Medicine

How to Become a Veterinarian: Degrees, Career Path, Salary, and More

How to Become a Veterinarian: Degrees, Career Path, Salary, and More
The average veterinarian salary is about $94,700, though the highest-paid vets can make more than $120,000 per year. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry March 23, 2023

Loving animals isn't enough to become a vet. You have to be utterly fascinated by them because it's that passionate fascination that will sustain you through medical school. Yes, medical school: veterinary programs can be every bit as challenging as MD programs.

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Have you ever wondered whether becoming a veterinarian is easier than becoming a doctor? Consider this. An MD has to learn how to treat one kind of patient: human beings. A vet has to learn to treat many kinds of patients, none of whom can speak. These patients are more likely than human patients to resist even basic medical procedures. And, unlike human patients, most of these patients are uninsured, complicating your and their caregivers’ decisions on which remedies to pursue.

As one Reddit user observed on a thread comparing veterinary school and medical school: vets have to be “GPs, pathologists, internists, radiologists, behaviorists, dermatologists, urologists, and surgeons all rolled into one.”

Obviously, you need a warm heart to become a vet, but you also need a cool head. To succeed, you’ll need science skills, an analytical mind, an interest in public health, a lot of dedication, and a lot of schooling. And you have to be good with animals, particularly those in crisis.

Becoming a veterinarian is a long and challenging process. If you’re still in high school or you’re a new undergrad, you can enter a pre-vet program or take veterinary internships. Wherever you are in the process, you’ll need to start working on building your application as soon as you can.

In this guide to how to become a veterinarian, we’ll cover:

  • What you’ll do when you become a veterinarian
  • Skills needed to become a veterinarian
  • Prerequisites for becoming a veterinarian
  • The top schools for veterinarians
  • What you’ll study when you want to become a veterinarian
  • Additional education and certifications for becoming a veterinarian
  • Should you become a veterinarian?

What you’ll do when you become a veterinarian

We talk about “vets,” but your dog’s doctor should appropriately be called a board-certified Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. That’s right, veterinarians have doctorates and usually quite a bit of postdoc education related to a specialty (much like the residencies MDs do after graduating from medical school). That honorific “Doc” isn’t just a courtesy or a Bugs Bunny allusion. They’ve earned it.

Veterinarians promote animal health, treating everything from elephants to fish in settings like private practices, people’s homes, animal hospitals, farms, zoos, circuses, and labs. They:

  • Perform wellness checks
  • Diagnose animal diseases
  • Provide emergency medical treatment
  • Perform surgery
  • Prescribe medication
  • Perform humane euthanasia (when necessary)

These days, most veterinarians don’t treat “all creatures great and small” the way author and veterinarian Dr. James Herriot did. That may still be the reality for some vets in small towns or rural areas where people are just as likely to own a prize pig as they are to have a pet pug. In cities and larger towns, however, it’s much more common for people to seek treatment for dogs and cats. A lot of vets don’t have the training necessary to treat birds and exotics (a category that includes rabbits, rodents, and reptiles).

Veterinary medicine can be divided into 22 specialties recognized by the American Veterinary Medical Association. Some specialties are concerned with patient type:

  • Avian practice
  • Equine practice
  • Beef cattle practice
  • Feline practice
  • Canine/feline practice
  • Exotic companion mammal practice
  • Food animal practice
  • Dairy practice
  • Reptile and amphibian practice
  • Swine health management
  • Poultry veterinarian
  • Zoological medicine

Other specialties are concerned with specific diseases and treatments:

  • Emergency and critical care
  • Cardiology, neurology, oncology
  • Anesthesia
  • Animal welfare
  • Dentistry
  • Dermatology
  • Radiology
  • Clinical pharmacology
  • Sports medicine and rehabilitation
  • Surgery

Your chosen specialty may determine what you do each day when you become a veterinarian, but to some degree, all vets who work in public or private practice must be generalists. Depending on the needs of your patients, you may be called upon to:

  • Administer anesthesia or sedation medication
  • Deal with neurological medical conditions
  • Clean and care for animals’ teeth
  • See patients dealing with acute or emergency conditions
  • Assess a patient’s eyesight

Some veterinarians also conduct independent research, work in labs, or take jobs in governmental animal control agencies (including local institutions, the Department of Agriculture, and the Food and Drug Administration).

