If you want to merge your love of animals and science, becoming a veterinarian can lead you to a fulfilling career. To become a veterinarian, you need to be compassionate, patient, and resilient. Your four-legged patients, unfortunately, can’t talk, so you’ll need to have an excellent understanding of animal symptoms, disorders, and diseases.
But how long does it take to become a veterinarian and live your dream of nursing animals back to health? This complete guide will walk you through how long you can expect to be in school, whether or not vet school is worth it for you, and everything you’ll need to do to realize your dreams.
Earning the necessary credentials to become a veterinarian is a lengthy commitment. After high school, becoming a vet takes about eight years: four years earning your undergraduate degree and four years at a vet school earning your Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM).
However, this timeline can vary. Sometimes people can finish their undergraduate degrees earlier or take an extra year. DVM programs are typically four years long, but some programs can take three years.
Some students may choose to complete a year-long internship to gain additional training and clinical skills before practicing on their own. If you want to work in a specialty area of veterinary medicine, you’ll likely need to continue studying for at least three years through a residency.
There are 41 distinct specialties in veterinary medicine, including behavior, dentistry, pathology, and toxicology. Other specialties include caring for animals other than your run-of-the-mill family pets, like poultry, zoo animals, and reptiles or amphibians.
Dr. Jim Carlson, a veterinarian outside Chicago, said, "You get to learn about the large and small animals. That's unique to our profession, because we come out (of vet school) having a basic knowledge of all animals, from ants to elephants.”
The bottom line is becoming a veterinarian can take you anywhere from around seven to nine years to complete, and perhaps many more if you want to pursue a specialty. For example, if you're going to specialize in reptiles and amphibians, you’ll need to tack on another six years of schooling before you can earn certification.
Becoming a veterinarian can be a rewarding line of work, but it can be challenging to decide if vet school is the right path for you. If the idea of working with animals fills you with joy but wondering what you should do, it’s helpful to weigh vet school’s benefits and considerations.
You’ll learn about many aspects of animal healthcare. One of the best parts about going to vet school is you’ll learn a lot about all types of animals, not just cats, and dogs. When you become a veterinarian, you’re sure to never have an identical workday.
Dr. Robin Solomon, a licensed and practicing veterinarian in New York, said the vet school curriculum is diverse, balancing science courses with clinical training. Solomon said, “classes include the anatomy and physiology of many species (cats, dogs, horses, cows, and exotic species), nutrition, microbiology, infectious diseases, internal medicine, and surgery. Elective courses are also offered in areas of aquatic and zoo animal medicine, conservation of endangered species, rehabilitation medicine and Eastern medicine such as acupuncture.”
Vet school education allows you to absorb tremendous amounts of material before you graduate. After you become a veterinarian, you’ll still enjoy a level of variety. Dr. Tony DeMarco, a veterinarian who owns the Lee's Summit, Missouri, said, “I might see a cute new family puppy first thing in the morning and then evaluate a sick cat for surgery.” If you crave new and exciting prospects in your career, you’re sure to have it as a veterinarian.
You’ll also get to work with animals as part of your career; if that’s your main goal, going to vet school is worth it.
You can have numerous career options. Unlike med school, there’s no pressure to choose a specialization; many veterinarians never choose one. Dr. Lori Pasternak, the co-founder of Helping Hands Affordable Veterinary Surgery & Dental Care, said, “Every day we get to be dermatologists, cardiologists, surgeons, internists, neurologists, ophthalmologists, and more.”
Even if you don’t want to choose a specialization, there are many job types within the veterinary field. Veterinarians aren’t limited to just working at a private practice. They can work in research, public health, the military, and regulatory medicine, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration. DeMarco said, “There are many potential career paths, from small animal doctor to state health inspector, and from researcher to relief vet."
You can see the results of your hard work. As a veterinarian, your job is to speak for those without a voice and sleuth to figure out what's going on with an animal. Veterinarians need to have excellent communication skills and be able to collaborate with animal owners to deduce a pet’s issue. Beginning a treatment or identifying what’s wrong with an animal helps them and sometimes distraught owners who bring them to you. You get to know your community and see the animals you work with return to their former health through your work.
The demand for veterinarians is expected to grow. Job security is an excellent benefit of going to vet school. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the employment of veterinarians will grow 17% between 2020 and 2030, a much faster rate than other occupations. The BLS projects approximately 4,400 openings for veterinarians per year for the next decade, primarily to replenish the labor force as other vets retire.
Pursuing a veterinary medicine education can be pricey and time-consuming. Getting your DVM takes about four years, filled with challenging courses and a demanding schedule. You also need to factor in your education’s price. Tuition can be hefty depending on if you’re attending school in-state or out-of-state and which school you choose.
Your salary will likely be lower than a physician’s. De Marco said that the salary-to-debt ratio is poor for veterinarians, but people generally don’t choose the job because they expect it to be lucrative. “Money can be a touchy subject, especially since we work in a caring profession and generally prefer to tackle medical rather than financial challenges,” he said.
The BLS states veterinarians’ median pay in 2020 was $99,250 per year or $47.72 per hour. In comparison, physicians’ median pay was equal or greater to $208,000 per year.
