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What is a veterinarian?

Nature of

Veterinarians play a major role in the healthcare of pets,
livestock, and zoo, sporting, and laboratory animals. Some
veterinarians use their skills to protect humans against
diseases carried by animals and conduct clinical research
on human and animal health problems. Others work in basic
research, broadening the scope of fundamental theoretical
knowledge, and in applied research, developing new ways to
use knowledge.

Most veterinarians perform clinical work in private
practices. More than 50 percent of these veterinarians
predominately, or exclusively treat small animals.
Small-animal practitioners usually care for companion
animals, such as dogs and cats, but also treat birds,
reptiles, rabbits, and other animals that can be kept as
pets. About one-fourth of all veterinarians work in mixed
animal practices, where they see pigs, goats, sheep, and
some nondomestic animals in addition to companion animals.
Veterinarians in clinical practice diagnose animal health
problems; vaccinate against diseases, such as distemper and rabies; medicate animals suffering
from infections or illnesses; treat and dress wounds;
set fractures; perform surgery; and advise owners
about animal feeding, behavior, and breeding.

Small animals or large

A small number of private-practice veterinarians work
exclusively with large animals, mostly horses or cows; some
also care for various kinds of food animals. These
veterinarians usually drive to farms or ranches to provide
veterinary services for herds or individual animals. Much
of this work involves preventive care to maintain the
health of the animals. These veterinarians test for and
vaccinate against diseases and consult with farm or ranch
owners and managers regarding animal production, feeding,
and housing issues. They also treat and dress wounds, set
fractures, and perform surgery, including cesarean sections
on birthing animals. Veterinarians euthanize animals when
necessary. Other veterinarians care for zoo, aquarium, or
laboratory animals.


Veterinarians who treat animals use medical equipment such
as stethoscopes, surgical instruments,
and diagnostic equipment, including radiographic and ultrasound equipment. Veterinarians
working in research use a full range of sophisticated
laboratory equipment.

Veterinarians can contribute to human as well as animal
health. A number of veterinarians work with physicians and
scientists as they research ways to prevent and treat
various human health problems. For example, veterinarians
contributed greatly in conquering malaria and yellow fever, solved the mystery of
botulism, produced an anticoagulant
used to treat some people with heart disease, and
defined and developed surgical techniques for humans,
such as hip and knee joint replacements and limb and
organ transplants. Today, some determine the effects
of drug therapies, antibiotics, or new surgical
techniques by testing them on animals.

Some veterinarians are involved in food safety at various
levels. Veterinarians who are livestock inspectors check
animals for transmissible diseases, advise owners on the
treatment of their animals and may quarantine animals.
Veterinarians who are meat, poultry, or egg product
inspectors examine slaughtering and processing plants,
check live animals and carcasses for disease, and enforce
government regulations regarding food purity and


Veterinarians often work long hours. Those in group
practices may take turns being on call for evening, night,
or weekend work; solo practitioners may work extended and
weekend hours, responding to emergencies or squeezing in
unexpected appointments. The work setting often can be


Practitioner for large
animals on a farm in the Netherlands

Veterinarians in large-animal practice spend time driving
between their office and farms or ranches. They work
outdoors in all kinds of weather and may have to treat
animals or perform surgery under unsanitary conditions.
When working with animals that are frightened or in pain,
veterinarians risk being bitten, kicked, or scratched.

Veterinarians working in nonclinical areas, such as public
health and research, have working conditions similar to
those of other professionals in those lines of work. In
these cases, veterinarians enjoy clean, well-lit offices or
laboratories and spend much of their time dealing with
people rather than animals.

other qualifications and

veterinarians must graduate with a Doctor of Veterinary
Medicine (D.V.M. or V.M.D.) degree from a 4-year program at
an accredited college of veterinary medicine and must
obtain a license to practice. There are 28 colleges in 26
States that meet accreditation standards set by the Council
on Education of the American Veterinary Medical Association
(AVMA). The prerequisites for admission vary. Many of these
colleges do not require a bachelor’s degree for entrance,
but all require a significant number of credit
hours—ranging from 45 to 90 semester hours—at the
undergraduate level. However, most of the students admitted
have completed an undergraduate program. Applicants without
a bachelor’s degree face a difficult task gaining