Skills needed to become a veterinarian

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are five key skills and traits that veterinarians must have. This is not an exhaustive list, but it will give you an idea of what kinds of qualities successful vets possess.

The best veterinarians are those with strong communication skills. When you become a veterinarian, you need to be able to help your patients’ caregivers understand your diagnoses and how to treat the illness or injury effectively. Sometimes pet owners react to a diagnosis with anger or sadness. You need to be comfortable speaking with people experiencing intense emotions.

You’ll also need a lot of compassion. Animals undergoing medical treatment are often terrified. Part of your job is to help them cope when you can’t explain what’s happening. You also need to be sensitive to the needs of your patients’ caregivers. It can be hard for pet owners, breeders, and farmers to watch their animals undergo treatment.

Vets must have strong decision-making skills and problem-solving skills (along with a lot of confidence). Your patients won’t be able to tell you what hurts, so you’ll spend a lot of time figuring out minor medical mysteries when you become a veterinarian. When you’re making that diagnosis, there’s no room for indecision. Sometimes you will have to make tough calls quickly, and you can’t waste time second-guessing yourself when a patients’ life is on the line.

Vets also need manual dexterity. All doctors use their hands, but what makes veterinary medicine different is that the patients are often much less cooperative. Your ability to perform procedures quickly and with precision will make going to the vet easier on your patients.

You’ll also need to have a good memory, patience, business skills (especially if you want to open your own practice), and resilience. Animals don’t live as long as people, and chances are that you will treat quite a few patients from their early years to their final ones. You will lose patients more often than most MDs, and more importantly, you will have a hand in helping some of those patients cross over the Rainbow Bridge through euthanasia. Some veterinarians struggle with this part of the job, and you will have to find your own ways of coming to terms with it.

Prerequisites for becoming a veterinarian

Most veterinary schools in the US have similar prerequisites, which you can find in full here. Many utilize the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges’ Veterinary Medical College Application Service (VMCAS)—basically a one-stop shop for veterinary school applicants. The site offers school-by-school application guidelines and resources for aspiring vets, plus you can submit your applications and your letters of evaluation through the VMCAS to the schools that interest you most.

In general, you can begin satisfying the prerequisites for becoming a veterinarian as early as middle school and high school. It’s a good idea to take as many math, biology, chemistry, and physics courses as you can. If there are AP courses available at your school, take them. This is also an excellent time to shadow a vet for a week or even to get hands-on experience doing volunteer work at a veterinary clinic or animal hospital. You may not get to participate in any clinical practice. Even so, spending time doing basic administrative tasks and/or cleanup will help you learn a lot about what it’s like to go into veterinary medicine. And if your school has student clubs related to animals (like 4H) or veterinary medicine, joining them can make you a more attractive applicant to pre-vet programs.

When you go to college, choose a bachelor’s degree program that will help you get into one of the accredited veterinary medical colleges. There are various undergraduate pathways open to aspiring veterinarians. You can safely choose any major with a firm grounding in the biological sciences. If, however, you’re absolutely sure you want to become a veterinarian, it’s a good idea to explore pre-veterinary programs. Some undergraduate pre-vet programs are little more than biology programs with a limited pre-veterinary track. Others are heavily focused on preparing future veterinarians to go to vet school.

The University of Massachusetts – Amherst is one of the few colleges with a dedicated pre-veterinary major for undergraduates, which is offered in partnership with Tufts University‘s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. If you’re most interested in working with animals in agriculture, the pre-vet program track at Kansas State University‘ s College of Agriculture is a solid option. The School of Animal Studies at Becker College (which offers a bachelor’s degree in veterinary science) is another good undergraduate choice for students who want to go all-in on veterinary medicine.

In most pre-vet programs, whether offered as a major or a track incorporated into another major, students study:

  • Chemistry
  • Organic chemistry
  • Biochemistry
  • Molecular and cell biology
  • Biology
  • Physics
  • Algebra
  • Calculus

You’ll also have to take classes that satisfy your university’s core undergraduate requirements, like English, history, and a certain number of electives in non-major disciplines. Your undergrad years represent another opportunity to shadow a vet, volunteer at an animal hospital, and join student organizations related to veterinary medicine or animal husbandry.

