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A Veterinary Medicine Career-Is It Right for You?

Aug 07, 2020

Do you have a Type A personality? Are you flexible enough to embrace change? Do you possess excellent communication skills? Do you have an innate curiosity for learning and medicine? Do you have a deep love and compassion for animals? Do you have a good head for science? Do you mind getting dirty?

If you are one of those rare creatures who embody this unusual mix of traits, then a veterinary medicine career may be perfect for you.

A conversation with Melissa Bucknoff, DVM, DACVECC, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Sciences & Clinical Pharmacology at Ross Vet, Emergency & Clinical Care Specialist

“Before I became an emergency and critical care specialist, I always gravitated toward cases in the intensive care unit (ICU).  Even on other rotations during my clinical training, I would find myself managing the sicker patients or the more complicated cases. I like the thrill of a busy emergency room. I have learned that thriving in such an environment takes confidence and energy. You have to gain the trust of clients, most of whom are strangers at the time, and no course in school teaches this skill. Others may prefer a long-term relationship with their clients and patients or have a keen interest in surgery. I know for me, the decision to specialize felt organic.”

How to get started

There is a misconception that applying to an internship program is only for people who plan to pursue specialty medicine. In fact, an internship program is a strong start for a veterinary medicine career options in general practice or emergency medicine, relief work, or some combination of these. It can edify the skills and knowledge gained during what can be a whirlwind of a clinical year.

An internship also provides the experience you need to decide whether to specialize.  According to Dr. Bucknoff, “I started my journey toward specializing with an academic internship, during which time I could no longer deny my feelings toward emergency room (ER) and ICU medicine. My internship year was followed by a 3-year emergency critical care residency. As much as I enjoy internal medicine, I knew I wanted to work closely with other specialists. Collaboration on ICU cases that involve multiple specialties is really a highlight of being a criticalist.”

Defining your path

During school, students have the option to participate in externships at other teaching hospitals to explore veterinary medicine career options. This is most common during the clinical year and may be a requirement. An internship in small animal or large animal/equine medicine can be pursued the year immediately following graduation, or at a later time if you wish to return to advanced training after being in practice for a while.

A residency follows an internship and is where a veterinarian trains to be a specialist in their chosen field. Not all programs require an internship first, for example, pathology residencies may accept students right out of veterinary school. For the clinical specialties, a traditional year-long internship is almost always required. Ideally, by the time you decide to specialize, you have a clear idea of what you are committing to and what professional opportunities follow.

Says Dr. Bucknoff, “If a specialty program is not right for you, my advice would be to try to figure out if it’s the program that is not the right fit or the specialty itself. Climbing a ladder only to find it has been up against the wrong building can be devastating. I recommend working with trusted advisors and mentors to help sort out the best path forward.”

A day in the life of a veterinarian

There are so many days that stand out. When vets do clinical work, they are not just collaborating with clients and patients in the ER and ICU; they also work with veterinarians in internship and residency training programs. In the morning that can include doing in-patient rounds together, going over each case, reviewing results of diagnostic tests, and the plan for the day ahead.

In addition to managing hospitalized patients, vets see triage cases as they come in through the emergency room. The biggest decisions to be made with each new case revolve around whether they are stable enough to be treated on an out-patient basis, or if they require hospitalization for treatments and testing. Sometimes patients need emergency surgery, managing wounds sustained from trauma, or even CPR. The day can get busy quickly, and you have to rely on each other and the nursing staff to operate productively.

Adds Bucknoff, “We might be hospitalizing a small puppy with parvovirus, a disease attacking the gastrointestinal tract and immune system, and then consoling a client in the lobby who accidentally administered her heart medication to her pet instead of the animal’s medication. In most cases, an event like this is non-life-threatening, but we aren’t just treating the animals. The clients require a level of care and compassion on par with our four-legged patients. In the evening we will round as a team, this time with the overnight doctor who will be taking over care until we arrive back the next morning to do it all again.”

Careers in veterinary medicine include research

Dr. Bucknoff had the opportunity to work on dogs undergoing bone marrow transplant for the treatment of lymphoma and to study the effects total body irradiation had on their platelets and blood clotting function. She said, “This allowed for the most appropriate resource allocation of blood transfusion products and through the use of a specialized coagulation test called thromboelastography (TEG)*.”

Making the decision

Veterinary medicine careers require dedication, compassion, self-care, and teamwork. It can be a gateway to the world and provide fulfillment as well as challenges.  Adds Bucknoff, “Life-long learning is key. And remember, no one will care how much you know until they know how much you care!”

