What Does it Mean to Study Veterinary Science?
If you are a patient and caring person who loves animals and feels comfortable around them, you may want to explore the educational and career options within the field of veterinary science and animal care.
Veterinary scientists, technologists and technicians, as well as obedience trainers and even pet groomers, play a vital role in the maintenance and healthcare of pets, zoo animals, and livestock. In addition to meeting the healthcare and maintenance needs of animals, some individuals working in veterinary science use their skills to research diseases that also affect humans. For example, veterinary research played a significant role in conquering diseases such as yellow fever and malaria, and in understanding human heart disease, organ transplant procedures, and a variety of drug therapies.
Perhaps the most important thing to take into consideration is how you feel about animals. Working with animals requires patience, compassion, flexibility and a lack of squeamishness. Appreciating and loving animals is not enough. You must be genuinely invested in and intrigued by animals’ behaviors, physical systems, and habits. Animal specialists must not only promote the health and maintenance of the animals under their care, but they must also be able to lift and restrain animals that may be sick, scared or angry.
The veterinary science field offers many possible career choices. There are veterinarians, animal care and service workers, and veterinary technologists and technicians. In the following section, we examine each of these educational and career options in-depth, in order to explore which dimension of veterinary science may be most appropriate for you.
How to Choose a Degree Program in Veterinary Science
When thinking about pursuing a degree or certificate in veterinary science, it is important to think about your personal and professional goals, as there are a variety of colleges and universities that offer unique programs to meet specific student needs.
The following is a list of questions that potential students should ask themselves when researching veterinary science degrees:
- What is the primary focus of the degree or certificate program?
- What primary issues does the program cover in its curriculum?
- Is the program accredited?
- What are the coursework and time requirements of the program?
- What opportunities are offered by the program that may advance my knowledge?
- What are the credentials and areas of specialization of the faculty?
- What, if any, opportunities are available for community-based experience in the field?
In addition to these considerations, you may also want to spend time with animals in a variety of settings in order to explore your interest in veterinary science. As you do, you should consider the following questions in order to discern what aspects of veterinary science you would enjoy the most.
- How do I feel when I see an animal in distress?
- Am I able to work in stressful settings?
- How patient can I be with both animals and humans?
- Am I able to emotionally deal with the intensity of wounds and injuries?
Education and Career Paths in Veterinary Science & Animal Care
Veterinary science degrees and animal care courses are designed to teach students about animal anatomy, with a specialized focus of your choice. Students pursuing a career as a veterinarian must physically attend a veterinarian college; however, students wishing to specialize in other aspects of animal care and maintenance may choose to enroll in an online program in animal care, obedience training, veterinary assisting or similar if they so choose. The following are some of the various career and educational options in veterinary science.
Being a veterinarian requires a great deal of commitment. One-third of full time veterinarians spend 50 or more hours a week on the job. As with on-call physicians, their free time is often interrupted (typically even more so than physicians, since there are fewer vets serving any one area). There is sometimes a great deal of driving involved. Veterinarians must often work out of doors, in all kinds of weather, and with all kinds of animals.
In order to practice, a veterinarian must meet the following educational guidelines:
- Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Arts degree in chemistry, physics, biochemistry, biology, animal biology, or zoology
- Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM or VMD) degree from an accredited college of veterinary medicine
In order to be accepted into a veterinary medical college, students should have a minimum undergraduate GPA of a 3.0 and prior experience working with animals. Students may be required to take some or all of the following standardized tests: GRE, VCAT, or the MCAT.
Becoming a veterinarian requires the same amount of academic commitment one finds in the fields of dentistry and medicine. There are 28 colleges in the United States that meet accreditation standards established by the Council on Education of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Because there are so few accredited veterinary colleges, educational spaces are limited and competition can be quite intense.
While in veterinary college, students receive academic instruction in basic sciences for two years. The remainder of their academic time is spent focusing on clinical procedure, such as treating and diagnosing animal health issues, and performing surgery. During this time students perform laboratory work in medicine, anatomy, and biochemistry. At most veterinary colleges, students have the option of simultaneously earning both a DVM degree and a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree.
Veterinary graduates who want to work with particular animal populations often choose to pursue additional education in one of 20 AVMA-recognized specialties, such as radiology, pathology, surgery, or laboratory animal medicine. This continuing education typically takes the form of a two-year internship. Interns often receive a small salary or stipend; however, these specializations typically lead to higher-paying jobs in the future. Veterinarians seeking board certification in a specialized field of veterinary science must also complete a three- to four-year residency program in their area of focus.
In order to practice as a veterinarian, you must be licensed by your state. The majority of states also require potential veterinarians to pass a state jurisprudence examination covering state regulations and laws.
Small or Large Animals?
Veterinarians generally specialize in either small or large animals. Small animal veterinarians tend to care for pets, such as cats and dogs. They also treat birds, reptiles, rabbits and other animals that can be kept in a pet capacity. As of 2008, more than one-half of veterinarians exclusively treated small animals.
In clinical settings, small animal veterinarians diagnose health issues, vaccinate animals against diseases, and medicate animals experiencing illness or infection. When necessary, small animal veterinarians also perform surgery. Small animal veterinarians are also vital educators, teaching pet owners how to care for their pets properly. New veterinarians are often attracted to small animal medicine because they enjoy dealing with pets, as well as living and working in populated areas.
Veterinarians who work with large animals primarily focus on farms, ranches or zoos. These veterinarians usually drive to the animals’ locations and examine and treat them on-site. Large animal veterinarians often administer preventative care that can be key to the long-term health of their charges. They not only test for and vaccinate against certain diseases, but they also consult with farmers, ranchers, and land or park managers and therefore help maintain a web of community-based animal health information. This limits the spread of diseases and illness in regional populations and ensures health for the whole community.
