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If you always wanted to be a veterinarian when you grew up, it was most likely because you had a soft spot for furry and feathered friends, from cats and dogs to rabbits and parakeets. It's only when you're at the point of actually choosing a career that a veterinarian salary becomes a consideration. While veterinarians don't earn as much as medical doctors, they still earn incomes that are well above average.
Veterinarians examine, diagnose and treat animals' illnesses and diseases; dress their wounds; provide vaccinations; prescribe lab tests and medications; perform basic surgeries such as spaying, neutering and setting bones; and advise animal owners on the diet, care and lifestyle to help their animals thrive.
Most vets have offices where people bring pets in for treatment. For more complicated cases, general vets refer their patients to veterinary hospitals that have the space, equipment and expertise to take X-rays, perform difficult surgeries and monitor the animals afterward.
Traditional veterinarians treat mainly dogs and cats, while so-called "exotic" veterinarians treat birds, rabbits, gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs and other small animals. Other vets may specialize in amphibians and reptiles. Those who treat farm animals usually go to the farm or ranch rather than having these animals brought to them. These veterinarians spend their days traveling from one farm or ranch to another, examining the animals in their normal environment. Naturally, vets who treat zoo animals go to their habitats in the zoo. Some vets treat animals that are intended to become human food. They provide preventive care, examine them for diseases and illnesses, and prescribe medication if necessary.
It typically takes eight years of education to become a veterinarian: four years to earn a bachelor's degree and four years of veterinarian school to earn a doctor of veterinary medicine (DVM or VMD). After graduating from veterinary school, you'll need to become licensed in the state where you'll be practicing. This requires passing the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination, as well as a state exam.
Getting into veterinary school is competitive, so you need to make your application stand out. Start by packing your undergraduate years with science courses, including anatomy, biology, chemistry, microbiology, physiology, animal science and zoology, as well as math. English, communications and writing classes are important too, because vets need to be able to speak easily with colleagues, assistants and pet owners.
Get as much experience working with animals as you can. Look for internships in veterinary clinics or hospitals to get a range of experience working hands-on with animals. Alternatively, because internships will be competitive too, look for work in a lab, or in an animal shelter, zoo, farm or stable. Whether the work is paid or volunteer is not as important as the type of experience you get from it. Let prospective employers know you want to be a veterinarian and need experience working directly with animals.
Tailor your experiences to the type of animals you want to treat. When looking at veterinary schools, be sure to choose those with programs for the type of vet you want to be. Only a few have small animal programs, for example. Most vet school education covers caring primarily for dogs and cats.
Some new veterinarians pursue internships after they receive their licenses to gain more experience in areas of interest, such as more advanced surgery, before going into practice on their own. You may choose to become certified in specific skills if you plan to specialize in them, although such certification is not required.
Just how much do veterinarians make a year? The median annual veterinarian salary in May 2017 was $90,420. A median salary is the midpoint in a list of salaries for an occupation, where half earn more and half earn less. The median salary of vets is about half that of doctors who care for people, which was $208,000 or more in May 2017. Vets with many years of experience or advanced surgery skills will, of course, earn salaries well above the median.
About the Industry
Most veterinarians work in veterinary clinics, where the vets and staff see Fluffy and Fido for preventive care or routine illnesses and injuries. Others work in veterinary hospitals that are larger facilities with more equipment.
The work is full-time and sometimes after hours, weekends and on short notice for emergencies. It can be physically demanding with a lot of standing while examining the animals. Vets who travel to the animals on farms, ranches and zoos are always on the move, driving in all kinds of weather and sometimes to remote locations.
Because they often see sick animals, and comfort their worried owners, a veterinarian's job can be stressful. Scared and ill animals can scratch, hiss, bark and bite, making the above-average veterinarian salary well earned.
Years of Experience
Although veterinarians aren't expected to have experience when looking for their first jobs, those who have at least a year or two of work experience are preferred. Jobs that offer a veterinarian salary on the higher end, well above the median vet salary, will go to those with more years of experience.
Job Growth Trend
The need for veterinarians is expected to grow 19 percent from 2016 to 2026. This is much faster than the average job growth in the U.S. More vets will be needed to perform the advanced treatments that technology continues to bring to the field, as well as to replace those who retire.
Barbara Bean-Mellinger is a freelance writer who lives in the Washington, D.C. area who has written about careers and education for work.chron.com, workingmother.com, classroom.synonym.com and more. Barbara holds a B.S. from the University of Pittsburgh and has won numerous awards for her writing.