Do You Have the Skills for Careers in Veterinary Medicine?

Insights on a career in Zoological Medicine from Lauren Kane, DVM, MS, Zoological and Aquatic Animal Resident, Brookfield Zoo

“I heard the call while still in college studying Animal Sciences. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with that, but a trip to Thailand as part of my studies got me interested in veterinary medicine.  While there, I worked at the Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for those creatures who are rescued from hard labor in the logging industry. I was able to observe veterinary care. Each time they got a new elephant, I learned how these intelligent animals’ lives were improved through exams, maintenance, and treatment. This inspired me to go for my DVM. “

For Dr. Kane, it took another trip abroad – this time to South Africa – to identify the field of specialty that was a fit. In her case, it was Zoological Medicine.

“While in South Africa we looked at animals in their natural habitat. We got to observe their unfiltered behavior in the wild. I was applying to vet school, and the direction of my studies was the result of these two trips. Thailand influenced my decision to pursue a veterinary medicine career and South Africa sparked my interest in zoo medicine.”

What academic skills are required for careers in veterinary medicine?

Dr. Kane was lucky to have started her academic life with an undergrad focus in animal sciences. She got early exposure to courses such as biology, math, chemistry, calculus, organic chemistry, and physics. “A lot of people who consider this field may think that a love of animals is enough, she adds, “however, you need a background in the hard sciences as well. It may be rigorous, but it’s essential for success in veterinary medicine.”

There are some requirements  you will need to consider if you pursue a veterinary medicine career.

Getting real-world experience is critical. You will need to have documentation that you’ve worked with animals. This can be with a volunteer organization, such as a pet rescue group or working for a local veterinarian to gain exposure. Many veterinary schools require at least 100 hours of such work to quality for admission. And of course, there’s the GRE. You can read more about what it takes to get into vet school here.

Says Kane, “During my 4 years at vet school, aside from classroom work, I was able to take advantage of externship opportunities.”  These give students the chance to shadow professionals in a variety of fields from private practice to zoo medicine. Research opportunities also arise through externships.

Some DVM grads enter practice immediately upon obtaining their license. However, many elect to do internships and residencies, so they can pursue a specialty. That was the option Dr. Kane took. “I did a rotating internship as an Ocean State Veterinary Specialist in Rhode Island. I also did my zoo internship at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. I am currently completing the third year of my residency, which has included Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium and The Brookfield Zoo.”

Every career has a unique story

“I’m never going to forget this one. The patient was a 4-month old puppy — an African Painted Dog. It had a huge wound on its side with lots of skin missing. This was likely the result of what happens when this species is establishing hierarchy. The problem was that we had to separate the pup from its pack for a month. And this species is change-averse. The chance was very high that it would not be accepted back.

“Our treatment was aggressive, including surgery. We had to incorporate the scent of the pack to our patient and his scent to the pack in hopes that they wouldn’t reject him. We held our breath, but after healing, he was accepted back into the pack with just a bit of non-violent commotion. Being part of this was extraordinary.”

Zoology research

While in vet school, Kane got her master’s in epidemiology, studying with Dr. Matt Allender, DVM, MS, Ph.D., Diplomate, ACZM, Chicago Zoological Society, Brookfield Zoo. They did a study on the treatment of fungal disease in snakes, experimenting with two routes to administer medication that protected both the snake and the handler. One route was nebulization and topical; the other was a long-acting subcutaneous implant. After giving the medicine via the two routes, blood levels were checked to see how long the meds stayed in the bloodstream. Not only were both methods new, but each proved to be effective in treating deadly fungus in snakes.” **

Learn more about a veterinary medicine career

Career opportunities in veterinary medicine are vast. Few other career paths open so many doors such as clinical medicine, specialty medicine, small and large animal practice, zoology, and research, just to name a few.  Veterinarians are in constant demand as the relationship between humans and animals grows closer every day.

Interested in learning more about a degree in veterinary medicine?

Learn More.

* Bucknoff MC, Hanel RM, Marks SL, et al. Evaluation of thromboelastography for prediction of clinical bleeding in thrombocytopenic dogs after undergoing total body irradiation and hematopoietic cell transplant. Am J Vet Res. 2014 May; 75 (5): 425-32.

** Kane LP, Allender MC, et al. Pharmacokinetics of nebulized and subcutaneously implanted terbinafine in cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus). J Vet Pharmacol Ther. 2017 Oct; 40(5): 575-579.

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