What is a Veterinarian?

A veterinarian is a medical professional who protects the health and well-being of both animals and people. They diagnose and control animal diseases and treat sick and injured animals. They also advise owners on proper care of their pets and livestock.

Veterinarians provide a wide range of services in private practice, teaching, research, government service, public health, military service, private industry, and other areas.

What does a Veterinarian do?

When taking the veterinarian's oath, a veterinarian solemnly swears to use his or her scientific knowledge and skills "for the benefit of society, through the protection of animal health, the relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge."

A smiling female veterinarian with a dog.

In many respects, a veterinarian is similar to a pediatrician. Animals cannot express what is wrong with them, much like babies and toddlers can't. Therefore, much of their clinical history is obtained from the owner, as a pediatrician would obtain from a child's parents. Excellent people skills and communication skills are required.

A veterinarian's duties could include:

  • Diagnosing animal health problems
  • Vaccinating against diseases, such as distemper and rabies
  • Medicating animals suffering from infections or illnesses
  • Treating and dressing wounds
  • Setting fractures
  • Performing minor to complex surgery, depending on training
  • Advising owners about animal feeding, behavior and breeding
  • Euthanizing animals when necessary
  • Providing preventive care to maintain the health of livestock
  • Performing diagnostic tests such as X-ray, EKG, ultrasound, blood, urine, and faeces

What information cannot be retrieved from clinical history is obtained with the fingers, eyes, and smell. The ability to listen with a stethoscope and palpate with the fingers and hands will reveal much of the physical findings. The sense of smell is also important in detecting the fruity odor of the ketotic cow's breath, or the urea from the breath of a cat in renal failure.

What cannot be revealed by the history and exam is further supported by diagnostic tests like blood work, urinalysis, and fecal exams. Veterinarians are well trained in laboratory medicine and parasitology.

The general practice veterinarian spends one-third to one-half of his or her time in surgery. Animal neutering operations are done in most veterinarians' offices. Many veterinarians also perform orthopedic procedures, bone setting, dentistry, and trauma surgery. Surgery requires good hand and eye coordination, and fine motor skills. A veterinarian's job is similar to that of a human doctor.

When health problems arise, veterinarians diagnose the problem and treat the animal. Accurate diagnosis frequently requires laboratory tests, radiography, and specialized equipment. Treatments may involve a number of different procedures including emergency lifesaving techniques, prescribing medication, setting fractures, birthing, performing surgery, or advising an owner on feeding and care of the animal.

To prevent the introduction of foreign diseases, veterinarians employed by government agencies quarantine and inspect animals brought into the country from other countries. They supervise shipments of animals, test for the presence of diseases and manage campaigns to prevent and eradicate many diseases such as tuberculosis, brucellosis, and rabies, which threaten animal and human health.

A veterinarian in research looks for better ways to prevent and solve animal and human health problems. Many problems, such as cancer and heart disease, are studied through the use of laboratory animals, which are carefully bred, raised, and maintained under the supervision of veterinarians.

There are many veterinarians that are professors, teaching at schools and universities of veterinary medicine. In addition to teaching, veterinary school faculty members conduct basic and clinical research, contribute to scientific publications, and develop continuing education programs to help graduate veterinarians acquire new knowledge and skills.

A cat on the examining table in a veterinarian's office.

Veterinarians also work in the area of public health. They help to prevent and control animal and human diseases and promote good health. As epidemiologists they investigate animal and human disease outbreaks such as food-borne illness, influenza, plague, rabies, AIDS, and encephalitis. They evaluate the safety of food processing plants, restaurants, and water supplies. Veterinarians in environmental health programs study and evaluate the effects of various pesticides, industrial pollutants, and other contaminants on people as well as on animals.

As opposed to human medicine, general practice veterinarians greatly out-number veterinary specialists. Most veterinary specialists work at a veterinary school, or at a referral centre in large cities. As opposed to human medicine, where each organ system has its own medical and surgical specialties, veterinarians often combine both the surgical and medical aspect of an organ system into one field.

The specialties in veterinary medicine often encompass several medical and surgical specialties that are found in human medicine. Within each veterinary specialty, one will often find a separation of large animal medicine from small animal medicine. Some veterinary specialties are evolving, some are limited only in the teaching universities, and some are practiced only in the field.

The following are examples of types of veterinarians:

Companion Animal Veterinarians
These veterinarians diagnose and treat diseases or abnormal conditions in animals, most often cats and dogs. They are the most common type of veterinarian and provide inoculations; prescribe medication; set bones; dress wounds; perform surgery and dental work; offer euthanasia services; and advise clients on the general care of their animals.

