How to Become a Veterinarian

Veterinarian examining cat
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Veterinarians are the primary providers of healthcare services to companion, zoo and sporting animals, and livestock. Most work in private practices, typically caring for small animals such as dogs, cats, and birds. Find out exactly what you need to do to become a vet, including education and licensing requirements, but first, see what characteristics will help make you successful in this occupation.

Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Veterinarian?

To work in this occupation, you must have a strong aptitude for science, since your training will consist mostly of coursework in this subject. If science isn't your strength, you can still find a career working with animals in another occupation.

In addition to scientific aptitude, there are other qualities, known as soft skills, you must have. Aside from the obvious—compassion, sensitivity to others' feelings, and a love of animals—you must have very good listening, speaking, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. You must possess the ability to reason, meaning that you have to be able to draw conclusions by piecing together strands of information that may not seem related to one another.

Required Education

Aspiring veterinarians must earn a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree, abbreviated as either DVM or VMD. This is a four-year program that usually, but not necessarily, follows earning a bachelor's degree.

In vet school your coursework probably will include the following:

  • Gross anatomy
  • Animal health and disease
  • Veterinary practice
  • Parasitology
  • Radiology
  • Pharmacology
  • Food animal (livestock for beef, pork, etc.) medicine
  • Veterinary physiology
  • Animal behavior
  • Ophthalmology

All DVM and VMD students also receive clinical training as part of their education. These are usually called clinical rotations and give students hands-on experience working with patients and clients. They may work in a variety of clinical areas, including surgery, community practice, equine medicine, and oncology.

Getting Admitted to a Professional DVM or VMD Program

With only 30 veterinary schools in the U.S., competition for admission is intense. While an undergraduate degree is not required, it will increase your chances of being accepted.

Before you can enroll, you will need a certain number of college credits, as well as prerequisite coursework including classes in biology, chemistry, physics, genetics, biochemistry, math, English, social sciences, and the humanities.

Most schools request scores from a standardized test, such as the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) or the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). Check with the schools where you want to apply to find out which test they require.

The Association of American Veterinary Colleges provides admissions requirements and other information for member schools in the U.S., as well as details about Canadian and other international schools. You also will find details about Canadian and other international schools.

Getting Licensed After Graduation

Every state and the District of Columbia mandate that all veterinarians have a license to practice. Requirements vary by jurisdiction, but all stipulate that individuals pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination. This is a computerized 360 question multiple-choice exam. You may also have to pass a state exam.

One must have received a professional degree from a veterinary school of medicine accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and completed at least one year of clinical training through an internship or similar experience. Some state boards will license graduates of unaccredited programs with additional testing. Continuing education is generally required for license renewal. To find out what regulations are in effect state-by-state, visit the American Association of Veterinary State Boards and see the Board and Agency Directory.

How to Get Your First Veterinarian Job

Demand for veterinarians far outweighs demand for most professions. Job growth for the decade ending in 2028 is projected to be 18%, significantly better than the 5% growth projected for all occupations combined.

Employers seek job candidates who provide exemplary care for animals, but they also typically value:

  • Communication skills: Animals obviously can't speak for themselves, so good vets listen to animal owners and thoroughly explain treatment needs and plans.
  • Teamwork: Care for animals involves the work of veterinarians, technicians, assistants, and more all working together.
  • Compassion: In addition to serving the needs of animals, it's also important to recognize and respect the feelings of their owners.