What is a Veterinarian?
A Veterinarian is a specialized type of Doctor. Also known as: Veterinary Doctor, Veterinary Physician, DVM, Veterinary Surgeon, Staff Veterinarian, Large Animal Veterinarian, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, Emergency Veterinarian, Small Animal Veterinarian, Veterinary Medicine Doctor, Vet.
Table of Contents
- What is a Veterinarian?
- What does a Veterinarian do?
- What is the workplace of a Veterinarian like?
- Are there different types of Veterinarians?
- What is a veterinary specialist?
- How difficult is veterinary school?
- How should a high school student prepare for a career in veterinary medicine?
- What is the biggest misconception about being a Veterinarian?
- Further Reading
- Similar Careers
A veterinarian is a medical professional who protects the health and well-being of both animals and people. They diagnose and control animal diseases and treat sick and injured animals. They also advise owners on proper care of their pets and livestock. Veterinarians provide a wide range of services in private practice, teaching, research, government service, public health, military service, private industry, and other areas.
When taking the veterinarian's oath, a doctor solemnly swears to use his or her scientific knowledge and skills "for the benefit of society, through the protection of animal health, the relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge."
What does a Veterinarian do?
- Diagnoses animal health problems
- Vaccinates against diseases, such as distemper and rabies
- Medicates animals suffering from infections or illnesses
- Treats and dresses wounds
- Sets fractures
- Performs minor to complex surgery, depending on training
- Advises owners about animal feeding, behavior and breeding
- Euthanizes animals when necessary
- Provides preventive care to maintain the health of livestock
- Performs diagnostic tests such as X-ray, EKG, ultrasound, blood, urine, and faeces
In many respects, a veterinarian is similar to a pediatrician. Animals cannot talk like human beings, and much of the clinical history is obtained from the owner or client, as a pediatrician would obtain from a child's parents. Excellent people skills and communication skills are required.
What cannot be obtained from the clinical history is acquired with the fingers, eyes, and smell. The ability to listen with a stethoscope and palpate with the fingers and hands will reveal much of the physical findings. The sense of smell is also important in detecting the fruity odor of the ketotic cow's breath, or the urea from the breath of a cat in renal failure.
What cannot be revealed by the history and exam is further supported by diagnostic tests like blood work, urinalysis, and fecal exams. Veterinarians are well trained in laboratory medicine and parasitology.
The general practice veterinarian spends one-third to one-half of his or her time in surgery. Animal neutering operations are done in most veterinarians' offices. Many veterinarians also perform orthopedic procedures, bone setting, dentistry, and trauma surgery. Surgery requires good hand and eye coordination, and fine motor skills. A veterinarian's job is similar to that of a human doctor.
When health problems arise, veterinarians diagnose the problem and treat the animal. Accurate diagnosis frequently requires laboratory tests, radiography, and specialized equipment. Treatments may involve a number of different procedures including emergency lifesaving techniques, prescribing medication, setting fractures, birthing, performing surgery, or advising an owner on feeding and care of the animal.
To prevent the introduction of foreign diseases, veterinarians employed by government agencies quarantine and inspect animals brought into the country from other countries. They supervise shipments of animals, test for the presence of diseases and manage campaigns to prevent and eradicate many diseases such as tuberculosis, brucellosis, and rabies, which threaten animal and human health.
A veterinarian in research looks for better ways to prevent and solve animal and human health problems. Many problems, such as cancer and heart disease, are studied through the use of laboratory animals, which are carefully bred, raised, and maintained under the supervision of veterinarians.
There are many veterinarians that are professors, teaching at schools and universities of veterinary medicine. In addition to teaching, veterinary school faculty members conduct basic and clinical research, contribute to scientific publications, and develop continuing education programs to help graduate veterinarians acquire new knowledge and skills.
Veterinarians also work in the area of public health. They help to prevent and control animal and human diseases and promote good health. As epidemiologists they investigate animal and human disease outbreaks such as food-borne illness, influenza, plague, rabies, AIDS, and encephalitis. They evaluate the safety of food processing plants, restaurants, and water supplies. Veterinarians in environmental health programs study and evaluate the effects of various pesticides, industrial pollutants, and other contaminants on people as well as on animals.
As opposed to human medicine, general practice veterinarians greatly out-number veterinary specialists. Most veterinary specialists work at a veterinary school, or at a referral centre in large cities. As opposed to human medicine, where each organ system has its own medical and surgical specialties, veterinarians often combine both the surgical and medical aspect of an organ system into one field. The specialties in veterinary medicine often encompass several medical and surgical specialties that are found in human medicine. Within each veterinary specialty, one will often find a separation of large animal medicine from small animal medicine. Some veterinary specialties are evolving, some are limited only in the teaching universities, and some are practiced only in the field.
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What is the workplace of a Veterinarian like?
Small animal veterinarians typically work in veterinary clinics or veterinary hospitals, or both. Large animal veterinarians often spend more time traveling to see their patients at the primary facilities which house them (zoos, farms, etc).
As opposed to a human doctor's office, which only has exam rooms, a veterinarian's office is more like a hospital with a full pharmacy. Waiting rooms are available often with separate areas for dogs, cats, and exotics.
Veterinarians may be employed or contracted by veterinary clinics and hospitals, government agencies, educational institutions, wildlife management groups, zoos, aquariums, ranches, farming-related businesses, or pharmaceutical companies.