Veterinary Practitioners
These are veterinarians in clinical practice who have advanced training and expertise in a particular animal species. Some examples are:

  • Avian Practice (birds)
  • Canine/Feline Practice (dogs and cats)
  • Equine Practice (horses)
  • Exotic Companion Mammal Practice (ferrets, rabbits, mice, rats, and other small mammals often kept as pets)
  • Reptile and Amphibian Practice (snakes, lizards, salamanders, turtles, etc.)

A veterinarian examining a horse.

Food Animal Veterinarians
These are the veterinarians who work with farm animals raised to be food sources, most commonly cattle, pigs, chickens, and sheep. Food animal vets spend much of their time on farms and ranches and test for, treat, and vaccinate against disease. Their consultation with farmers includes topics such as housing, feeding, and general health.

Food Safety and Inspection Veterinarians
The primary focus of these veterinarians is the inspection and testing of livestock and animal products. This involves vaccinating animals, conducting research to improve animal health, and examining slaughtering and processing plants. Food safety and inspection vets also participate in the administration of animal and public health programs designed to prevent and control transmission of diseases among animals and between animals and people. In short, they work to enforce government regulations concerning food safety.

Research Veterinarians
These veterinarians contribute to human health as well as animal health by engaging in research to prevent and treat diseases in humans. They may conduct clinical research on health problems which afflict both humans and animals; investigate the effects of drug therapies; and test potential new surgical techniques.

Are you suited to be a veterinarian?

Veterinarians have distinct personalities. They tend to be investigative individuals, which means they’re intellectual, introspective, and inquisitive. They are curious, methodical, rational, analytical, and logical. Some of them are also realistic, meaning they’re independent, stable, persistent, genuine, practical, and thrifty.

Does this sound like you? Take our free career test to find out if veterinarian is one of your top career matches.

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What is the workplace of a Veterinarian like?

Veterinarians may be employed or contracted by veterinary clinics and hospitals, government agencies, educational institutions, wildlife management groups, zoos, aquariums, ranches, farming-related businesses, or pharmaceutical companies.

Small animal veterinarians typically work in veterinary clinics or veterinary hospitals, or both. Large animal veterinarians often spend more time traveling to see their patients at the primary facilities which house them (zoos, farms, etc).

As opposed to a human doctor's office, which only has exam rooms, a veterinarian's office is more like a hospital with a full pharmacy. Waiting rooms are available often with separate areas for dogs, cats, and exotics.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a veterinary specialist?

While most enter general practice, veterinarians, like medical doctors, may choose to complete additional training and specialize in a specific field of veterinary medicine. Perhaps surprisingly, there are currently twenty-two sub-disciplines recognized by the American Board of Veterinary Specialties.

The following provides a brief description of the focus of each specialty area:

  • Anesthesia – Management of pain associated with veterinary procedures
  • Animal Welfare – Education, certification, and scientific investigation
  • Behaviour – Study of behaviour in both healthy and sick animals
  • Dentistry – Animals’ teeth
  • Dermatology – Diseases and conditions of animals’ skin
  • Emergency and Critical Care – ‘ER’ and intensive care
  • Internal Medicine – Specialties including cardiology (heart and circulatory system), neurology (brain, spinal cord, and nervous system), and oncology (tumours and cancer)
  • Laboratory Animal Medicine – Research or practice specializing in laboratory animal species (rabbits, rats, mice, etc.)
  • Microbiology – Study of viruses and bacteria
  • Nutrition – Animal diets and required nutrients
  • Ophthalmology – Diseases and conditions of the eye
  • Pathology – Examination of organs, tissues, and body fluids to diagnose disease
  • Pharmacology – Study of effects of drugs on animals
  • Preventative Medicine – Study of how diseases are spread and how they can be prevented
  • Radiology – X-ray, ultrasound, CAT scan, MRI, and other imaging procedures to see ‘inside’ an animal’s body
  • Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation – Returning animals to normal function after injury, illness, or surgery
  • Surgery – Specialization in performing surgeries: orthopedics (bones, joints, ligaments of the body’s skeletal system); soft tissue surgery (internal organs, non-bone tissues)
  • Theriogenology – Animal reproduction
  • Toxicology – Study of the effects of toxins/poisons and how to treat animals affected by them
  • Zoological Medicine – Zoo animals, free-living wildlife, aquatic species, and companion zoological animals

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How should a high school student prepare for a career in veterinary medicine?

High school students interested in becoming veterinarians should seek part-time or volunteer work on farms, in small-animal clinics, pet shops, animal shelters, or research laboratories. Extracurricular activities, such as 4-H, are suitable ways to learn about the care of animals. This is essential because numerous veterinary schools have established experience with animals as a criterion for admission to their programs. Many veterinarians advise those determined to enter the field to start applying to vet school in the first year of college or university, because it is not uncommon for students to get rejected one or more times before being accepted.

