What is a Veterinarian?
Dog being assessed by veterinarians

What is a Veterinarian?

Aug 13, 2020

If you’re a pet lover, you may know to take your beloved animal to the vet. But how much do you know about veterinary doctors? You might be surprised to learn some don’t even work directly with animals.

Career opportunities in the veterinary field can span across industries. So, just what is a veterinarian? Keep reading to learn more about this expansive, varied field of work.

So, what is a veterinarian?

Many are curious to know exactly what is a vet? How do you define a veterinarian? A Doctor of Veterinary Medicine is a medical professional whose primary responsibility is protecting the health and welfare of animals and people. A veterinarian diagnoses and controls animal diseases, treat sick and injured animals, prevents the transmission of animal diseases ("zoonoses") to people, and advise owners on proper care of pets and livestock. They ensure a safe food supply by maintaining the health of food animals. A vet may also be involved in wildlife preservation and conservation and the public health of the human population.

As of 2018 more than 91,625 veterinarians are professionally active in the United States. They provide a wide variety of services in private clinical practice, teaching, research, government service, public health, military service, private industry, and other areas. According to a 2018 AVMA survey, approximately 80% of all veterinarians are in private clinical practice. Of those, about 53% are engaged in exclusively small animal practice in which they treat only companion animals.  These veterinarians work with animals, but that just scratches the surface of what these medical professionals do. Some common duties include diagnosing conditions, administering vaccines, prescribing medication, and educating people who own pets. Working with pet owners is one of the most important parts of the job for many practitioners. Veterinarians can provide valuable information on the preventive measures that can keep animals healthy.

And while the majority of veterinarians go into private practice, many pursue other career opportunities.  So, what is the job of a veterinarian if they don’t work in private practice?


Research veterinarians are needed in pharmaceutical and private research laboratories, universities, and various government agencies. These veterinarians may:

  • Oversee housing, feeding, breeding, and general health of animals used in research,
  • Develop and test vaccines and other biological agents to search for new and improved methods of treating and controlling diseases in both animals and humans,
  • Conduct basic and applied research to better understand the nature of disease, immunity, and health


Many veterinarians teach in universities and colleges. Veterinarians teach in medical schools, agricultural schools, and veterinary schools spreading the knowledge of animal health and disease. They teach students, conduct research, and develop continuing education programs among many other things.

Public Health and Regulatory Medicine

All states in the U.S. have veterinarians who advise and help control animal diseases. As public health officials, these veterinarians may inspect milk, poultry, and meat products, test livestock for disease, and oversee the transport of animals. Public health veterinarians often investigate food-borne diseases, evaluate water safety, and study the effects of biological and environmental contamination.

Industry and Consultation

Veterinarians work with public and private organizations such as the ASPCA, animal shelters, humane societies, and 4-H. They may also be employed as consultants and advise ranches, dairies, poultry farms, and meat processing facilities. Additionally, a vet may provide expertise for animal-related products.

What Education and Training is Required to be a Veterinarian?

Every profession requires certain knowledge, skills, and abilities to do the job. As a veterinarian, you should possess compassion, decision-making skills, manual dexterity, and solid communication skills, among others.

Education required to be a veterinarian

To practice veterinary medicine, you will need to earn your Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree. This degree is commonly abbreviated as a DVM or a VMD, and it typically takes four years to earn. In some cases, a DVM program might accept applicants who haven’t completed their undergraduate degrees. To be eligible for one of these special programs, you must pursue veterinary-related courses during the first two or three years of your undergraduate studies.

Be sure to read our article on  “Vet School Requirements to Know”. It covers many of the requirements you’ll need to become an eligible applicant including

  • Course prerequisites
  • Veterinary professional experience
  • Graduation Record Exam (GRE)
  • Letters of recommendation, and more!

Training required to become a veterinarian

Once you start veterinary school, you will spend your first few years taking courses on campus. You’ll study subjects including animal health and disease, gross anatomy, radiology, parasitology, and pharmacology. In your final year, you will spend your time in clinical rotations gaining hands-on experience in a variety of settings. Students must complete a set number of required rotations that may include small and large animal medicine and surgery, radiology and imaging, anesthesiology, dermatology, emergency care, wildlife medicine, and cardiology. Students are also expected to complete elective rotations. After graduation, many veterinarians’ complete internships or residencies to gain additional training before starting their careers. 

Towards the end of your education, you’ll sit for the North American Licensing Exam® (NAVLE). After the NAVLE, you may also need to complete an additional licensing exam depending on where you plan to practice.

Once you graduate from veterinary school and become licensed, you can go straight out to become a general practitioner or a family vet.

Make your next move

If veterinary medicine sounds like a field you might want to pursue, make sure you know what you're getting yourself into. Learn more about the job by reading our article "What Do Veterinarians Do?".

See yourself as a veterinarian?

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