Animal Care and Service Workers
The field of animal care and service are individuals includes animal caretakers and animal trainers. The job titles and duties of animal care and service workers vary. Individuals working in this capacity train, feed, water, groom, bathe, and exercise animals. They are also responsible for the cleanliness, maintenance, and repair of animal habitats, such as cages or staged natural environments. Individuals working in this realm of veterinary science may be employed by boarding kennels, animal hospitals, animal shelters, animal laboratories, stables, aquariums, or zoos.
Animal care and service workers are also involved in the emotional well-being of animals. In addition to supplying exercise and nourishment, they often play with the animals and closely monitor their moods. Animal care and service workers must remain vigilant about the animals they care for, always looking for indicators of illness, injury, or infection.
Most job training in animal care and animal-related service work can be achieved on the specific job site or through distance learning programs. Many of these programs, lasting anywhere from two to 20 weeks, specialize in pet grooming. After completion of a pet grooming certificate program, individuals take a written examination administered by the National Dog Groomers Association of America. This examination certifies groomers who pass the 400-question test.
You might also choose to work as a caretaker at an animal kennel or shelter — or even open your own rescue. The Pet Care Services Association (PCSA) offers a three-stage home study program for individuals interested in opening their own kennel as Certified Kennel Operators, or CKOs. The first two stages address basic and advanced principles of proper animal care. The final stage focuses on in-depth animal care as well as proper business procedures.
Animal caretakers in animal shelters are not required to have any specialized training. Most, however, are encouraged to attend training programs and workshops offered through the Humane Society of the United States, the American Humane Association, or the National Animal Control Association.
Most entry-level positions for animal care and service workers require only a high school diploma or GED equivalent. In some cases, a bachelor’s degree is required. For example, an animal trainer working at an aquarium may require a bachelor’s degree in biology or a related field.
Animal Care Career Outlook
Working as an animal care or service worker can be challenging. Animal care and service workers may have to witness and work with abused or neglected animals, and possibly hostile members of the public who abuse animals. In addition to these aspects of the job, animal care and service workers may have to work irregular hours and under adverse weather conditions. However, if you love animals, and are patient and flexible, you may find yourself blossoming in the field of animal care and service work.
- Animal caretakers are responsible for cleaning and maintaining animal cages and habitats, as well as feeding and watering the animals. Generally, kennel attendants care for pets while their owners are out of town. Kennel caretakers may be promoted into a kennel managerial position and may decide to open their own kennel. Those deciding to open their own kennels must meet PCSA certificate standards.
- Animal caretakers who work in stables are called grooms (not to be confused with “grooming,” above). Grooms are responsible for saddling and unsaddling horses, rubbing them down, walking them as a way of cooling them down after a brisk ride, and feeding them. Grooms also maintain horse stalls and gear.
- In zoo settings, animal care and service workers are often called keepers. Keepers prepare the food for animals and also maintain their habitats. They closely observe animals for signs of illness or injury and monitor eating patterns for other signs of imbalance.
- Another career option in the field of veterinary science is animal training. Animal trainers instruct animals for security, performance, and obedience purposes. They also train animals to assist individuals living with disabilities. In addition to working in a hands-on capacity, trainers are also frequently in charge of grooming and maintaining the diet and health of the animals they work with.
Veterinary Technologists and Technicians
Many veterinarians depend on the skills of veterinary technologists and technicians to help them dispense appropriate medical care to their patients. Both veterinary technologists and technicians work in a similar capacity to a nurse in a doctor’s office. Although job duties vary by employer, they are usually called upon to perform a variety of key laboratory and clinical duties and procedures. In order to be a veterinary technologist, you must complete a four-year degree program. Veterinary technicians require only two years of school.
Graduation from an accredited veterinary technology or technician program is necessary for students to take the appropriate state examinations. Candidates are tested for competency through an examination that has written, oral and practical portions. These tests are regulated by each state’s Board of Veterinary Examiners. Most states depend on the National Veterinary Technician (NVT) Exam. Depending on the state, graduates may be either registered, licensed, or certified upon passing the exam.
If you want to work in a technological or technician capacity at an animal research facility, you should seek American Association for Laboratory Animal Science (AALAS) certification. You must meet a series of educational and experiential requirements before qualifying to take the examination.
Technologists and technicians usually begin their careers in routine positions directly under the supervision of a veterinarian. As experience is gained, technologists and technicians take on more responsibility and can sometimes work in administrative or managerial capacities.
Veterinary Technician & Technologist Career Outlook
Veterinary technologists and technicians generally conduct clinical work under the supervision of a veterinarian in private practice. They perform various medical tests and also diagnose and treat medical conditions within animals. They often perform blood or urine tests, prepare tissue samples, and assist doctors in performing other tests. As a result, they are skilled in the use of clinical medical equipment. Veterinary technologists and technicians also record an animal’s health history, take and develop X-rays, and administer specialized medical care.
Veterinary technologists and technicians are also employed by research facilities. There, they may give animals medication topically and orally, prepare samples for examinations, and record information about animal behavior. Veterinary technologists and technicians working in such settings also frequently handle and maintain laboratory equipment. At research facilities, some veterinary technologists and technicians are responsible for vaccinating or euthanizing ill, injured, or unwanted animals.
Veterinary Associations and Organizations
- American Veterinary Medical Association
- Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges
- National Association of Federal Veterinarians