What Does a Zoo Veterinarian Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills & More

A day in the life of a zoo veterinarian: Treating wounds, determining diets and feeding schedules, compassion, physical dexterity

The Balance / Joshua Seong

Zoo veterinarians are specialists with advanced training in the treatment of exotic wildlife species who care for animals held in captivity. They are practitioners with extensive training in the care of non-domestic animal species. Their patients may include elephants, rhinos, giraffes, zebras, lions, tigers, bears, parrots, aquatic animals, small mammals, reptiles, and many other species. 

Zoo Veterinarian Duties & Responsibilities

Typical duties for a zoo vet may include:

  • Performing physical exams on animals
  • Administering sedation
  • Giving vaccinations
  • Administering and prescribing medication
  • Taking blood work and other samples
  • Performing surgery
  • Cleaning teeth
  • Taking ultrasounds and radiographs
  • Treating wounds
  • Determining diets and feeding schedules
  • Assisting with captive breeding programs
  • Supervising zoo veterinary technicians

Zoo veterinarians treat the injuries and illnesses of animals that live in zoos, as well as preventative medical care. They may use a variety of medical equipment, including surgical tools and imaging devices. 

Zoo veterinarians usually are employed by zoos, aquariums, museums, or research facilities. Other options for zoo veterinary practitioners include positions in academia (as professors or biology teachers), veterinary pharmaceutical sales, various government organizations, and laboratories. They may also be involved with research studies and interacting with the public as a part of educational events.

Zoo Veterinarian Salary

A zoo veterinarian's salary can vary depending on location, experience, and type of employer. Here's the breakdown for vets in general, which includes zoo vets:

  • Median Annual Salary: $90,420
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: $159,320
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $53,980

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017

Education, Training, & Certification

The lengthy and rigorous nature of specialty training programs and the difficulty of board certification exams ensure that only a limited number of professionals are able to attain board certification each year.

  • Education: All veterinarians graduate with a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree, which is achieved after completion of a demanding four-year course of study covering both small and large animal species. There are several accredited colleges of veterinary medicine in the United States that offer a DVM degree program.
  • Licensing: After graduating and passing the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam (NAVLE), a vet can be professionally licensed to practice medicine. 
  • Board certification process: There are several steps a vet must complete to achieve board certification in the specialty of zoological medicine. First, the vet must complete a one-year internship following their graduation. They must then complete a three- to four-year residency in an approved zoological medicine program (under the supervision of a board-certified diplomate). Residents must also publish five times in peer-reviewed journals, complete a credentials package, and secure letters of recommendation.
  • Board examination: The final step is to take the comprehensive two-day board examination, which consists of both written and practical elements. Those who pass the exam are recognized as board certified diplomates in zoological medicine.

Zoo Veterinarian Skills & Competencies

To be successful in this role, you’ll generally need the following skills and qualities:

  • Problem-solving skills: Diagnosing an illness in animals takes logical thinking and educated guessing. Administering treatment to animals can also present challenges and require adjustments based on each case.
  • Communication and interpersonal skills: Working with potentially dangerous requires teamwork between veterinary and other zoo staff. Zoo vets must also consult with a network of experts to stay on top of the latest techniques and advice to keep the animals and their caretakers safe.
  • Compassion: Zoo vets must treat animals with respect, kindness, and sensitivity.
  • Physical dexterity: Zoo vets must be able to skillfully work with animals of all sizes—from very large to tiny—and accurately perform procedures and surgeries.

Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of veterinarians is projected to grow 19 percent from 2016 to 2026, which is much faster than the 7 percent average for all occupations. Those who achieve board certification in zoological medicine should be readily able to find employment in the field. 

Work Environment

Zoo vets usually work onsite in zoos and aquariums, and their work may require being outdoors. When working with animals that are frightened or in pain, veterinarians risk being harmed or injured.

Work Schedule

Zoo veterinarians may be on call for emergencies, and hours often include some nights, weekends, and holidays. Many vets work 50 hours (or more) each week, sometimes on call when a new animal arrives at the zoo, or if there is a disease outbreak that affects many animals.

Comparing Similar Jobs

People who are interested in becoming zoo veterinarians may also consider other careers with these median salaries: 

  • Zoologist or wildlife biologist: $62,290
  • Agricultural and food scientist: $62,910
  • Medical scientist: $82,090
  • Veterinary technicians: $33,400

How to Get the Job

Get a Degree

You must have a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree to do this job.

Get Licensed

You must pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam (NAVLE) to start practicing professionally as a zoo vet.

Join a Professional Association

This could give an advantage to candidates. Choices include the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians (AAZV) and the European Association of Zoo and Wildlife Veterinarians (EAZW).