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Everything you need to know about becoming a veterinarian 

When a person is sick or injured, they go to see a doctor. When a pet or other animal is sick or injured, they see a veterinarian. In the same way that a doctor diagnoses and treats ailments in people, a veterinarian does the same for animals. 

What does a veterinarian do?

Veterinarians care for all types of animals — pets, livestock, zoo animals, and even wildlife. They examine, diagnose, and treat a variety of illnesses, injuries, and other ailments.

Veterinarians can choose to specialize in the care of a certain species or group of animals. For example, some veterinarians specialize in treating large farm animals like horses or cows, while others may focus on treating different types of reptiles like snakes and lizards. Some veterinarians may choose to further specialize in the field and focus on specialized surgeries, emergency medicine, research, and even food safety and inspection for livestock.

Veterinarians may provide any of the following services for their animal patients:

  • Perform routine health exams on pets, zoo animals, and farm animals. 
  • Administer vaccinations to protect pets and other animals against disease.
  • Instruct owners on proper care, health, and safety for their animals including food and housing.
  • Treat and dress animal wounds.
  • Prescribe medications for animals.
  • Perform and analyze laboratory tests such as x-rays, blood tests and biopsies to make diagnoses. 
  • Provide dental care for animals.
  • Surgically repair broken bones, injuries, failing organs, and other ailments which require surgery.

How do you become a veterinarian?

It usually takes at least 8 years to become a veterinarian — 4 years of undergraduate study and 4 years of veterinary school. Some veterinary specialties, however, may require additional training and several more years of school.

Future veterinarians must first obtain a Bachelor’s degree prior to applying for veterinary school. While there is no specific degree required, many schools have prerequisite requirements for courses like biology and chemistry. Similar to admittance to medical school, veterinarians must go through a competitive admissions process to get into an accredited veterinary school program. 

Applicants to veterinary school should possess the proper prerequisites, have a solid GPA, and submit scores for the requisite entrance exams like the Graduate Records Examination (GRE), depending on the school’s requirements. Prior experience with animals through volunteer work at shelters or veterinarian clinics, as well as participation in programs like 4-H or the National FFA Organization can also be helpful for applicants.

In veterinary school, future veterinarians will earn a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree. Prior to practicing as a veterinarian, these professionals must also first obtain a license in the state they wish to work in, which may require passing additional examinations.

After veterinary school, there are multiple specialty programs, recognized by the American Board of Veterinary Specialties (ABVS), which veterinarians may choose to pursue through additional education, internships, and residency programs. These specialties include anesthesia, neurology, pathology, surgery, and many, many more. 

What skills do you need to become a veterinarian?

Much like doctors or dentists, veterinarians will learn many technical skills necessary in their field while in veterinary school. They’ll learn how to operate a variety of medical equipment needed to examine and treat animals including x-ray machines, ultrasound machines, and surgical tools. 

The technical work of a veterinarian requires tremendous focus and patience to execute. However, as veterinarians do work with patients who cannot speak directly to them, the ability to exercise qualities like compassion, empathy, observation, and problem-solving skills are key. The ability to communicate effectively with pet owners and the other humans who care for their animal patients is also a skill that veterinarians need in order to properly diagnose and treat animals.

What is the average salary for a veterinarian?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary for a veterinarian was $99,250 in 2020. Veterinarians working in specialty hospitals earned well above average at $154,310 annually.

Veterinarians who practice in New Jersey, Maryland, and the District of Columbia earned the highest average salaries in 2020, according to BLS data. Those working in New Jersey earned the most with an average of $128,430 annually.

What is the typical career path for a veterinarian?

The career path of a veterinarian will depend heavily on which type of animal care they choose to specialize in and the type of work environment that they wish to have. They can own their own practice, perform surgeries in an animal hospital, travel from place to place working with different types of animals, or focus on research in the field.

Veterinarians most often work in private practice (either that they own or with a group of other veterinarians) with pets like dogs and cats or in an animal hospital setting, but there are a variety of other places where veterinarians can work.

Veterinarians can also care for animals in zoos and aquariums, animal shelters, on farms and within wildlife preserves. Some veterinarians may also choose to work in laboratories, research facilities, or teach about veterinary medicine in colleges and universities.

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