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. In addition to dog and cat anatomy, subjects taught in veterinary school cover many other animals, such as 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 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 it came in for surgery, or due to an illness from the previous night—all undergo a physical exam so the doctor can create a treatment plan and note any 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 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. Analysis of the bloodwork gives the doctor information on the animal's internal functions, which cannot be learned through just a physical examination. After the lab work is evaluated by the vet, the pet can be prepared for surgery.
Conducting surgery procedures in the morning allows the patient to recover throughout the day, with plenty of staff to monitor progress. Late morning appointments range from new puppy/kitten visits, vaccinations, sick visits for pets who aren't feeling well, and everything in between! An essential, yet difficult, appointment all veterinarians conduct is helping pets to die peacefully via euthanasia. These appointments are scheduled throughout the day, but may also happen as an emergency.
Most clinics pause appointments during the lunch hour, not only for nourishment but also to play catch-up. 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 patients via appointments, and discharging surgery patients during the later parts of the afternoon. If pets, during a scheduled appointment, are judged to be severely ill or in critical condition, the vet will recommend the owner drive to an emergency hospital, where a veterinary team administers treatments and will monitor the patient around the clock. Sick pets seen during appointments typically have lab work and X-rays performed in the hospital to “rule out,” or refine, the list of reasons why a pet may be sick. 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 and to concerned owners over their pet's 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.