How to Become a Veterinarian

Young male veterinarian examining a cat's teeth
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Spending the majority of your adult life taking care of animals may sound like a dream come true, especially if you’ve always been an animal lover growing up. But there’s a lot more to this career than just petting and hugging your furry friends. Becoming a veterinarian requires dedication, patience and a host of other skills that not a lot of people have.

But if you’re serious about being animals’ best friend (see what I did there?), then here are the most important things you should know about this profession.

1. Research the Profession

Before following any career path, it’s important to gather as much as data as you can to make a well-informed decision. To save you some time, we’ve done a bit of research for you.

Job Description

Veterinarians are essentially animal doctors. They diagnose, treat and operate on all kinds of animals from big to small, furry to scaly and everything in between. As much as there are different types of human doctors, there are also many kinds of veterinarians. Here are some of the most popular types:

  • General companion animal practitioners: They’re the most common type of veterinarians and usually work in your local neighbourhood or animal clinic. They diagnose, treat, operate and, as their title suggests, provide general care for most animals. However, their most usual clients are pets. Some practitioners also focus on specific kinds of species such as a birds, cats, dogs or even exotic pets like lizards and snakes.
  • Food safety and inspection veterinarians: They’re the people responsible for making sure that the pig, cow or whatever kind of viand you’re having for lunch is healthy and disease-free. They normally visit slaughterhouses to make sure that all processes and all government regulations are fully enforced.
  • Food animal veterinarians: They usually work with farmers who raise animals that are meant for human consumption. They spend a lot of time in farms and ranches to help farmers raise healthy livestock.
  • Research veterinarians: Also known as laboratory animal vets, their main focus is to prevent and cure diseases that are both present in animals and humans.

While a veterinarian’s responsibilities may change depending on their specialty or area of expertise, their general duties include:

  • treating and diagnosing animals
  • providing preventive care through regular health check-ups and consultations
  • providing advice on proper diet and exercise routines
  • prescribing and administering medication
  • advising clients on proper animal care
  • performing surgery and other services such as spraying, neutering or euthanasia
  • educating the public on diseases that can be caused by or spread through animals
  • determining cause of death through post-mortem analysis.

Essential Skills and Qualities

It goes without saying that to become a veterinarian, you must be an animal lover. To excel in this profession, however, you must also demonstrate the following:

  • patience – some animals are rowdier than others and, oftentimes, their owners more so, so you’ll need patience (and lots of it) to deal with both
  • commitment – a veterinarian’s work hours can get crazy; you’re on call 24/7 and must attend to your patient’s needs no matter what’s going on in your life
  • integrity – you lose any chance of becoming a vet if you don’t have people’s trust, so you must work on it constantly and build it slowly
  • compassion and empathy – you should be able to comfort both the owner and their pet when they visit your office; to do that, you must be able to empathise with how they’re feeling
  • physical stamina – there will be times when you’ll have to deal with larger and less cooperative animals; you must be able to handle them, and being physically fit is crucial in doing so
  • good memory – on your way to becoming a veterinarian, you will be tasked to remember a lot of things, from different animal anatomies to complicated, clinical terms; having good memory skills will help you throughout your entire career
  • customer service skills – there will be times when you’ll meet with negligent pet owners, which can be infuriating to say the least; you must be able to keep your calm and provide the best kind of care you can for their patient
  • time management skills – veterinarians have busy and unpredictable schedules; to achieve an ideal work-life balance, you must be able to juggle everything that’s on your plate
  • communication skills – oftentimes, you’ll have to explain complicated terms to your clients, and you should be able to communicate all that without appearing condescending.

Working Hours and Conditions

Veterinarians have different kinds of offices. Some have their own private practice, others work in local clinics, while others work in zoos or even ranches and farms. However, vets typically spend more hours working than the average employee. They usually clock in at least 50 to 60 hours a week and are typically on call, especially for emergencies. Similar to human doctors, veterinarians have an unpredictable and demanding schedule that can be very challenging to manage.

Salary Prospects

The pet industry’s estimated worth is around $79 billion (£61 billion) and a chuck of that goes to veterinary care.

In the UK, vets starting out in their career typically earn about £30,000. With experience, this can rise to over £50,000 per year.

In the US, meanwhile, a veterinarian earns a median salary of $90,420. This changes depending on work experience and if you have any kind of specialty or taken further studies.

Job Outlook

Now more than ever, people are invested in owning and taking care of their pets, with 44% of millennials even preferring to have them over children. Having said this, the demand for veterinarians is expected to grow by at least 19% more in the next decade.

2. Get the Qualifications

Becoming a veterinarian is no walk in the park. It’s a very competitive industry that sets very high standards and stringent requirements.

In the US, all veterinarians are expected to complete a four-year degree course. While it doesn’t matter what your major is, you will be required to take specific science classes, including chemistry, biology and zoology. To avoid the hassle of taking these classes on top of your usual course load, choose a science degree right from the start.

While in college, you will be expected to maintain a grade point average (GPA) of 3.5 or higher. Normally, you apply to veterinary school during your junior year. The application process involves a series of tests, including submitting paper work, going to interviews and passing the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Because of this strict process, only a chosen few are able to enter vet school. When choosing which school to enter, make sure that it's accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

Veterinary medical education takes four years to finish and that includes a year or so of real-life training with different kinds of animals and animal settings. After getting your DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine) or VMD (Veterinariae Mediciniae Doctoris) degree, you must take another exam to get your licence. The licensing procedures will depend on the state you live in, but most requirements can be found online.

The UK has generally the same standards. You’re required to maintain above average grades and take prerequisite science classes before you’re accepted to veterinary school. However, unlike the US, getting a degree usually takes five years (or more), and there’s only a handful of universities that offer this kind of course. These universities include:

  • University of Bristol
  • University of Cambridge
  • University of Edinburgh
  • University of Liverpool
  • University of London
  • University of Nottingham
  • Royal Veterinary College
  • University of Surrey

After you’ve gotten your degree from your chosen veterinary school, you must register with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS).

3. Get Your First Job

By now we’ve established that becoming a veterinarian is hard, but the good news is that getting your first job shouldn’t be as difficult. To get your first job, your best bet would be to try and apply at your local clinic or pet hospital. Most usually have available openings for veterinarians, and since there’s only a handful who complete this course, having a licence to practise already gives you a foot in the door. At this point, it all comes down to how well you do during your interview.

Veterinary school is very expensive, so while it’s tempting to open your own private practice, we recommend getting some more experience by working for a clinic or a hospital first, instead.

4. Develop Your Career

Like most jobs, you can improve your career by choosing to specialise in a specific field. For example, there are veterinarians who specialise in animal welfare or surgery. Some also choose to focus on a particular practice, which means they will focus on a specific animal species which is why you have feline or canine veterinarians and so on.

You can also develop your career by spending time volunteering in farms or animal shelters that may not have the budget or the means to take care of their animals. Not only will you gain more experience, but you’ll get a better understanding of what it’s like working with different kinds of animals, too.

What kind of veterinarian would you like to be? Let us know in the comments section below.