will improve the outlook of many patients.

Physicians and Surgeons:
To become a physician you will need to complete a similar educational path as that of a veterinarian. However, you will specialize on the human body and all that ails it.

Zoologists and Wildlife Biologists:
In this occupation you will study how animals interact with their environments. Since our climate is currently undergoing dramatic changes, you will have a lot to study, and your field is likely experiencing an increase in demand.

Veterinary Technologists:
If you want to eventually become a veterinarian, this is a great first job to have. You will need an associate degree, but you will be able to work with animals upon intake to your clinic. Your insights and opinions will be passed on to the veterinarian who will make a final diagnosis.

Military Veterinarian:
The military has a great demand for veterinarians. Soldiers in combat zones need bomb sniffing dogs, and veterinarians are also a great help on humanitarian missions. For instance, farmers in developing nations may have work animals that need care, or you could help improve the health of dairy or meat-producing species. You could even serve in a way similar to typical civilian vets and care for the domestic pets of families on military bases.

Veterinarian Career Salaries

Occupation Entry-Level Mid-Career Late-Career
Marine Biologist $50,000 $54,000 $77,000
Veterinarian $72,360 $119,100 $201,440
Veterinary Assistant $28,550 $36,440 $46,630
Veterinary Nurse $24,000 $48,000 $89,000
Veterinary Surgeon $81,000 $105,000 $122,000
Veterinary Technologists/Technician $21,000 $34,000 $59,000
Wildlife Biologist $36,000 $51,000 $79,000
Zoologist $38,000 $55,000 $88,000

**Salary info provided by PayScale

Career Outlook

The career outlook for Veterinarians is quite rosy these days. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the field is slated to grow by 20% through 2032. That is a growth rate they characterize as much faster than average, and they say that job prospects are very good. Veterinarians also make healthy salaries. The median salary for a veterinarian in 2023 was $119,100. Considering that if you go into a private practice that you are able to grow, that number could be doubled or more.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Advancing From Here

Once you become a veterinarian, you will have achieved the top credentials for your profession. That is not to say that you cannot continue to grow in your field. If you go to work for the USDA, you could continue to gain raises and promotions, or you could exit the federal system and open a private practice.

If you are in private practice, you could seek to grow that business by hiring more veterinarians who may have different skill sets and specialties. You might work with dogs and cats, but you can then bring in a partner who adds an equine or reptilian practice.

In fact, you could expand your own practice by gaining credentials to care for new species as your community demands. Alternately, you could gain a new agricultural specialty and use that on special humanitarian missions through the Peace Corps or a faith-based mission. No matter the direction you choose, growing a veterinary practice is sure to be rewarding on multiple levels.

Where do food animal veterinarians work ?

Food animal veterinarians are responsible for the animal welfare of farm animals that are raised to be used for food. Food animal veterinarians work on farms and ranches to help ensure animal health and food safety by treating animals that are ill or injured. Food animal veterinarians also protect livestock and animal products by testing and vaccinating farm animals.

What are companion animal veterinarians?

Companion animal veterinarians provide general animal health care to small animals that are typically house pets. Companion animal veterinarians diagnose illnesses, treat wounds, perform surgeries, prescribe medications, and administer vaccines.

What do laboratory animal caretakers do?

Laboratory animal caretakers are responsible for bathing, feeding, and providing exercise for animals. Laboratory animal caretakers are also responsible for keeping exam and operating rooms, kennels, and cages clean. They may also need to help restrain animals during exams and procedures.

What is a laboratory animal caretaker?

A laboratory animal caretaker is responsible for taking care of animals used for scientific research. The laboratory animal caretaker will ensure animal welfare and prepare for animal health problems.

How much does a laboratory animal caretaker make?

A laboratory animal caretaker will make around $30,000 annually.

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