Veterinarians provide healthcare to animals, from pets and livestock to zoo and laboratory animals. Some work to protect humans from diseases carried by animals, while others conduct research, broadening the scope of knowledge in the field as well as ways to use that knowledge. Most work in clinical private practices, and more than 50% treat only small animals, usually pets. 25% work in practices where they care for pets along with other animals such as pigs, goats, and sheep. A small number of veterinarians work with large animals, mostly horses and cows, traveling to farms or ranches to provide mostly preventive care. Veterinarians treat and dress wounds, set fractures, and perform surgery.
Veterinarians use a variety of medical equipment, such as stethoscopes; surgical instruments; and diagnostic equipment like radiographic and ultrasound equipment. Veterinarians who work in research use an even wider range of sophisticated equipment. Veterinarians also make significant contributions to human health by working with physicians and scientists. Veterinarians have helped conquer such medical problems as malaria, yellow fever, botulism, and they have developed treatments for heart disease as well as joint replacement techniques.
Veterinarians must have a passion for working with animals, as well as the ability to get along with pet owners. They should have good manual dexterity. Those who start their own private practice need to have good business and communication skills in order to promote their business and manage their employees.
In 2002, veterinarians earned a median annual salary of $63,090. Earnings ranged from the lowest 10%, who earned less than $38,000, to the highest 10%, who earned more than $123,370. The following shows starting salaries for graduates of veterinary medicine by type of practice:
- Large animals, exclusively — $48,303
- Small animals, exclusively — $48,178
- Small animals, predominantly — $46,582
- Large animals, predominantly — $45,087
- Mixed animals — $43,948
- Horses — $34,273
Training and Education
Veterinarians must obtain a license to practice after graduating from an accredited 4-year program of veterinary medicine and earning their Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M. or V.M.D.). Competition for entry into theses programs is very high. Many college programs do not require a bachelor’s degree for admission, but do require a significant number of undergraduate credit hours, usually between 45 and 90. Preveterinary courses focus on the sciences, from organic chemistry to genetics to precalculus. Most include courses in English and literature, the social sciences, and the humanities. Applicants need to submit scores from either the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), the Veterinary College Admission Test (VCAT), or the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), depending on the program. Formal work experience in the veterinary field receives heavy weight from some schools.
Veterinarians are licensed through individual States, and must pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam (NAVLE). Most States require veterinarians to pass a State jurisprudence examination that covers State laws and regulations. Once licensed, almost all States require continuing education for veterinarians to renew their licenses.
In 2002, veterinarians held about 58,000 jobs. About 28% were self-employed in solo or group practices. Most of the rest were salaried employees.
Between 2002 and 2012, employment of veterinarians is expected to increase faster than the average. Pet owners are expected to spend more on advanced veterinary medical care. Employment opportunities are expected to be very good because the number of graduates from veterinary school is not expected to increase significantly.
For more information on becoming a veterinarian, please see our directory of Veterinary Schools.