Career Profile: Veterinarians

by April Karbowsky
Career Profile: Veterinarians

An introduction to the field of veterinary medicine and educational options for future veterinary practitioners.

Veterinarians typically perform clinical work in private practices and more than one-half of them limit their practice to the treatment of small or “companion” animals. Typical companion animals include animals such as cats and dogs; however other animals that can be kept as pets (birds, reptiles, rabbits, etc.) are part of this group.

A smaller number of veterinarians (about one-fourth) work in mixed animal practices where, in addition to companion animals, they administer to pigs, goats, sheep, and other non-domestic animals.

These veterinarians diagnose animal health problems, vaccinate against diseases (such as rabies and distemper), perform surgery, set fractures, treat and dress wounds, and medicate animals. Often their job involves advising owners about feeding, behavior, and breeding of animals.

The remaining balance of veterinarians can be found working exclusively with large animals (mostly horses or cows) and with breeds of food animals. Some veterinarians drive to farms or ranches to provide their healthcare services for individual animals or herds.

Some veterinarians are devoted to the maintenance of the health of livestock, and their job is highly involved in preventive care. They test for and vaccinate against diseases, in addition to consulting with ranch or farm owners on issues related to animal production, feeding, and housing. They also provide treatment to sick or injured animals, and perform surgery, including cesarean sections on birthing animals.

When necessary, part of a veterinarian’s job is to euthanize animals. Veterinarians that care for zoo, aquarium, or laboratory animals provide many of the same services.

Some veterinarians become livestock inspectors and have jobs that are involved in food safety. These inspectors check animals for transmissible diseases and may quarantine animals as needed. Meat, poultry, or egg product inspectors are involved in the examination of slaughtering and processing plants and their processes. They check live animals and carcasses for disease and enforce government regulations regarding food purity and sanitation.

Many veterinarians can be found working side-by-side with physicians and scientists. Collectively, they research methods for the prevention and treatment of various human health problems. By conducting tests on animals, they can determine the effects of new surgical techniques and drug therapies for humans.

Education for the Veterinary Professions

Acceptance into veterinary programs is very competitive. While there are thousands of colleges and universities in the United States, only a small number of them offer programs in veterinary studies. According to the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges the breakdown of educational programs/institutions is as follows:

  • Veterinary Schools & Colleges – 28
  • Animal Medical Centers – 2
  • Department of Veterinary Science – 8
  • Department of Comparative Medicine – 8

If possible, begin planning your educational path as early as you can. Getting a veterinary education can be daunting, as there are many career paths to choose from in this field. Specific career paths almost always have a firm outline of courses that need to be completed prior to moving on to a new semester.

Undergraduate programs are in place at schools that have departments of veterinary science.

These programs are usually called pre-vet or pre-professional and can prepare students for entry into veterinary programs at the graduate level. Classes are heavy on topics such as biology, physiology, chemistry, physics, nutrition, and animal science. During this time, it’s important to begin getting experience working with animals, as schools offering veterinary degrees look for this as a prerequisite for acceptance into their programs. Work (either paid or volunteer) can be done at animal hospitals, shelters, pet stores, labs, or other animal-related facilities.

After earning a bachelor’s, those who want to become veterinarians will have to earn a  veterinary degree (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine – DVM ).

Once accepted to a veterinary program, students can expect their studies to be concentrated on the sciences. In addition, they will learn how to handle animals, diagnose illnesses, conduct laboratory tests, assess and treat injuries, and perform surgery. This degree usually takes four years to complete. Before beginning practice, veterinarians must pass a state-administered licensing examination.

Students can also receive a Masters or PhD in various aspects of veterinary medicine or animal care, such as the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Comparative Biomedical Sciences at the School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, or the Graduate Field of Pharmacology at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Students do not have to go beyond a bachelor’s degree, as many good positions that are non-veterinarian are available. For example, the Department of Veterinary Sciences at Penn State University offers a major in Toxicology which is geared towards educating students in the adverse effects of chemicals on animal (and human) and biological systems.

The University of Connecticut has an undergraduate major in Pathobiology which allows graduates to pursue careers in fields such as biotechnology or biomedical sciences. Students can also pursue positions as researchers in fields related to health, agriculture, and natural resources.

Admissions to Veterinary Programs

There has been an upswing in interest in the veterinary field, as more people are realizing that the field is open to job opportunities beyond just veterinary practices. This means that getting into a program can be very competitive. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), “Most veterinary medical colleges are public, state-supported institutions and reserve the majority of their openings for in-state residents, making admission for out-of-state applicants difficult.” Through their 2002 survey, they found that only one of every three applicants was accepted to a veterinary program.

The admissions process is determined by the type of veterinary career that sought. See Getting Accepted to Veterinary School for more information on applying to veterinary schools.

Costs of Education & Financial Aid

While the cost of attending veterinary school can be expensive, there are numerous ways to find funding. Federal financial aid is offered through the U.S. Department of Education and all students are encouraged to apply for this on an annual basis.

Scholarships are a good resource and plenty of them are offered by various organizations involved in the fields that the veterinary sciences touch – such as biomedical, pharmaceutical, and research facilities.

In addition to scholarships, seek out grant or fellowship opportunities, especially when working towards earning a higher level of veterinary degree, or one that specializes in a particular area of veterinary medicine.

Often, a school’s financial aid office will have information on these type of opportunities. Professional associations related to veterinary medicine also provide information on obtaining this type of funding, as well as scholarship opportunities.

When assessing schools, be sure to check out all funding opportunities offered by the institutions, as some unique opportunites may exist.

For example, Tufts University in Massachusetts has contracted with the states of Maine, New Hampshire, and New Jersey to provide special funding for a select number of students from those states. Each state pays $12,000 per student towards the student’s total annual attendence costs, reducing their overall cost to $20,894 per year.

For more, see the Financial Aid channel.

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