When you think of health care practitioners, you may not think of veterinarians. However, as professionals who prevent and treat illnesses in animals, they too provide hands-on medical care.
The majority of vets treat household pets, including cats, dogs, birds and reptiles, while others specialize in treating horses, zoo animals and farm animals. Regardless of the animals involved, the job description for all vets is the same. They are responsible for the following:
Examining animals to assess their health and diagnose illnesses.
Performing surgeries, either of an emergency or routine nature.
Caring for wounded animals.
Educating owners about medical or preventative care.
Euthanizing animals when needed.
Working as a veterinarian can be demanding, both physically and emotionally, but it can also be a rewarding profession, particularly if you enjoy animals. The road to becoming a vet includes a significant amount of schooling, but average salaries in the field may make that time in the classroom worthwhile.
How Much do Veterinarians Make?
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, U.S. pet owners had more than 157 million companion animals (dogs, cats, birds and horses) in 2012. In 2011, six out of 10 pet owners said they considered their pets to be family members, and the average veterinary expenditure for all animals that year was $375.
Statistics like this point to the fact that veterinarians often enjoy financially rewarding careers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), veterinarians nationwide earned a mean annual salary of $98,230 in May 2014, and the top-paid 10 percent of earners enjoyed a median salary of $157,390 or more.
As in other careers, veterinarians' salaries vary with location, industry and experience. In 2014, average veterinarian salaries were highest when they worked for employers classified as "management of companies and enterprises" by the BLS. These vets had mean annual wages of $139,230.
Location also factors into veterinarian salaries. The following states and districts offered the highest annual average veterinarian salaries in 2014:
- Delaware: $128,740
- New Jersey: $120,240
- Connecticut: $119,670
- New York: $118,950
- California: $118,210
While the above states are relatively populous, and are among the states employing the highest levels of veterinarians, the demand for these professionals also is great in rural areas in states such as Texas, Wisconsin, Michigan, Washington, Arizona, North Carolina and Georgia, where veterinarians are needed to care for animals on farms and ranches.
Occupational Requirements and Job Types
In order to become a veterinarian, you need to graduate from an accredited college of veterinary medicine; the BLS says there are only 29 such programs in the U.S., which means that admission to veterinarian schools is highly competitive, with fewer than half of applicants accepted in 2012. Though not technically required, most successful applicants hold bachelor's degrees in biology, zoology or a related field. Earning a Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine (DVM) requires at least four years of full-time study and prepares you to take state licensing exams. State exams vary, but veterinarians in all states must be licensed before they can begin practicing.
- Like medical doctors, veterinarians often pursue a year-long internship upon receiving their DVMs. Following their internships, many vets pursue three- to four-year residency programs to specialize in fields such as surgery, internal medicine, oncology and anesthesiology.
- Veterinarians who treat pets generally begin their careers working in clinics and may later choose to pursue private practice. Vets in clinics and private practice often work long hours, and they often must work with passionate pet owners and in a noisy environment. It may also be an emotionally stressful job when dealing with sick or dying animals.
- Veterinarians specializing in farm animals usually live in rural areas and travel to ranches and farms to treat their patients. A growing number of veterinarians are involved in food safety and inspection. These vets inspect livestock, poultry, food processing plants and slaughterhouses to ensure sanitary conditions and prevent disease transmission. Still others may work in labs, with limited contact with animals themselves.
Successful veterinarians are strong in math and science, know how to communicate with pet owners and, above all, love animals.