Preveterinary courses emphasize the sciences. Veterinary
medical colleges typically require classes in organic and
inorganic chemistry, physics, biochemistry, general biology, animal biology, animal
nutrition, genetics, vertebrate embryology, cellular biology,
microbiology, zoology, and systemic physiology. Some programs require
calculus; some require only statistics, college
algebra and trigonometry, or precalculus. Most
veterinary medical colleges also require core courses,
including some in English or literature, the social
sciences, and the humanities. Increasingly, courses in
practice management and career development are
becoming a standard part of the curriculum, to provide
a foundation of general business knowledge for new

In addition to satisfying preveterinary course
requirements, applicants must submit test scores from the
Graduate Record Examination (GRE), the Veterinary College
Admission Test (VCAT), or the Medical College Admission
Test (MCAT), depending on the preference of the college to
which they are applying. Currently, 22 schools require the
GRE, 4 require the VCAT, and 2 accept the MCAT.

In admittance decisions, some veterinary medical colleges
place heavy consideration on a candidate’s veterinary and
animal experience. Formal experience, such as work with
veterinarians or scientists in clinics, agribusiness,
research, or some area of health science, is particularly
advantageous. Less formal experience, such as working with
animals on a farm or ranch or at a stable or animal
shelter, also is helpful. Students must demonstrate
ambition and an eagerness to work with animals.

There is keen competition for admission to veterinary
school. The number of accredited veterinary colleges has
remained largely the same since 1983, whereas the number of
applicants has risen significantly. Only about 1 in 3
applicants was accepted in 2004. AVMA-recognized veterinary
specialties—such as pathology, internal medicine,
dentistry, nutrition, ophthalmology, surgery, radiology,
preventive medicine, and laboratory animal medicine—are
usually in the form of a 2-year internship. Interns receive
a small salary but usually find that their internship
experience leads to a higher beginning salary, relative to
those of other starting veterinarians. Veterinarians who
seek board certification in a specialty also must complete
a 3- to 4-year residency program that provides intensive
training in specialties such as internal medicine,
oncology, radiology, surgery, dermatology, anesthesiology,
neurology, cardiology, ophthalmology, and exotic
small-animal medicine.

All States and the District of Columbia require that
veterinarians be licensed before they can practice. The
only exemptions are for veterinarians working for some
Federal agencies and some State governments. Licensing is
controlled by the States and is not strictly uniform,
although all States require the successful completion of
the D.V.M. degree—or equivalent education—and a passing
grade on a national board examination. The Educational
Commission for Foreign Veterinary Graduates (ECFVG) grants
certification to individuals trained outside the United
States who demonstrate that they meet specified
requirements for the English language and for clinical
proficiency. ECFVG certification fulfills the educational
requirement for licensure in all States. Applicants for
licensure satisfy the examination requirement by passing
the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam (NAVLE), an
8-hour computer-based examination consisting of 360
multiple-choice questions covering all aspects of
veterinary medicine. Administered by the National Board of
Veterinary Medical Examiners (NBVME), the NAVLE includes
visual materials designed to test diagnostic skills and
constituting 10 percent of the total examination.

The majority of States also require candidates to pass a
State jurisprudence examination covering State laws and
regulations. Some States do additional testing on clinical
competency as well. There are few reciprocal agreements
between States, making it difficult for a veterinarian to
practice in a different State without first taking that
State’s examination.

Nearly all States have continuing education requirements
for licensed veterinarians. Requirements differ by State
and may involve attending a class or otherwise
demonstrating knowledge of recent medical and veterinary

Most veterinarians begin as employees in established
practices. Despite the substantial financial investment in
equipment, office space, and staff, many veterinarians with
experience set up their own practice or purchase an
established one.

Newly trained veterinarians can become U.S. Government meat
and poultry inspectors, disease-control workers, animal
welfare and safety workers, epidemiologists, research
assistants, or commissioned officers in the U.S. Public
Health Service or various branches of the U.S. Armed
Forces. A State license may be required.