You have to prepare for less than ideal animal situations. In theory, becoming a veterinarian sounds like a happy job where you nurse animals back to health, and everything is excellent. Unfortunately, that’s not reality. Animal lovers will need to learn how to deal with sad scenarios in their time as veterinarians; just like human medicine, sometimes there’s not much left you can do.
Getting into vet school can be challenging. Getting accepted at a vet school takes a lot of time and effort to ensure your application is polished and ready for submission. Vet schools are competitive, as there are only 32 of them in the U.S., making a perfect application crucial to boost your acceptance chances. Despite this, you should never let admissions statistics scare you away from attending the school of your dreams.
Although vet school and becoming a veterinarian have pros and cons, it's a worthwhile and needed profession. If you know working with animals will be a rewarding experience for you, these are the things you’ll need to do to make your veterinarian dreams a reality.
Most vet schools require students to earn a bachelor’s degree. Your choice of major generally doesn’t matter as much as you think it does, but degrees in biology or animal science may better prepare you for the rigors of vet school.
Besides earning a bachelor’s, vet schools have prerequisite courses to enter the program. Though these prerequisites can vary depending on the school, you’ll likely need to take chemistry, biology, physics, and mathematics classes to satisfy requirements.
Gaining experience through volunteer work and extracurricular activities related to the field will help you. Experience with animals can help strengthen your application and prepare you for the work you’ll do in vet school. You can decide to do an internship, shadow a veterinarian, join a pre-vet club or an organization at your undergraduate university.
The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a standardized test required to enter most vet school programs. Some schools may also accept the MCAT in its place. These are both challenging tests requiring a great deal of preparation. Performing well on the GRE shows you can handle vet school’s rigorous curriculum.
Once you’ve completed all the prerequisites, you can start applying to vet schools. You’ll need to gather all application materials, like your official transcripts and test scores. You’ll likely have to provide letters of recommendation, a resume outlining your professional experience to date, and essays to highlight your candidacy. Note that different schools can have varying admissions requirements, so ensure you have everything they need to decide.
DVM’s usually take four years to complete, and the first half of your journey will likely consist of coursework and labs. School curriculums can vary, but you may start gaining more practical experience in your third year. Your final year is spent completing clinical rotations to give you the hands-on experience you need to succeed.
The NAVLE is considered the most important test you’ll take because you need a passing score to practice. The computer-based test has 360 multiple-choice questions, divided evenly into six sections. The NAVLE will test your knowledge on many animal species, including canine, feline, equine, bovine, porcine, and many more. The exam is broken down into four competency areas:
While you can begin practicing immediately after you graduate and obtain your license, some may want to pursue an internship to gain more confidence first or complete a residency to specialize in the area of their choice.
If you feel you have the skills and confidence to begin practicing immediately, you’re free to do so. You should apply for jobs as soon as you can, ideally before well before your graduation.
These commonly asked questions about becoming a veterinarian can guide you on your way to your future career.
Where you get your undergraduate degree doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things. All that matters is you obtain your bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution—most vet schools require applicants to hold bachelor’s degrees. That being said, you should ensure you strive for excellent grades in college to boost your chances of admission later. Excellent grades demonstrate your academic aptitude and show you can handle the rigorous instruction vet schools offer.
Your college major isn’t too important, but pursuing an undergraduate degree related to what you'll study in vet school can better prepare you. Examples of related majors include biology, chemistry, and biological science.
Most vet schools have a list of prerequisite courses you must take to gain entry, so it’s helpful to know about them before beginning your college journey. For example, top vet school UC Davis’ prerequisites include:
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, participation “in 4-H, the National FFA Organization – formerly Future Farmers of America – and other similar organizations is ‘great experience’ for vet school hopefuls.” Extracurricular activities and community service involvement show admissions committees your willingness to help others and contribute. If you can focus on and pursue activities related to animals (such as volunteering at your local shelter), your experience will fortify your application.
You can do whatever suits your needs best. If you’re not ready to practice on your own yet, an internship can be a great way to build your confidence and hone your skills. If you’re interested in a particular specialization in veterinary medicine, completing a residency will help you achieve your goal.
If you feel ready to do so and don’t want to specialize, you can begin practicing immediately after you’re licensed.
The top 10 best U.S. vet schools are:
Most vet schools require the GRE, but some may accept the MCAT.
What you would consider a “good” GRE score is subjective. What makes a good score depends on the program you want to apply to, the rest of your application’s state, and the class profile data the school provides.
Excellent GRE scores can make your application more competitive. Evaluate the vet schools’ class profiles you want to apply to and see if they release data on GRE scores. If your GRE score is in the area of most admitted students (like the middle 50%), you can assume your scores would place you in good standing.
Vet school curriculums can be challenging. However, the Dean of Long Island University College of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Carmen Fuentealba, said students who perform well in high school and college shouldn’t fear the rigor of vet school: “There is not going to be any reason why you shouldn't succeed when you go to vet school.” Remember, a little faith in yourself can go a long way.
Becoming a veterinarian can be a long journey, especially if you’re hoping to specialize through a residency. If you’re not looking to become a specialist, you can expect to spend seven to nine years completing your post-secondary education.
While going to vet school can be challenging, you can reap the rewards after graduation. Becoming a veterinarian is a noble and rewarding career: you help lifeforms who otherwise can’t communicate. If you want to become a vet, you’ll have to go through many steps, but you can surely reach your goal with patience and hard work.