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What is the biggest misconception about being a Veterinarian?

The initial image of a veterinarian for most people is of someone who is fortunate to spend every working day with cute and cuddly animals and their kind and responsible owners. While this can be and often is part of the reality of a veterinary practice, it does not describe the other aspects and possible scenarios in a day in the life of a vet. Throughout his or her career, a veterinarian may encounter abusive animal owners, aggressive or dangerous animals, and difficult recommendations and decisions.

This misconception illustrates the need for prospective veterinarians to consider the career’s diverse demands and to recognize that the profession calls upon much more than a love for animals. Of course, the career calls for a steady hand and manual dexterity to conduct surgery and other procedures. In addition, though, veterinarians need to be articulate communicators to effectively explain and recommend treatments and provide concise instructions to their staff. They need to be compassionate in the face of fatal illness and emotional owners. They need to be able to make decisions around choices of treatment or euthanasia. They must hone management skills to direct their support teams and delegate responsibilities.

So, while the obvious focus of a veterinary practice is animal health, the career is clearly one which often summons observation and communication skills, compassion, and business management abilities.

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Should I become a Veterinarian?

Love of animals. Compassion. Communication skills. Empathy. Observational, critical thinking, decision-making, and problem-solving skills. Manual dexterity. Physical stamina. These are the characteristics and abilities which most people would identify as describing the best veterinarians. And they would be right.

While you may possess many or all of the above traits, before you commit to becoming a veterinarian, take some time to consider these realities of the profession:

Working with people is as much a part of the job as working with animals
It is the owners that need to decide what treatment they want or can afford. This limits what you can do and requires that you develop a capacity to listen and collaborate.

Putting down a pet is an inevitable part of the job
Vets present owners with every diagnostic and treatment option available; but sometimes, despite the sadness involved, euthanasia is the most compassionate and dignified course of action. While you will never become numb to this part of the job, you will have to become realistic and be able to handle these situations.

Some animals will be difficult to handle
It is not uncommon for animals in a new environment with new people to be terrified and act aggressively. The smaller ones will likely be manageable. Larger ones, however, may pose some challenges. You will have to find ways to minimize their fear and make them feel comfortable.

Pet owners may be offended by or won’t listen to your advice
This scenario often occurs in the case of an obese animal. Owners may find it hard to see their pet’s obesity as more than a cosmetic concern and as one that puts their pet at increased risk of diabetes and painful arthritis. Being able to get owners not to equate food with love can be a frustrating and difficult exercise.

You won’t always be working with puppies and kittens
While dogs and cats are their most common patients, veterinarians also see guinea pigs, ferrets, hamsters, rabbits, and occasionally birds and lizards for annual exams. Sometimes, referral to a specialist will be necessary, but most often these situations simply involve stepping out of the norm and calling upon training.

Being a pet owner will make you a better veterinarian
Veterinarians’ patients can’t express what’s wrong, so living with an animal helps vets to be a bit more in tune with them and with their owners.

Not every pet owner will be able to do – or want to do – everything for their pet
For some owners, their pets are their children and they would do absolutely anything for them. Other owners may love their pets equally, but resources may limit what they can spend. As a veterinarian, you will have to come to understand different personal situations and respect personal decisions.

How long does it take to become a Veterinarian?

The road to becoming a veterinarian is paved with a love of animals, an interest in science, and a commitment to education.

In the U.S., the vast majority of veterinarians spend eight years studying to enter the field.

  • Bachelor’s Degree – four years
  • Doctor of Veterinary Medicine Degree – four years

Optional specialization – which requires an internship or one year of practice, plus a two- or three-year residency – will add a minimum of another three years to the educational track.

Are Veterinarians happy?

Veterinarians rank among the happiest careers. Overall they rank in the 85th percentile of careers for satisfaction scores. Please note that this number is derived from the data we have collected from our Sokanu members only.

At the most basic of levels, the high happiness quotient for veterinarians may be rooted in the joy that comes with being in the company of animals, who do not judge, who simply accept.

What are Veterinarians like?

Based on our pool of users, veterinarians tend to be predominately investigative people. As with any work focused on medicine and medical diagnosis and treatment, inquiry, examination, and investigation are at the center of this profession.

Veterinarians are also known as:
Vet Veterinary Medicine Doctor Small Animal Veterinarian Emergency Veterinarian Doctor of Veterinary Medicine Large Animal Veterinarian Staff Veterinarian Veterinary Surgeon DVM Veterinary Physician Veterinary Doctor