There are approximately 60,000 veterinarians working in the United States. Job growth projections for the next decade indicate tremendous growth of 33%, far above average. Nearly 80% of all veterinarians work in private practice.
Veterinarians diagnose diseases and chronic conditions in animals. In addition to treating animals that are sick or injured, veterinarians also give vaccinations and educate owners about proper care, feeding, exercise, and reproduction. There are a number of veterinary specialties.
By far, the largest specialty is small animals, with 77% of all veterinarians treating pets. Another 16% work with both wild animals and those raised for human consumption, such as pigs and cows. Another 6% of all vets work with horses; some specialize in race horses. Veterinarians also tend to animals found in the aquarium, zoo, and laboratory.
Vets with animal practices use hand tools, stethoscopes, surgical tools, and radiographic or ultrasound equipment to aid in diagnosis. Research veterinarians employ various types of laboratory equipment. Some research veterinarians work with scientists and doctors to develop methods of treating or preventing human health problems that are related to animals. Vets have created an anticoagulant used against heart disease and helped fine-tune human surgical techniques, like hip and knee joint replacements, as well as organ transplants.
Veterinarians are also employed in food safety and inspection. Livestock inspectors check farm animals for diseases such as E. coli that can be transmitted to humans, determine how the animals must be treated, and have the authority to quarantine animals. Meat, egg, and poultry inspectors inspect slaughtering houses and processing plants for signs of disease in both live animals and carcasses and report any infractions on governmentally regulated procedures. Both the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service division and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine employ veterinarians.
Most veterinarians work in an environment containing nervous, frightened, and angry animals. These emotions can be reflected by owners, who are concerned and impatient. Risks of the job include being clawed, kicked, bitten, or scratched. Veterinarians who treat large animals travel, sometimes considerable distances. Much of their work is accomplished out of doors regardless of the weather, sometimes in fields or stalls that are contaminated with animal feces and insects; if surgery is required, the unsanitary condition must be considered and all efforts made to counter it. Some research and nonclinical veterinarians work in laboratories or offices that are clean, well–lit, and pleasant; often, their work involves people more than it does animals. Veterinarians in private or group practice must be available during emergencies at night, over weekends, or on holidays. Many vets work extended hours.
Veterinarians need stamina, as they often work long hours, as well as a certain amount of strength, depending upon the type of animal. Manual dexterity must be excellent. Good communication skills are important, as is empathy with humans as well as animals. Those going into private practice should develop a good business head.
In addition to state licensing, all veterinarians have earned a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. The Council on Education of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has accredited 26 college or university programs. Some programs accept students lacking a bachelor’s degree, but these students must have 45–90 undergraduate semester hours. The field is highly competitive; a school that will accept a student lacking a bachelor’s degree in theory may have many qualified applicants with the degree who will take priority. Formal or informal experience working with animals, agribusiness, or research contributes to an applicant’s likelihood of acceptance into a program.
Veterinary students will study general, cell, and animal biology, chemistry, biochemistry, animal nutrition, genetics, vertebrate embryology, microbiology, and zoology. Many schools have begun to incorporate business courses as part of the curriculum because so many graduates begin their own clinics.
Many newly graduated veterinarians accept an internship before going into practice. While they sacrifice financially in the first year, in the long run many believe their experiences as interns make them better doctors who are well connected, and that ultimately this leads to financial reward. Other new graduates accept work as meat and poultry inspectors in animal welfare, research, or disease control. Advancement generally comes in the form of establishing or purchasing an established veterinary business.
In order to become board certified, veterinarians enter a three or four year residency program for focused specialized training in one of the 39 recognized areas. All states require veterinarians to be graduates of an accredited program and receive a passing grade on the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam. Many states have a jurisprudence test that evaluates an applicant’s knowledge of state regulations. Few states share reciprocity.
The median annual income for veterinarians is around $80,000. Those in the mid-range earn between about $62,000 and $105,000. Those in the lowest 10% earn less than $47,000, while those in the top 10% earn approximately $145,000. The average pay for veterinarians working federal jobs is around $94,000.