Considered from the perspective of comparative medicine, veterinarians help animals and people live longer, healthier lives. They serve society by preventing and treating animal disease, improving the quality of the environment, ensuring the safety of food, controlling diseases transmitted from animals, and advancing medical knowledge. The Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree can lead to diverse career opportunities and different lifestyles–from a solo mixed animal practice in a rural area to a teaching or research position at an urban university, medical center, or industrial laboratory. Of the approximately 79,500 veterinarians in the United States, the majority are in private practice, although significant numbers are involved in preventive medicine, regulatory veterinary medicine, military veterinary medicine, aquatic animal medicine, avian medicine, laboratory animal medicine, research and development in industry, and teaching and research in a variety of basic science and clinical disciplines. Scroll down for more information on Prospective Veterinarians, Veterinary School, and Veterinary Graduates.
Prospective veterinarians must graduate from a 4-year program at an accredited college of veterinary medicine with a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M. or V.M.D.) degree and 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 by veterinary medical college. 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 admittance.
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 graduates.
In addition to satisfying preveterinary course requirements, applicants also 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 each college.
Several veterinary medical colleges place heavy consideration on a candidate’s veterinary and animal experience in admittance decisions. Formal experience, such as work with veterinarians or scientists in clinics, agribusiness, research, or some area of health science, is particularly advantageous (and is becoming standard for applicants to have formal experience). 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 largely remained the same since 1983, whereas the number of applicants has risen significantly. Only about 1 in 3 applicants was accepted in 2002. Most veterinary medical colleges are public, state-supported institutions and reserve the majority of their openings for instate residents, making admission for out-of-state applicants difficult. (However, states without a veterinary school often participate in contracting; please refer to the page on Contracting States).
While in veterinary medical college, students receive additional academic instruction in the basic sciences for the first 2 years. Later in the program, students are exposed to clinical procedures, such as diagnosing and treating animal diseases and performing surgery. They also do laboratory work in anatomy, biochemistry, medicine, and other scientific subjects. At most veterinary medical colleges, students who plan a career in research can earn both a D.V.M. degree and a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree at the same time. For more information on coursework in veterinary school refer to the page on Coursework.
Specializing Graduate veterinarians can choose to become specialists in a clinical area or to work with particular species. The first step on the path toward specialization is usually an internship which graduate veterinary graduates and veterinary students in their senior year can apply for. Veterinarians who complete internships or who have two years of private-practice experience are eligible to apply for residency programs which is more specialized than an internship. Successful completion of a residency is required for certification by the veterinary medical specialty boards. For more information on specializing and residency training please refer to our page on “Specializing.”
Licensing The DVM or (VMD) degree is awarded after 4 years of successful study at an accredited college of veterinary medicine. Graduate veterinarians are eligible to apply for a license to practice. Licensing is controlled by states and provinces, each of which has rules and procedures for legal practice within its own jurisdiction. All require satisfactory completion of the national board examination, and most have other requirements, including additional tests and interviews. For more information on licensing please refer to the Job Outlook link under the ‘VetSchool’ heading.
Private and Public Practice A significant percentage of veterinary graduates are engaged in private practice, either as an owner of a solo practice or, more likely, as a partner or associate in a group practice. Increasingly, veterinarians work together as a team, which allows a wider range of services to be provided. Small animal veterinarians focus their efforts primarily on dogs and cats but are seeing a growing number of pet birds and exotic animals such as reptiles. Veterinarians specializing in large animals often place their emphasis on horses, cattle, or pigs, and work both on a farm-call and an in-clinic basis. A mixed-animal veterinarian works with all types of animals. Some veterinarians obtain further specialization in such areas as diseases or disorders of the eyes of cats or reproduction difficulties in cattle. Public practice provides a variety of opportunities at the national, state, county or city levels. Opportunities in food safety, public health, the military, animal disease control, research, and the care and maintenance of wildlife abound.
Industry Veterinarians have many opportunities available to them in private industry, particularly in the fields of nutrition and pharmaceuticals. Assisting int he development of new products in the animal industry, conducting research for pharmaceutical companies, diagnosing disease and drug effects as pathologists, or safeguarding the health of laboratory animal colonies are all interesting career possibilities. Some veterinarians may be employed by zoos and aquariums and may act as consultants to wildlife preservation groups, game farms, or fisheries.
New or Unusual Career Opportunities By the very nature of the many species of animals involved and the wide variety of clientele served, the opportunities available to today’s veterinarian are abundant. The role of the veterinarian in society has changed and evolved over time, sot hat they are now specially qualified to take part in many problems related to the environment, local community health, food resource management, zoo animal care, space and marine biology, and wildlife preservation.