Types of Veterinarians and What They Do
Private clinical practice is far from the only career route for licensed veterinarians. Here’s a look at the wide range of types of veterinary careers you can choose to pursue.
Most licensed veterinarians in the United States work in private practice caring for companion animals—these are the vets we look to for regular care of our household pets. But a doctor of veterinary medicine (DVM) degree offers career possibilities in a wide range of medical specialties as well as clinical research and nonclinical work—meaning that, depending on your interests and how you want to be a guardian of animals’ health, a DVM degree can take you far beyond your local animal-care clinic.
Comparing Different Types of Vets
The American Veterinary Medicine Association (AVMA) currently recognizes 22 veterinary specialties. These encompass specialties and types of veterinarians most people are familiar with from human medicine—internal medicine, ophthalmology, radiology, surgery, and emergency and critical care, for instance—as well as those unique to the veterinary profession: animal welfare, poultry veterinary medicine, laboratory animal medicine and theriogenology (animal reproduction), for example.
“You do see kind of a continued trend of super-specialization” in veterinary medicine, says Dr. Ryan Cavanaugh, associate professor for small-animal surgery and assistant dean for clinical placement at Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine (Ross Vet) in St. Kitts. Cavanaugh compares it with the trend of hyper focused specialization in human medicine. Parents of a child who requires stomach surgery, he says, increasingly will seek out not merely a general surgeon but a board-certified pediatric surgeon who has experience in gastroenterology to perform the procedure.
Cavanaugh himself is a board-certified veterinary surgeon, “but I had a specific interest beyond that,” he notes, “so I did additional training, and now I’m a board-certified surgical oncologist”, specializing in veterinary cancer surgery.
“I see it as a very exciting advancement in our profession,” Cavanaugh says. “A lot of people don’t realize how sophisticated our medicine is. We’re learning the same techniques and the same medical interventions that a human physician would. … We are doing the same level of medicine that is being done on the human side.”
Dr. Andrea Peda, an assistant professor at Ross Vet, echoes Cavanaugh’s comments and adds that there is a growing need for different types of veterinarians and different types of veterinary practices. “All aspects of veterinary medicine are in demand, whether (you’re looking at) food inspection, biomedical research, shelter medicine” or other veterinary fields, she says. “There so many opportunities” for all types of vets, Peda offers.
One of the fastest-growing veterinary fields, according to Peda, is veterinary forensics. “It’s like animal Crime Scene Investigation,” she says. “With the rising awareness of animal welfare, and animal cruelty and neglect and combating that, it has become a field of its own.”
Peda created a shelter medicine program at Ross Vet in part as a response to growing public concern for and investment in animal welfare. “The public’s perception (of animals) is changing; they’re demanding better outcomes for animal welfare,” she says. From a job and career perspective, that means opportunities are accelerating in especially in shelter medicine, where veterinarians and other care providers look to restore the health of homeless and abandoned animals and find them forever homes.
“There is a huge drive to have shelter vets,” Peda says. “(Shelter medicine) is a different type of veterinarian specialty because you’re dealing not only with individual animals but also population-based medicine.” There is a great opportunity, she adds, for specialists who focus on shelter animal wellness, mental health for shelter animals, and animal population control, for example through spay/neuter surgery.
Non-clinical types of veterinary roles
Outside of the clinical-care setting, veterinary positions are abundant in industry, where licensed veterinarians are in demand to work as food inspectors at animal processing facilities. These types of veterinarians work to ensure the safety of animals being raised as food sources and can provide guidance on issues ranging from animal housing to animal processing. As consumer interest in animal welfare has grown (consider consumers’ rising interest in buying eggs from cage-free chickens and meat from free-to-roam livestock), so, too, has demand grown for veterinarians who have expertise in the well-being of animals raised as food sources.
Peda offers this advice for prospective and current veterinary students considering the types of veterinary careers they might be interested in pursuing: “Be open-minded,” she says. “(Students shouldn’t) close themselves off to just one thing.” Peda cites her own experience as a self-described lifelong “small-animal person” who grew up in the suburbs and had no strong interest in or affinity for larger animals prior to vet school. “When I started working with large animals, I absolutely loved it,” she says. “I think it’s important to keep an open mind and try new things. (Students) might change their career path completely. They might decide to go into equine when they had never even touched a horse before.”
And, in fact, stepping outside of one’s comfort zone—to pursue education and training in different types of veterinary specialties, whether in clinical care or nonclinical settings—will make new veterinarians more well-rounded and better prepared for success in whichever field they ultimately pursue, Peda says. “That’s how they’re going to gain the experiences that they need to build their confidence and build the backbone, the building blocks of what they need to become the best veterinarian that they can be,” she says.
Interested in learning more about where a DVM can take you? Learn more.