Prospective veterinarians must have good manual dexterity.
They should have an affinity for animals and the ability to
get along with their owners, especially pet owners, who
tend to form a strong bond with their pet. Veterinarians
who intend to go into private practice should possess
excellent communication and business skills, because they
will need to manage their practice and employees
successfully and promote, market, and sell their


Veterinarians held about 61,000 jobs in 2004. About 1 out
of 5 veterinarians was self-employed in a solo or group
practice. Most others were salaried employees of another
veterinary practice. The Federal Government employed about
1,200 civilian veterinarians, chiefly in the U.S.
Departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and,
increasingly, Homeland Security. Other employers of
veterinarians are State and local governments, colleges of
veterinary medicine, medical schools, research
laboratories, animal food companies, and pharmaceutical
companies. A few veterinarians work for zoos, but most
veterinarians caring for zoo animals are private
practitioners who contract with the zoos to provide
services, usually on a part-time basis.

In addition, many veterinarians hold veterinary faculty
positions in colleges and universities.

Vaccination af a


Employment of veterinarians is expected to increase as fast
as average for all occupations over the 2004–14 projection
period. Despite this average growth, very good job
opportunities are expected because the 28 schools of
veterinary medicine, even at full capacity, result in a
limited number of graduates each year. However, as
mentioned earlier, there is keen competition for admission
to veterinary school. As pets are increasingly viewed as a
member of the family, pet owners will be more willing to
spend on advanced veterinary medical care, creating further
demand for veterinarians.

Most veterinarians practice in animal hospitals or clinics
and care primarily for companion animals. Recent trends
indicate particularly strong interest in cats as pets.
Faster growth of the cat population is expected to increase
the demand for feline medicine and veterinary services,
while demand for veterinary care for dogs should continue
to grow at a more modest pace.

Pet owners are becoming more aware of the availability of
advanced care and are more willing to pay for intensive
veterinary care than in the past because many pet owners
are more affluent and because they consider their pet part
of the family. More pet owners even purchase pet insurance,
increasing the likelihood that a considerable amount of
money will be spent on veterinary care for their pets. More
pet owners also will take advantage of nontraditional
veterinary services, such as preventive dental care.

New graduates continue to be attracted to companion-animal
medicine because they prefer to deal with pets and to live
and work near heavily populated areas. This situation will
not necessarily limit the ability of veterinarians to find
employment or to set up and maintain a practice in a
particular area. Rather, beginning veterinarians may take
positions requiring evening or weekend work to accommodate
the extended hours of operation that many practices are
offering. Some veterinarians take salaried positions in
retail stores offering veterinary services. Self-employed
veterinarians usually have to work hard and long to build a
sufficient client base.

The number of jobs for large-animal veterinarians is likely
to grow more slowly than that for veterinarians in private
practice who care for companion animals. Nevertheless, job
prospects may be better for veterinarians who specialize in
farm animals than for companion-animal practitioners
because of low earnings in the former specialty and because
many veterinarians do not want to work in rural or isolated

Continued support for public health and food safety,
national disease control programs, and biomedical research
on human health problems will contribute to the demand for
veterinarians, although positions in these areas of
interest are few in number. Homeland security also may
provide opportunities for veterinarians involved in efforts
to minimize animal diseases and prevent them from entering
the country. Veterinarians with training in food safety,
animal health and welfare, and public health and
epidemiology should have the best opportunities for a
career in the Federal Government.


Median annual earnings of veterinarians were $66,590 in May
2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $51,420 and
$88,060. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $39,020,
and the highest 10 percent earned more than $118,430.

According to a survey by the American Veterinary Medical
Association, average starting salaries of veterinary
medical college graduates in 2004 varied by type of
practice as follows:

Small animals, predominantly


Small animals, exclusively


Large animals, exclusively


Private clinical practice


Large animals, predominantly


Mixed animals


Equine (horses)


The average annual salary for veterinarians in the Federal
Government in nonsupervisory, supervisory, and managerial
positions was $78,769 in 2005.