A veterinarian has a challenging and rewarding career. It could be ideal for someone that enjoys critical thinking, isn’t afraid of hard work, and of course, loves animals! Learn what it is like to practice as a vet in a typical small animal clinic where dogs and cats are cared for.
Education and Training Requirements
To become a veterinarian, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree, passing a national test, and maintaining a professional license is all required. Veterinary college admissions will usually require a bachelor's degree and the applicant must have completed coursework in animal biology, microbiology, genetics, chemistry, and calculus.
Being accepted into a veterinary school is more difficult than every other medical field, including traditional medical school and dentistry school, due to the small number of colleges that offer a veterinary medical degree. If you are accepted, prepare to study hard. Not only is dogs and cat anatomy, disease processes, surgery, and medical care taught, but veterinarians are also required to know about other species including chickens, pigs, horses, cows, and even rabbits!
The DVM degree typically takes four years to complete. The first three years will be a mixture of classroom lectures, anatomy labs, and microscopy labs to evaluate different cells. The final year includes clinical rotations in a variety of disciplines. One month may be doing surgery, and another spent learning how to do physical exams from a senior doctor- all the hands on skill to prepare you to take your licensing examination. After earning the DVM degree, all veterinarians must pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination and then pass specific state licensing exams. Many veterinarians choose to do an internship in where they get additional hands on training from experienced doctors and refine their skill set. Finally, further education in any veterinary specialty, like dermatology or oncology, requires 3- to 4-year residency programs and additional board certifications.
Where Veterinarians Work
Veterinarians can work in a general practice hospital, emergency and specialist animal hospitals, animal shelters, zoos, or even be mobile and travel from farm to farm. Some veterinarians work in research studying wild animal populations or work with farmers and government agencies keeping our food supply safe. Depending on the setting, this will greatly impact the types of animals they treat. For example, a zoo-based doctor must be familiar with many exotic animals (including insects!) while a local animal shelter veterinarian is likely very familiar with caring for cats and dogs.
The following is an example of a typical day in the life of a veterinarian working in the setting we are all familiar with, a small animal veterinary hospital. However, each day can be wildly different.
The Day Begins
Every animal in the hospital, whether coming in for surgery or if it wasn’t feeling well from the night before, all have a physical exam done so the doctor can create a treatment plan and note any findings. A physical exam includes getting the history from the owner, taking a pet’s vitals, listening to the heart and lungs, and feeling along the body for anything abnormal, like a mass or lump.
Animals that will be having surgery that day are typically admitted early in the morning. After being admitted, pets have blood samples drawn for pre-surgery bloodwork. Bloodwork gives the doctor information on how the body functions internally, information that isn’t possible with just a physical examination. After the lab work is evaluated by the vet, the pet can be prepared for surgery.
Having surgery procedures in the morning allows the patient to recover throughout the day with plenty of staff to monitor progress. Appointments seen later in the morning range from new puppy or kitten visits, vaccinations, sick visits where pets aren’t feeling well, and everything in-between! An essential, and difficult appointment that all veterinarians see is helping pets to pass peacefully with euthanasia. These appointments are also scheduled during the day, but also may happen as an emergency.
Most clinics pause appointments during the lunch hour, not only for nourishment but also to play catchup. A bustling clinic has employees use this time to return phone calls, check on animals that are hospitalized and recovering from anesthesia, and hopefully eat lunch at some point. Anytime during the day emergencies can come through the door and require immediate attention. As a result, all veterinary team members must practice good time management. If an office has multiple veterinarians, the office may remain open during lunchtime and each doctor will take his or her own staggered break.
Afternoons are typically spent seeing more appointment and discharging surgery patients in the later parts of the afternoon. If pets are seen during an appointment and are too sick or critical, the vet will recommend the owner drive to an emergency hospital, where a veterinary team is there around the clock to monitor and administer treatments. Sick pets that are seen during appointments typically have lab work done and x-rays done in the hospital to “rule out” or refine the list of reasons why a pet may be sick. While the veterinary technicians and nurses run the lab work or take x-rays, the vet is still seeing other appointments. When the results of those tests come back, a large part of the veterinarian’s job is to explain the findings to the pet owner and create a treatment plan. Communicating with and to concerned owners over their pets illness is a large part of a veterinarian’s day.
A late afternoon break is typically available for returning phone calls, authorizing prescriptions, and finalizing medical notes before the day ends.
Veterinary School Admission 101. American Veterinary Medical Association, 2020
Veterinary Training. American Veterinary Medical Association, 2020
The North American Veterinary Licensing Examination (NAVLE). International Council for Veterinary Assessment, 2020
Veterinarians. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020