The following are examples of types of veterinarians:
Companion animal Veterinarians
These veterinarians diagnose and treat diseases or abnormal conditions in animals, most often cats and dogs. They are the most common type of veterinarian and provide inoculations; prescribe medication; set bones; dress wounds; perform surgery and dental work; offer euthanasia services; and advise clients on the general care of their animals.
These are veterinarians in clinical practice who have advanced training and expertise in a particular animal species. Some examples are:
- Avian Practice (birds)
- Canine/Feline Practice (dogs and cats)
- Equine Practice (horses)
- Exotic Companion Mammal Practice (ferrets, rabbits, mice, rats, and other small mammals often kept as pets)
- Reptile and Amphibian Practice (snakes, lizards, salamanders, turtles, etc.)
Food animal Veterinarians
These are the veterinarians who work with farm animals raised to be food sources, most commonly cattle, pigs, chickens, and sheep. Food animal vets spend much of their time on farms and ranches and test for, treat, and vaccinate against disease. Their consultation with farmers includes topics such as housing, feeding, and general health.
Food safety and inspection Veterinarians
The primary focus of these veterinarians is the inspection and testing of livestock and animal products. This involves vaccinating animals, conducting research to improve animal health, and examining slaughtering and processing plants. Food safety and inspection vets also participate in the administration of animal and public health programs designed to prevent and control transmission of diseases among animals and between animals and people. In short, they work to enforce government regulations concerning food safety.
These veterinarians contribute to human health as well as animal health by engaging in research to prevent and treat diseases in humans. They may conduct clinical research on health problems which afflict both humans and animals; investigate the effects of drug therapies; and test potential new surgical techniques.
While most enter general practice, veterinarians, like medical doctors, may choose to complete additional training and specialize in a specific field of veterinary medicine. Perhaps surprisingly, there are currently twenty-two sub-disciplines recognized by the American Board of Veterinary Specialties.
The following provides a brief description of the focus of each specialty area:
- Anesthesia – Management of pain associated with veterinary procedures
- Animal Welfare – Education, certification, and scientific investigation
- Behaviour – Study of behaviour in both healthy and sick animals
- Dentistry – Animals’ teeth
- Dermatology – Diseases and conditions of animals’ skin
- Emergency and Critical Care – ‘ER’ and intensive care
- Internal Medicine – Specialties including cardiology (heart and circulatory system), neurology (brain, spinal cord, and nervous system), and oncology (tumours and cancer)
- Laboratory Animal Medicine – Research or practice specializing in laboratory animal species (rabbits, rats, mice, etc.)
- Microbiology – Study of viruses and bacteria
- Nutrition – Animal diets and required nutrients
- Ophthalmology – Diseases and conditions of the eye
- Pathology – Examination of organs, tissues, and body fluids to diagnose disease
- Pharmacology – Study of effects of drugs on animals
- Preventative Medicine – Study of how diseases are spread and how they can be prevented
- Radiology – X-ray, ultrasound, CAT scan, MRI, and other imaging procedures to see ‘inside’ an animal’s body
- Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation – Returning animals to normal function after injury, illness, or surgery
- Surgery – Specialization in performing surgeries: orthopedics (bones, joints, ligaments of the body’s skeletal system); soft tissue surgery (internal organs, non-bone tissues)
- Theriogenology – Animal reproduction
- Toxicology – Study of the effects of toxins/poisons and how to treat animals affected by them
- Zoological Medicine – Zoo animals, free-living wildlife, aquatic species, and companion zoological animals
While the claim by some that veterinary school is harder than medical school can be debated, there are factors which justify the argument. The patients of veterinarians possess very little means of communication and in veterinary medicine there exists a wider range of species. Yet, because less money has been spent on veterinary research, there are fewer treatment protocols from which to choose. While this fact simplifies decisions around treatment, it also limits options and potentially reduces the likelihood of cure or rehabilitation. Whether or not vet school is more difficult than medical school is irrelevant. The truth is that, like all worthwhile careers, veterinary medicine is a challenging field which demands dedication and commitment.
High school students interested in becoming veterinarians should seek part-time or volunteer work on farms; in small-animal clinics, pet shops, animal shelters, or research laboratories. Extracurricular activities, such as 4-H, are suitable ways to learn about the care of animals. This is essential because numerous veterinary schools have established experience with animals as a criterion for admission to their programs. Many veterinarians advise those determined to enter the field to start applying to vet school in the first year of college or university, because it is not uncommon for students to get rejected one or more times before being accepted.
The initial image of a veterinarian for most people is of someone who is fortunate to spend every working day with cute and cuddly animals and their kind and responsible owners. While this can be and often is part of the reality of a veterinary practice, it does not describe the other aspects and possible scenarios in a day in the life of a vet. Throughout his or her career, a veterinarian may encounter abusive animal owners; aggressive or dangerous animals; and difficult recommendations and decisions.
This misconception illustrates the need for prospective veterinarians to consider the career’s diverse demands and to recognize that the profession calls upon much more than a love for animals. Of course, the career calls for a steady hand and manual dexterity to conduct surgery and other procedures. In addition, though, veterinarians need to be articulate communicators to effectively explain and recommend treatments and provide concise instructions to their staff. They need to be compassionate in the face of fatal illness and emotional owners. They need to be able to make decisions around choices of treatment or euthanasia. They must hone management skills to direct their support teams and delegate responsibilities. So, while the obvious focus of a veterinary practice is animal health, the career is clearly one which often summons observation and communication skills; compassion; and business management abilities.
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