The top schools for veterinarians

To become a veterinarian, you’ll need to be accepted to a vet school and earn your Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM). Not everyone makes the cut; it’s hard to get into veterinary school. Some people even claim it’s harder to get into vet school than it is to get into medical school, but the fact is that percentage-wise, admission rates averaged across schools are about the same (when you control for the number of applicants versus the number of applications submitted). What’s certain is that there are many thousands more applicants than there are openings at the 30 veterinary schools accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association in the US.

It’s also hard to choose a vet school because all 30 of those accredited programs offer students a high-quality veterinary education. As you look at different schools, consider what specialty you might like to go into. Different schools are known for different specialties. Some of the best overall veterinary programs are found at:

If you’re still searching for an undergraduate pre-vet program, it’s worth looking into schools that offer combined Bachelor’s and Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degrees. Tufts University allows sophomores who have completed the prerequisite science courses to apply to the DVM degree program for advanced acceptance. Fairleigh Dickinson University – Florham Campus offers an accelerated BS/DVM program that takes seven years to complete versus the usual eight.

What you’ll study when you want to become a veterinarian

The quick answer is: a lot. As Eva Evans, a vet in Nashville, Tennessee, put it in an interview with ValuePenguin, “I’ve heard from people who have experience in medical school that veterinary school is harder, because you’re learning not just one species—you’re learning six major species and several minor species.”

The general curriculum in DVM programs covers care for both small and large animals. It’s a four-year degree program, and in the first two years, students study topics like:

  • Animal anatomy and physiology
  • Veterinary pharmacology
  • Animal behavior
  • Clinical pathology
  • Nutrition
  • Diagnostic imaging
  • Anesthesia and surgery principles

In the third year, DVM students begin doing clinical work. The fourth year of vet school is typically made up of hands-on clinical rotations at animal hospitals associated with the school. Students may be required to complete rotations in many veterinary specialties, from dentistry to oncology to swine care to zoological and wild animal medicine.

This is also when students take the 360-question North American Veterinary Licensing Exam (NAVLE), which all veterinarians must pass to become licensed. From there, a newly minted veterinarian may have to fulfill additional educational or certification requirements to practice general veterinary medicine in their home state.

Additional education and certifications for becoming a veterinarian

After passing the NAVLE and becoming licensed veterinarians, vets who choose to enter a specialty (which can mean higher pay) will complete one to three years of additional residency training and education. At that point, a vet can take specialty exams to be certified by one of the 22 specialty organizations the AVMA recognizes. Specialization will do much to determine your veterinary career options.

Specialty certifications are not required to practice veterinary medicine, but they do demonstrate that a vet is an expert in one or more species-specific or clinical specialty areas. There are also non-clinical certifications for veterinarians, like the Certified Veterinary Practice Manager</> credential offered by the Veterinary Hospital Managers Association, Inc.. Which veterinary certifications you pursue will depend on your specialty area and your professional goals.

Should you become a veterinarian?

To answer that, let’s look at money first. The average veterinarian salary is about $100,000, though the highest-paid vets can make more than $150,000 per year. That sounds like a lot, but keep in mind that you may be financing your undergrad and vet school tuition, which means you’ll start paying back some pretty substantial student loans when you start working. Vets spend a lot of money on education—anywhere from $150,000 to more than $400,000—and very few qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

Of course, it’s probably not the pay that inspired you to find out more about how to become a veterinarian. It’s much more likely that you’re interested in helping animals live healthy, happy lives. That’s a laudable goal but one that might not be enough to carry you through the darker days—when you have people coming into your office looking to put down pets because they’ve gotten tired of them or you see a string of hopeless cases. Wanting to spend time with cute animals isn’t enough. You need to be passionate about the science as well.

The bottom line is that this can be an extraordinarily rewarding career, and probably a pretty stable one. Jobs in veterinary medicine are increasing much faster than average because pets are increasingly treated like family members and there is a shortage of rural mixed-practice vets. Even better, it’s a job that pays not just in money, but in sloppy puppy kisses, kitty purrs, bunny binkies, and love nips from grateful birds. What could be better than that?

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