What Does a Veterinary Surgeon Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

Vet surgeons operating on a dog
Monty Rakusen/Cultura/Getty Images

Although all veterinarians are qualified to perform some surgical work, veterinary surgeons are specially trained and certified to perform advanced general or orthopedic surgical procedures on a variety of animals.

Veterinary Surgeon Duties & Responsibilities

The duties of a veterinary surgeon in private practice require the ability to do the following work:

  • Conduct presurgical exams and diagnostic tests.
  • Evaluate X-rays and nuclear scans.
  • Use specialized equipment.
  • Perform surgical procedures.
  • Draft case reports.
  • Supervise post-operative care.
  • Interact with surgical veterinary technicians, primary and emergency vets, support staff, and animal owners.
  • Prescribe follow-up home care.

An array of technical proficiencies and knowledge coalesces in veterinary surgery, which necessitates as well a steady emotional keel, precision hand-eye coordination, a keen intellect, sharp inductive and deductive reasoning skills, quick reflexes, and good judgment honed by years of education, training, and the company of animals. A veterinary surgeon must also be sensitive to the needs of the owners and help them understand the important role they play in their animals' recovery.

Veterinary Surgeon Salary

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't provide salary data for veterinary specialties but reports that the median salary of veterinarians was $93,830 ($45.11/hour) in 2018. However, board-certified veterinary surgeons likely earn salaries that are somewhat higher than those of veterinarians:

  • Median Annual Salary: $98,000
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: More than $173,000
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: Less than $54,000

Source: PayScale.com, 2019

Education, Training, & Certification

Veterinary surgeons need a high level of education, hands-on experience as a resident, to publish in a scientific journal, and pass a rigorous exam:

  • Education: Preparing for a career in veterinary surgery begins in high school, with a focus on math, laboratory sciences, and English composition courses. Practical experience with animals by joining 4-H or by working part-time or volunteering at a veterinary clinic, humane society shelter, or the like is also helpful. Admission to a four-year college or university and completing studies in pre-veterinary science, biology, animal science, or a similar area is required. To be admitted to a four-year veterinary college, candidates must meet all course requirements and apply for admission through the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.
  • Training: Following successful completion of veterinary school, additional training in a specialty is required, including at least a one-year internship followed by a three-year residency that meets caseload and publishing requirements established by the American College of Veterinary Surgeons (ACVS).
  • Licensing: According to the American Association of Veterinary State Boards, veterinary surgeons must be licensed in each state where they practice; licensing requirements differ by state.
  • Certification: To become a board-certified veterinary surgeon, applicants take a certification exam administered by the ACVS. Register for the exam by submitting an online application and examination fee by the deadline.
  • Continuing Education: After passing the certification exam, veterinary surgeons are granted diplomate status in their veterinary specialty of surgery. As diplomates, they complete continuing education each year to maintain their licenses and stay abreast of new developments in the field.

Veterinary Surgeon Skills & Competencies

To perform your work competently and with compassion, you should love animals, have empathy for them and their owners, and cultivate several additional attributes and skills:

  • Communication skills: Good active listening skills, along with the ability to write and speak clearly, are crucial to effective communication with colleagues, surgical assistants, support staff, and animal owners.
  • Physical and emotional stamina: Although veterinary surgery may be deeply rewarding, it may also be physically and mentally exhausting, for example, when standing for hours at a time performing surgery or consoling a grieving animal owner.
  • Manual dexterity and excellent vision: Sharp vision and precision hand-eye coordination are needed when observing and assessing the patient and performing surgery.
  • Team orientation: Whether you work for a large animal hospital or you're in charge of your own mobile surgical unit, you must work well as part of a team and have the ability to lead when necessary.
  • Computer and software skills: Besides being comfortable using instant messaging, email, spreadsheet, and word processing apps, you may need the ability to use practice management, medical, and other types of software.

Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't provide information on veterinary specialties, but it does project an excellent employment outlook for all veterinarians. In fact, employment is expected to grow by 19% between 2016 and 2026, which is much faster than the average for all types of jobs. This is attributed, in part, to increases in pet-related spending and the availability of advanced surgical procedures and cancer treatments for animals.

Work Environment

Veterinary surgeons may work in climate-controlled clinics, research hospitals, or laboratory settings, although there may be times when they travel to a client's premises or to a conference or training site. If they have their own practice, they may work with an assistant or two out of a mobile surgical unit and visit two or three hospitals daily to perform complicated surgeries such as cranial cruciate repair.

Work Schedule

Veterinary surgeons may work regular weekday hours, although they sometimes work evenings, weekends, or holidays, depending on the workload and employer's needs. They should be flexible enough to take occasional last-minute schedule changes in stride. Those who work independently set their own schedule, such as Monday through Thursday mornings or any schedule that suits them and their clients.

How to Get the Job


Try your hand at working with animals to see if a career in veterinary surgery is a possibility for you.


Visit the American College of Veterinary Surgeons job board as well as the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges Career Center to find employment opportunities.

Comparing Similar Jobs

Similar jobs that may be of interest to those considering a career as a veterinary surgeon include:

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2018