Sure, veterinarians care for our sick pets, but that’s only one of a wide (and growing) variety of career paths in this in-demand field.
You’ve always had a love for animals. You’re drawn to providing care for them—to helping them live their healthiest lives. But how can you tell if you might be ready to turn that interest into a career?
If the thought of pursuing a career in veterinary medicine has crossed your mind recently, you’re in good company—and you’ve got great timing. Veterinary medicine is a diverse field and a growing one: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of veterinarians is projected to grow 18% from 2018 through 2028—more than three times the projected growth rate for all occupations during that period.
Still, when many people think about what do veterinarians do, their only frame of reference is whatever they’ve seen or experienced when they’ve taken their pet to a local animal clinic for care. The reality of the veterinary profession is much broader, with career opportunities for licensed veterinarians available in a wide variety of settings, from private-practice clinics to public-health research organizations to biopharmaceutical firms to community animal shelters. Furthermore, specializations for veterinarians are nearly as wide-ranging as in human medicine.
“A lot of members of the general public view us as just taking care of animals at the basic level, and they don’t realize how sophisticated our medicine is,” says Dr. Ryan Cavanaugh, associate professor of small-animal surgery and assistant dean for clinical placement at Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine in St. Kitts. So, what does a veterinarian do—and where can a career in veterinary medicine today take you?
The basics—what do veterinarians do
Veterinarians are medical professionals who have completed doctoral studies in providing health care for animals. The range of services that veterinarians may provide encompasses those that human physicians provide including health and wellness evaluations and assessments, preventive medicine (including vaccinations), medication prescription, surgical services, rehabilitation, and palliative care.
Veterinarians may also provide animal population control services (e.g., spay/neuter surgery for dogs and cats) and may serve as advisers to public health officials about animal health threats, especially as they relate to human health threats. Veterinarians’ expertise can help inform public health policy when, for example, an outbreak of disease is detected in a local animal population. Vets can provide a crucial perspective on how easily a disease is transmitted among animals or between animals and humans.
If you grew up on a farm, your answer to “What does a veterinarian do?” may be quite different than if you grew up in an urban or suburban area where household pets—companion animals—dominated. On a livestock farm or ranch, veterinarians provide evaluation and care for animal populations raised as food sources. For a horse farm, equine veterinarians help manage the health care of horses bred for racing, event-ing, or equine therapy.
Veterinarians who work for large agriculture companies or government agencies (for example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture) may perform food-processing facility inspections to help ensure the safety of the food supply. And while a majority of veterinarians engage hands-on with animals in their day-to-day work, some vets choose career paths that aren’t focused on providing clinical care. Opportunities abound in biomedical research, developing new medicines for animals, as well as in the field of shelter medicine, where administrators and community outreach experts are needed to help lead animal shelters for homeless, abused, or neglected animals.
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO BE A VET?
Regardless of the type of animal population, you may seek to work with—common household pets, exotic animals, livestock, or wildlife—to become a veterinarian, you need to complete a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) program at an accredited veterinary school.
Admission to veterinary school is highly competitive, and the course of study—typically 3.25 to 4 years—is rigorous. Veterinary schools look to admit students who have a strong academic background and record of achievement in their undergraduate studies and high scores on their GRE. Vet school applicants also should have significant experience volunteering and/or doing paid work in a veterinary setting and must submit letters of recommendation from animal-care professionals they have worked with or studied under. Many applicants do not get into veterinary school on their first attempt.
Ross Vet’s Dr. Cavanaugh was one of these. “I was kind of a statistic in that I did not get into vet school on my first application cycle,” he says.
Cavanaugh says he didn’t start college knowing he wanted to become a veterinarian but fell in love with the veterinary profession after getting a part-time job at a local small animal veterinary clinic. He applied to vet school—there are 51 accredited veterinary colleges worldwide--and was rejected on his first try.
“One of the critiques on my application was that I needed more diversified clinical experience to get in,” Cavanaugh says. “I met with the admission committee and they gave some recommendations, and they said I should try to get some large-animal experience.” So, Cavanaugh went to work volunteering in a large animal clinic and worked his way up to becoming a paid veterinary technician who performed general anesthesia on horses. He applied again to veterinary school and was accepted.
“I went into vet school thinking I wanted to be an equine surgeon,” Cavanaugh notes. “But then I changed gears again once I got to vet school and kind of fell back to the companion-animal spectrum and decided I wanted to pursue specialty medicine.” He pursued advanced clinical training in surgical oncology—cancer surgery for animals—and worked in private clinical practice for 10 years before joining the Ross Vet staff in 2017.
“I always encourage my students to follow their heart, to continue to keep their eyes and mind open to all of the opportunities that are available to us with this degree,” he says.
Trends in the veterinary profession
Demand for veterinarians has grown as pet ownership has grown. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. households owned a pet in 2018, up from half who did in 1988, according to the APPA.
Furthermore, cats and dogs—the most common household pets, with two in five households having a dog and one in three having a cat—are living longer than they used to. The BLS notes that life expectancy for both cats and dogs has increased by more than 10% since 2002. Household pets are receiving more routine veterinary care over the course of their longer lives as well as more therapeutic care and medical and surgical interventions as they age.
Advances in veterinary medicine, and especially in animal surgery and cancer treatment, are giving pet and livestock owners expanded options to protect the health of their animals—to keep animals healthy and maintain a high quality of life for them for longer. “We are doing the same level of medicine that is being done on the human side,” Dr. Cavanaugh says.
“One thing that people don’t realize is how technologically advanced we are as veterinarians,” Dr. Cavanaugh says. “Oftentimes even when I have a physician as a client, taking care of their pet, they will say, ‘I had no idea you guys are able to do this or that.’ At the end of the day, it’s the same medicine. We’re learning the same techniques and the same medical interventions that a human physician would.”
What do veterinarians do has grown, and as heightened medical understanding and technological capabilities have allowed for greater specialization—even super-specialization—for human physicians, the same now is true in veterinary medicine, too.
“If you have a pet that has a cancer that requires surgery, you’re not just going to take it to a board-certified veterinary surgeon; you’re going to seek out a board-certified veterinary surgical oncologist,” says Dr. Cavanaugh. “I see that as a very exciting advancement in our profession.”
Whether your interest is in using advanced technology such as artificial intelligence to help keep animals healthy or develop tailored medical treatment plans for them, or in applying your community-engagement and civic leadership skills to help protect the welfare of local animal populations, a wealth of opportunity-rich, good-paying careers are available in the field of veterinary medicine.
“This is a very, very good time to be entering the veterinary profession,” says Dr. Cavanaugh. “We are very much in demand; there will absolutely be work; and the pay is at an all-time high. There is so much at our fingertips, and you can really just go wherever you want with the degree.”
What do you need to be a veterinarian? Learn more about Ross Vet.