For a lot of people, animals are a part of their lives. They’ve grown up wrestling with the family dog, teaching a parrot to talk, maybe even being nuzzled by horses. For people who have grown up loving animals, working to help them is the most logical career in the world. A veterinary career takes more than just caring for animals, however: it takes time and dedication. "Being a veterinarian is a wonderful job, and an extremely rewarding one, but it definitely has its challenges," says Dr. Merry Crimi, a practicing veterinarian and former president of the American Animal Hospital Association. "You are working with pet owners who are under a lot of stress, handling animals that are sometimes dangerous, performing detective work on patients that can’t describe what’s wrong, and mixing with all of that the management of large staffs, finances, technical equipment and physical facilities. It requires great personal commitment, focus and flexibility."
What Makes a Good Veterinarian?
It takes a range of skills to work well as a veterinarian. Veterinarians have to be good at science, so that they can diagnose problems and recommend treatment. They also need to have the patience to work with animals that can’t say what’s bothering them. And they need the people skills to work with veterinary technicians, animal owners, other veterinarians, and a slew of other people that communicate with veterinarians on a daily basis. "It’s an interesting job," says Dr. Crimi. "You’re a scientist, a team leader, a social worker and a health care provider. You’re a lot like a pediatrician, but you have to know and be able to treat a variety of species."
How to get there
However you decide you want to be a veterinarian, your best plan is to start early. If you are still in junior high or high school or haven’t begun your undergraduate career yet, you can start by focusing on math and science. Chemistry, physics and biology classes will give you a solid foundation in the kinds of knowledge you need. You can also get some experience with animals in a professional setting by working as an assistant at a veterinary practice or volunteering for a local shelter or humane society. Not only will this give you practical and technical knowledge that can help you in veterinary school; it will also show you how veterinarians work on a day-to-day basis and what treating animals is like.
When you go to college for your undergraduate degree, you’ll want to participate in a preveterinary program. Though some schools do not offer preveterinary studies as a major, most schools have organizations and programs to help students prepare for veterinary school. If you don’t know of any preveterinary programs at your school, you can talk to an advisor or professor in your college’s science department and ask for help in choosing classes and a major. Most preveterinary programs include classes in the humanities, communications, social sciences, mathematics, chemistry, biology, and physical sciences. Completing these courses won’t guarantee that you’re qualified to enter every veterinary school, however. Each veterinary college sets its own entrance requirements. It’s a good idea to look at the requirements of the different veterinary schools when you begin your undergraduate work, so that you can plan ahead and take all the classes you’ll need to get into your favorite school.
With about 30 accredited veterinary schools in the United States, there is a lot of competition for places in the programs. To be accepted, students generally have to maintain a grade point average of B or higher, particularly in their science courses. Applicants also have to take an admissions exam--either the Graduate Record Exam, the Veterinary Aptitude Test, or the Medical College Admission Test, depending on which schools they apply to. Schools also usually look for at least 180 hours of experience working with animals, which you can obtain through internships or work at veterinary clinics or volunteering for rescue organizations or humane societies. Veterinary schools consider all these factors, as well as letters of recommendation and an interview, when admitting students.
Once You’re In
Getting into veterinary school can be a very exciting time. It means the beginning of a lot of work and experience. In their first year or two years, students usually spend most of their time in the classroom and the laboratory, developing a strong foundation in veterinary medical science. They study subjects such as biology, anatomy, pathology, pharmacology, physiology, and microbiology. They begin to learn the basics of patient care and treatment from faculty in a classroom setting.
In the second part of their graduate education, veterinary students learn mostly in a veterinary teaching hospital or clinic. They begin treating animals and interacting with clients directly. Initially they have a lot of supervision from attending veterinarians, but they work more independently as they gain experience. They learn to perform surgery and laboratory and diagnostic procedures. At the same time, they have to continue with classroom work and complete projects, which usually means a lot of evening and weekend time spent at the library and at home during research. Veterinary school can be difficult and demanding, because students have to become familiar with all the subject matter of general medicine, including internal medicine, diagnostic and clinical pathology, obstetrics, oncology, radiology, surgery, anesthesiology, gerontology, orthopedics, preventative medicine, dentistry, nutrition, infectious and noninfectious diseases, and behavior. They also have to learn how to treat a huge range of animal species, from horses to guinea pigs. Finally, they have to study the non-medical aspects of practicing veterinary medicine, including business, management, professional ethics, and public health.
Veterinary students do an immense amount of work and cover a lot of ground over their years in graduate school, and finally it pays off. After somewhere between three to five years, depending on whether they choose to study a specialty or participate in special programs, students that fulfill all of their school’s requirements receive a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree.
Doctors fresh out of veterinary school have a huge range of options. First off, they can go into private practice, which is what the majority of veterinarians do. To go into practice, as for nearly every other career option, veterinarians need to become licensed in their state. Each state has its own examinations and other requirements for a veterinary license; most require veterinarians to keep their education up to date with continuing education.
Once they’re licensed, veterinarians can join a private practice, where they treat the pets and/or livestock of people in their community. These are the veterinarians most people are familiar with. Usually, recent graduates begin by joining an established practice as an employee. They can also participate in internships or residencies, where they commit to spending a certain amount of time studying and working at veterinary college teaching hospitals or large veterinary practices. Once they have some experience, they can consider opening their own general practice or buying into an established practice. They can also choose to specialize in one field, such as orthopedics, oncology, neurology, internal medicine, emergency medicine, or one of many others. This requires two to five years of additional training in a residency program and an examination with a specialty board.
If they choose not to go in to private practice, veterinarians can become instructors. This generally requires that they earn a master’s degree or PhD. Then they affiliate themselves with a veterinary school where they perform research and teach. There are also a lot of positions available for veterinarians with the government, where they can work to keep diseases from spreading among animals and people. Veterinarians are needed at zoos, pharmaceutical companies, and veterinary supply companies, in wildlife management, in laboratories that use animals for research, in the Army and the Air Force, and even in the space program. There is virtually no limit to what someone with a doctorate in veterinary can do. Anywhere there are animals, veterinarians have work to do.
Regardless of what path you choose in your career, there is a world of options open to you. A love for animals can bring you a lifetime of demanding and exciting work. In the words of Dr. Crimi, "With a sincere passion for animals and the way they touch human lives, a veterinarian can work on any continent of the world, with any culture of people, in any capacity and with any species of animal. It’s no wonder we think it’s the best career in the world!"
For a list of AAHA-accredited teaching hospitals, please click here.