How to Become a Veterinarian in 5 Steps

Explore the career requirements for veterinarians. Get the facts about job duties, education, licensure requirements and job growth 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 Veterinarian Do?

A veterinarian is a medical professional who diagnoses and treats injured or diseased animals. They may specialize in small animals, like pet dogs or cats, or large animals, such as livestock and horses. Veterinarians are trained to operate different kinds of medical equipment, dress wounds, prescribe medication and perform surgery if necessary. They administer various vaccinations to animals, and work with owners to care for and prevent any further illnesses or injuries. These professionals must also be prepared to make the hard decision of euthanizing an animal if no medical options are available. The following chart provides an overview about becoming a veterinarian.

Degree Required Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M. or V.M.D.)
Training Required Residency may be required for certification
Licensure or Certification All states require veterinarians to be licensed; optional board certification is available in 40 veterinary specialties
Job Growth (2014-2024) 9%*
Median Salary (2015) $88,490*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

What Is a Veterinarian?

In the course of examining and diagnosing large and small animals, your duties include operating ultrasound and x-ray machines and interpreting images. You also analyze the results of lab tests on blood, fecal and tissue samples. Veterinarians administer vaccinations, set bones, perform surgery and prescribe medication. When treating animals, you also advise clients on animal care and disease prevention, and you may euthanize animals that don't respond to treatment. Veterinarians also attend veterinary seminars and conferences to stay current on new treatments and diseases.

Your practice could specialize in the care of pets, livestock, wildlife or lab animals. Pets are most often cats and dogs, but they can also include reptiles, birds and mammals, such as ferrets and rabbits. Administration, consulting, research and technical writing are other functions you might perform if you're not directly caring for animals.

Step 1: Prepare in Middle School and High School

You should start preparing as soon as you can by focusing on math and science from middle school onward. Courses in the natural sciences such as biology, chemistry and physics are relevant. Algebra, trigonometry and calculus are recommended as well. Admission requirements for bachelor's degree programs in the natural sciences may even specify completion of high school-level courses in these topics.

Step 2: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Although a veterinary medicine program may not require a bachelor's degree, gaining admission can be very difficult without one. Veterinary schools recommend you earn a degree that includes a distribution of courses and labs in general biology, general chemistry, biochemistry and organic chemistry. Some schools include a pre-veterinary distribution as part of a bachelor's degree in animal science, zoology, microbiology or other subjects. You're also advised to maintain a 3.5 undergraduate grade point average or better.

Step 3: Earn a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) Degree

A 4-year DVM program trains you in the adaptation and application of basic science to the treatment of animals. The first 2-3 years of many programs follow a classroom and lab format. In the final 1-2 years you transition to providing care to animals through a series of clinical rotations.

Courses might include veterinary anatomy, neurobiology, epidemiology and pharmacology. General business courses that help prepare you to manage a private practice are also becoming more common. Most programs have you choose a specialty, either with types of animals -- large, small, equine or livestock -- or in an area of medicine, such as oncology, cardiology or ophthalmology. Some might have you start focusing on a specialty after the first year.

Step 4: Obtain a License

You're not permitted to practice unless you have a license from your state. Licensure requires completion of a DVM program and passage of the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam. The exam consists of 60 pre-test questions and 300 scored questions that test your diagnostic skills and knowledge of animal species and treatment procedures. Some diagnostics-related questions include a chart, drawing, photograph or radiograph.

Step 5: Establish a Practice

Most veterinarians have a private or a group practice, but you can find a small number of employment opportunities with state and federal agencies, social services organizations, research labs and pharmaceutical companies. In 2015 approximately 65,650 people worked as veterinarians, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Figures from the American Medical Veterinary Association show that about 75% of those in private practice treated pets (www.avma.org). For 2014-2024, the BLS projected that employment would grow 9% (www.bls.gov). As of May 2015 you could potentially earn a median annual salary of $88,490, the BLS noted.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Physicians, surgeons and medical scientists are some related careers. All of these professionals need a doctoral or professional degree to work. Physicians perform very similar medical procedures as veterinarians, but on humans. They will diagnose and treat various illnesses and injuries in their patients. Surgeons specialize in treating patients through surgery. They operate on patients to remove tumors, mend broken bones and more. Medical scientists are the professionals behind clinical trials and other medical research that is used to advance human health.

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