Become a Small Animal Veterinarian in 5 Steps

Explore the career requirements for small animal veterinarians. Get the facts about job duties, education requirements, licensing and job outlook to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Animal Care degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does a Small Animal Veterinarian Do?

Small animal veterinarians work with dogs and cats, as well as other types of pets such as birds, rabbits and ferrets. Becoming a veterinarian who focuses on these animals requires completing vet school and obtaining a license.

Small animal veterinarians educate pet owners on preventative health measures, such as diet and vaccinations, and diagnose and treat any illness or injury an animal may have. This can include dressing wounds, running medical tests, performing surgery, prescribing medication and in extreme cases, euthanizing the animal.The following chart gives an overview of what you need to know about entering this field.

Degree Required Bachelor's degree usually required; Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree
Education Field of Study Veterinary medicine
Key Skills Provide medical & wellness care for pets; educate pet owners on animal care
Licensure/Certification Required Licensing required by all states, specifics vary; optional board certifications available
Job Growth (2014-2024 ) 9% for all veterinarians*
Average Salary (2015) $99,000 for all veterinarians*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What Is a Small Animal Veterinarian?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the majority of practicing veterinarians work with small animals and domestic pets, including cats, dogs, birds and rabbits (www.bls.gov). As a small animal veterinarian, you will diagnose medical conditions, administer vaccines and medications, treat wounds and set fractures. Other duties may include performing surgical procedures and educating animal owners about pet care topics.

Step 1: Complete Veterinary School Prerequisites

Veterinarians must earn a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree from an accredited school before treating animals. Although many of these schools do not require an undergraduate degree for admittance, you may choose to enroll in a science-related bachelor's degree program or take courses such as physiology, physics, genetics, embryology and biochemistry. The BLS reports that if you haven't earned a degree, you may have a harder time getting into a veterinary program. To be accepted into a DVM program, veterinary schools will require you to earn between 45-90 undergraduate course credits, and you must also take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).

Step 2: Apply to a Veterinary Medicine Program

Currently, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) accredits only 30 veterinary medicine programs in the United States (www.avma.org). Because of this, admission into these programs is often very competitive. If you have a strong educational foundation and previous experience working with animals, you might hold an advantage over other applicants. An efficient way of applying to veterinary medical programs is through the Veterinary Medical College Application Service, which allows students to apply to multiple schools with one standardized application (www.aavmc.org).

Step 3: Earn a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine Degree

Once in a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program, topics you may study include animal anatomy, immunology, surgical procedures and diagnostic imaging. Under the supervision of a licensed veterinarian, you will also have an opportunity to treat actual animals in the clinical portion of the degree program. You can usually obtain your DVM degree in four years.

Step 4: Become Licensed

Veterinarians in all states are legally required to become licensed before finding work. Although specific requirements may vary, most states require completion of a DVM degree program and a satisfactory score on the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam (NAVLE) before you can practice veterinary medicine. The NAVLE exam, administered by the National Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, consists of 360 multiple-choice questions that will test your knowledge of animal care procedures (www.nbvme.org). States may also require you to pass additional exams relating to state laws and policies.

Step 5: Practice as a Small Animal Veterinarian

The AVMA estimates that nearly two-thirds of veterinarians work in a company or privately owned clinical practice. You might begin your small animal veterinary career by seeking employment at an established group practice. With experience, you could choose to eventually open your own clinic. You may also continue your education and become board-certified in a specialty such as internal medicine, animal behavior, dentistry, surgery or preventive medicine.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

There are a few related careers in the medical field that require a doctoral or professional degree. Medical scientists work to improve human health. They conduct clinical trials and other research projects to advance various areas of the medical field. Physicians perform similar tasks as veterinarians, but work with human patients. They diagnose and treat a wide variety of illnesses and injuries. Surgeons are also similar, but specialize in surgeries. They operate on patients to fix torn tissue or broken bone, remove tumors, correct deformities and more.

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