In the past, veterinary practice focused primarily on large animals in the classical rural large animal or equine practice or on dogs and cats in a suburban neighborhood small animal practice. Today, however, the breadth of veterinary medicine encompasses much more. Veterinarians are in the unique position of being the only doctors educated to protect the health of both animals and people. They play an important role in environmental protection, food safety, and public health. In taking the Veterinarian’s Oath, a new graduate swears to use his/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.”
The majority of veterinarians are in private small, large or mixed animal clinical practice, but many also practice in county, state, federal governments, universities, private industry, zoos, the U.S. military, wildlife organizations, racetracks, and circuses. Board Certified Specialists run referral practices in one of 20 AVMA-recognized veterinary specialties (surgery, internal medicine, animal behavior, dentistry, dermatology, ophthalmology, pathology, laboratory animal medicine, radiology, preventive medicine, etc.) Practices exist that are limited to avian medicine, exotic animals, aquatic animals, cancer treatment, in vitro fertilization, geriatric care, preventive medicine, and in-home euthanasia. The following federal agencies employ a large number of veterinarians: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Defense, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. At present, there is a shortage of veterinarians who enter research and public practice as a whole.
There are 28 colleges and schools of veterinary medicine in the U.S. There is no distinction between a college and a school and the terms are used interchangeably. After completing the required veterinary medical curriculum (usually over a period of four years), many graduates choose to pursue additional education in one of the recognized veterinary specialties. Others go on to receive a Ph.D. if they want to teach or conduct research. Many students, during their third year of veterinary school consider further education through internships as a lead-in to a residency program. Internships and residencies are optional and not required to become a licensed, practicing veterinarian.
Each college or school veterinary medicine has its own list of required courses and it is important you check the requirements for each school. Courses that may be required (not all schools require all of these courses) include Math (Calculus); Biology with lab, Cell Biology, Inorganic and Organic Chemistry with labs, Physics, Biochemistry, Genetics, Microbiology, Statistics, Animal Sciences, Zoology, Immunology, Embryology. Courses in English, Social Sciences, and Behavioral Sciences may also be required. Most schools required the Graduate Entrance Exam (GRE) and a few accept the MCAT. Academics play a significant role in the admissions process, but most competitive candidates also have a strong record of animal and health-related experience. Students may shadow, complete an internship, obtain employment, attend a summer enrichment program, or do research as ways of gaining this first-hand exposure. Developing a breadth of experience in different veterinary settings is to an applicant’s advantage.