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, one must obtain a four-year college degree and then complete a four-year program to obtain a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine (DVM). To practice as a vet, you must then pass a licensing exam, and maintain the requirements of your professional license. Veterinary college admissions will usually require a bachelor's degree including coursework in biology, microbiology, chemistry, physics, and calculus, as well as substantial experience with animals.
Being accepted into a veterinary school is very competitive due to the small number of colleges that offer a veterinary medical degree. If you are accepted, prepare to study hard. In addition to studying dogs and cats, all veterinary students are required to study other animals, including chickens, pigs, horses, cows, and exotic animals like reptiles and fish.
The DVM degree typically takes four years to complete. The first three years will be a mixture of classroom lectures, anatomy labs, and hands-on work with animals to learn the science of veterinary medicine. The final year includes clinical rotations in a variety of disciplines. One month you may be doing surgery, and the next examining dairy cows on a farm—all the hands-on skills you need to prepare you to take your licensing examination and be a well-rounded veterinarian. After earning the DVM degree, all veterinarians must pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination and then pass specific state licensing exams. After graduation, many veterinarians choose to do a 1-year internship where they get specialized hands-on training and mentorship in their specific area of interest. Finally, to practice a particular speciality, like dermatology, radiology, oncology, or any one of the 46 recognized specialties requires a residency programs and additional board certifications.
Where Veterinarians Work
Veterinarians can work in a number of settings including general practice hospitals, emergency and specialty 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 it came in for surgery, or was admitted due to an illness from the previous night—all undergo a physical exam first thing in the morning so the doctor can create a treatment plan and note any new findings. A physical exam includes obtaining the animal's medical history from the owner, taking a pet’s vitals, listening to the heart and lungs, and methodically examining every part of the animal from nose to tail to document any abnormalities.
Animals that will be having surgery that day are typically admitted early in the morning. Prior to being admitted, pre-surgical bloodwork is reviewed to make sure the animal is healthy enough to undergo the procedure. Analysis of the bloodwork gives the doctor information on the animal's internal organ functions, which often cannot be learned through just a physical examination. After the lab work is evaluated and approved by the vet, the pet can be prepped for surgery.
Conducting surgical procedures in the morning allows the patient to recover throughout the day, with plenty of staff to monitor their vitals. Many times the vet will perform routine, scheduled surgeries in the morning including spays and neuters, mass removals, or dental procedures. That is often followed by late morning appointments ranging from new puppy/kitten visits, check-ups and vaccinations, sick visits for pets who aren't feeling well, and everything in between! An essential, yet difficult appointment all veterinarians face is helping pets to die peacefully and painlessly via euthanasia. These appointments may sometimes be scheduled but may also happen as last-minute emergencies. They can be especially emotional for veterinarians who may have cared for a beloved pet for its whole life and have known it since it was a puppy or kitten.
Most clinics pause appointments during the lunch hour, not only for nourishment, but also to play catch-up. In a bustling clinic, employees may 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 patients via appointments, and discharging surgery patients during the later parts of the afternoon. If during a scheduled appointment, pets are found to be seriously ill and/or require specialized tests or treatments, the vet may recommend the pet be taken to a specialty hospital. Often in these cases, the referring vet will call ahead to speak with the specialists and provide the pet's medical history. Sick pets seen during appointments may need lab work, X-rays, or other tests performed in the hospital to help determine a diagnosis. While the vet 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 concerned owners about their pet's illness is an important part of a veterinarian’s day.
A late afternoon break may be available for returning phone calls, authorizing prescriptions, and finalizing medical records before the final rush of appointments for the day.
While the vet hospital may close at a set time each evening and the support staff may clock out when their shifts end, most vets stick around long after this to finish the day's work. This may include checking in on any inpatients in the hospital, returning phone calls, and finishing medical records. It may also include administrative work if the vet is also the clinic owner and this can include accounting work, staff management, scheduling maintenance and repairs on the building and/or medical equipment, and making sure the clinic is in compliance with regulations from OSHA, the DEA, and any other local regulatory agencies. While the days may be long, it often feels like there are just not enough hours to get it all done. For those who have a passion and a love for veterinary medicine, however, it is worth the challenges for all the rewards that a satisfying career can bring.