When most people think of veterinarians, they think of the people who take care of their household pets. But veterinary medicine is much more expansive than that.
Ever been to a zoo? There are plenty of veterinarians who work there. Ever ridden a horse? There are horse vets to take care of them. Farms, ranches, state parks and even the federal government have veterinarians on staff to care for animals under their watch.
Veterinary medicine can be much more complex than human medicine because veterinarians have to learn so many different anatomies, and their animal patients can’t tell them what’s wrong. There are fewer resources, technology and training facilities available to veterinarians, too. For example, there are 192 medical schools in the U.S. Any guess as to how many veterinary schools there are? Try 30.
Becoming a veterinarian is a competitive and rigorous pursuit. The cost of school compared to the average salary isn’t the best either, but the love of animals and passion for science help those pursuing this career path push through.
Average veterinarian salary
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median veterinarian salary for 2019 was $95,460.
Most veterinarians work in private clinics and would earn around that amount over time. Some specialists can make more than the median, and some make less. For example, zoo veterinarians may make much less than that — between $40,000 and $70,000 — while practice-owning veterinarians might make more than that — over $100,000.
Specialists can earn in the top 10% of veterinarians ($150,000 or more), especially those in ophthalmology, radiology, pathology and surgery.
The majority of veterinarians’ salaries are clustered around the median, but specializing is one way to earn more money.
Veterinarian job outlook
The job outlook was pretty good for veterinarians before 2020 and may be looking even brighter now. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were more than 84,500 employed veterinarians in 2018, and that number is projected to grow to over 100,100 by 2028. That’s an 18% total increase, which is well above average.
The majority of veterinarians work at clinics and hospitals, and during the COVID-19 shutdown, many people acquired household pets that will need care for the rest of their lives. Also, veterinarians we’ve consulted with during the shutdown have mostly said they’re busier than ever. And more work means more income for most veterinarians.
Although many recognize that Mars Corp., which owns veterinary care center networks Banfield and VCA, is a large conglomerate, more than 90% of veterinary clinics and hospitals are independently owned.
Other employers like the USDA, zoos, farms and ranches make up a small percentage of veterinarian employment.
Veterinarians have a variety of employment opportunities. Short supply of veterinary schools and normal demand growth for veterinarians are factors that bode well for income growth over time.
How to become a veterinarian
The two defining characteristics of veterinarians are that they love animals and enjoy science. Aspiring veterinarians also have to be great students as well because veterinary schools have a limited number of spots and are highly competitive.
These are the main steps to become a veterinarian:
1. Get a bachelor’s degree at a college that offers prerequisite courses for veterinary school
Although that a pre-vet major is not required, according to the AVMA, it can help prepare you for veterinary school. Veterinary school prerequisites are heavy in math and science just like premed programs, especially in terms of biology and chemistry. An aspiring veterinarian will have to take advanced courses like biochemistry, organic chemistry and physics.
For a comprehensive list, check out the AAVMC prereq chart here.
2. Take the graduate record exam
The GRE is a standardized test that many schools require to apply for graduate and professional schools. Most veterinary schools require it, and some require the Biology GRE.
3. Apply to veterinary schools
Because vet school is highly competitive, aspiring veterinarians can increase their chances of getting accepted to a program by spending quality time on their application and going above and beyond to show they are serious about it.
Sometimes good grades aren’t enough, so networking with and working for veterinarians who would be willing to write a letter of recommendation would be a major plus.
Applications to veterinary school are processed through the Veterinary Medical College Application Service, and you can find all the information and VMCAS tips here. Nearly 50% of people who apply to vet school end up attending somewhere according to the AAVMC.
4. Complete veterinary school to become a doctor of veterinary medicine
Most vet schools are four-year programs. The first two years are heavy in anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, surgery and other veterinary medicine courses. The next two years are clinical studies working directly with animals, doing research and getting other training.
Again, vet school is similar to medical school except that aspiring DVMs need to learn many different types of anatomies.
5. Pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam
Passing the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam is required to get a license to practice veterinary medicine. Some states might also have additional testing requirements.
6. (Optional Step) Pursue extra training in a specialization program
Veterinarians can choose to specialize in one of 22 specific areas of veterinary medicine including:
This additional training can take anywhere from one to three years.
Veterinary school options
There are 30 accredited colleges of veterinary medicine in the U.S. That’s not many to choose from, and the costs range the gamut.
Yes, an aspiring veterinarian should choose the school that feels like the best fit, but the costs vary widely from $150,000 to $400,000. Some vet schools leave DVMs with manageable student debt while others can destroy their finances if they’re not careful.
In-state schools are usually the least expensive option. Fortunately, the 30 vet schools are spread across more than 25 states, including the more populated ones. That means most aspiring veterinarians should be able to find an in-state option.
To learn more about the cost of vet schools, read Student Loan Planner founder Travis Hornsby’s article about the five categories of vet school.
Veterinarian student debt
Veterinarians have one of the highest student debt loads. We’ve done nearly 4,000 consults advising on over $1 billion in total student loan debt, and veterinarians are No. 3 in terms of highest average debt. Dentists, including specialists, are No. 1, followed by physicians, then veterinarians.
Here at Student Loan Planner, we’ve consulted individually with 377 veterinarians, and their average student debt is $277,949. That number is about three times the median veterinarian salary. Though this can seem like a crushing amount of debt, it doesn’t have to be a burden that eliminates veterinarians’ job satisfaction and passion.
With the potential massive student debt burden, it’s important that aspiring veterinarians understand what that debt looks like and ask themselves whether their passion for veterinary medicine and love of animals is worth it.
There are ways to pay back veterinary school student debt so that it doesn’t affect their job satisfaction and career fulfillment.
Get help with your veterinarian school debt before or after vet school
If you’re thinking about going to veterinary school, taking out six-figure student debt is a major financial commitment. How you fund your way to your DVM could have a dramatic impact on what your loan repayment plan looks like after graduating.
Get a custom strategy on the types of student debt to take out and your repayment options beforehand. Sign up for a pre-debt consultation with us.
If you’re already a veterinarian feeling the stress of student loans, we can help you get the clarity you need to focus on your love of veterinary medicine by helping you create a customized student loan repayment plan. We’ve advised on more than $100,000,000 in veterinary school debt and are intimately familiar with ways to pay it back.
Becoming a veterinarian is a worthwhile pursuit for those who love it. Knowing the path forward from an education standpoint as well as a financial standpoint can help you gain control of your financial future and enjoy your career choice to help animals.