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Everything you need to know about veterinarians: who they are and what they do

Vet with a kitten and a dog in her arms advice

All there is to know about veterinarians

© Shutterstock

Doctors of veterinary medicine, or veterinarians, are medical professionals who protect the health and well-being of non-human animals.

By Justine Seraphin

If you own a pet, then chances are you’ve already met one.

What does a veterinarian do?

Amazingly, veterinarians are doctors of everything, and are incredibly diverse in their knowledge and skills. While us humans see dentists when we have problems with our teeth, dermatologists when we have problems with our skin, and ophthalmologists when we have problems with our eyes, our animals go see a single doctor for everything. What’s more, veterinarians have to know how to treat a lot more species than doctors do!

Although veterinarians treat animals, they do not actually spend much time in contact with them. After diagnosis or surgery, the duty of recovery and care usually falls to the Veterinary Assistant or Technician (much like a human nurse). Vets spend most of their time doing doctor-like things, including:

  • Examination of animals and diagnosis of health problems
  • Vaccination
  • Prescription of medication
  • Treatment of wounds
  • Setting of fractures
  • Tending of teeth
  • Performance of surgeries (e.g. neutering)
  • Euthanization of animals when necessary
  • Provision of preventative care
  • Performance of diagnostic tests (e.g. X-rays, blood samples, faecal samples, etc.,)
  • Advising of owners

Though veterinarians are expected to be comfortable in every one of these fields, they may choose to specialise in a specific domain. For instance, you may find vets specialised in behaviour or vets specialised in nutrition. If your vet has a specialty, that means he/she underwent additional training on top of his/her ‘basic’ veterinary education.

Where do veterinarians work?

The majority (around 75%) of veterinarians work in private practices and treat pets; primarily cats and dogs. These are the veterinarians that you know and have met. However, vets work in a variety of fields and treat an even larger variety of species.

For instance, there are equine veterinarians specialised in horses, avian veterinarians specialised in birds, and reptile and amphibian veterinarians specialised in snakes, lizards, and turtles, to name a few.

Veterinarian with a dog
What does a veterinarian do? ©Shutterstock

While many veterinarians work in private clinics, some work in the field. For instance, food animal veterinarians, or food safety and inspection veterinarians, commonly work with cattle, pigs, chicken, and sheep. In order to this, they must drive out to the farms where the animals are located. Other vets work in laboratories, to contribute to research on the prevention and treatment of diseases in animals, often by testing the effects of drug therapies. Some work in universities, teaching their trade to the younger generations.

However, the vet you consult with your pet probably works within a local clinic. Much like doctors though, vets are sometimes expected to make home calls, especially when the animal is too poorly to be moved, or when the reason for the visit is euthanasia.

What is the education required to become a vet?

Becoming a vet is no walk in the park. It takes high grades in subjects related to animal science, and a lot of dedication.

All vets in the UK must be a member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS). In order to become a member, one has to complete a 5 or 6-year degree course at one of the following universities: The Royal Veterinary College, London, Bristol, Cambridge, Surrey, Liverpool, Nottingham, Edinburgh, or Glasgow.

Getting accepted onto a course may be very difficult. Competition is high in this field, so students trying to get in must have the best possible grades. Most universities expect A grades in English language, maths, science, chemistry, and physics A-levels.

Some university courses offer a Foundation year to prepare students for the coursework ahead if they don’t initially have the grades required to enter the course, but do show promise.

Indeed, students also go through an interview process before being considered for the course. During this interview, lecturers may ask prospective students about current topics involving animal welfare in the news, as well as their understanding of the issues affecting the profession.

Furthermore, prospective students have a higher chance of being considered if they have significant experience with animals on their CV. This could include experience working in a farm, a laboratory, a wildlife rehabilitation centre, an animal shelter, or even a zoo. Any experience is good, and shows that the student is not only motivated, but is also physically capable of handling a job which can be demanding.

If your vet did not study in the UK - fear not! Veterinary graduates who studied abroad are still allowed to practice in the UK as long as their degree has been recognised by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. In order to register, your vet should have sat through a RCVS Statutory Examination for Membership. This exam includes written and clinical tests as well as general and occupational English tests.

veterinarian with a cat
Vet's are essential for your pet's health ©Shutterstock

What does is really take to be a vet?

Becoming a vet isn’t just about academia. It takes a very special kind of person to succeed in an environment that can be both physically and emotionally demanding.

Yes, the primary thing is to have a passion for animals. Job satisfaction tends to be very high in this field because vets get to do what they love: help animals. However, many different skills are also required from veterinarians.

For instance, vets must have strong problem-solving skills. In many ways, they are like pediatricians. Much like children, animals lack the capacity to communicate their symptoms or feelings to the doctor. Veterinarians must therefore rely on the owner’s discourse and their own analytical skills in order to treat their patients. 
Vets must also have great decision-making skills, which can’t be influenced by their emotions. Often, during surgery, important decisions have to be made fast. There is no time for hesitation or panic. Vets are expected to be able to make the best possible decisions for animals at all times and under any conditions, including when there is the question of euthanasia.

In some cases, particularly for vets who work with large animals in zoos and farms, physical strength and endurance is required to perform the job. Additionally, there is a higher risk of work-related injuries in these fields, so vets have to be as physically fit as possible. This also includes balance and dexterity - of the utmost importance when performing surgeries.

The job can be draining and vets who work directly with animals must be prepared for a career in which they will be on-call constantly. If an emergency occurs late at night, during a holiday, or on a weekend, the vet has to be prepared to work extra hours to help an animal.

Most of all, vets require compassion. In their position, it’s not only about dealing with sick or injured animals, it's often about dealing with owners or carers who are worried and emotional. Vets are expected to be kind and respectful, and always have a way with words when it comes to explaining what the best course of action is.

While our pets may not always like going to the vet’s, these amazing people are always here when we need them. They have gone through years of education and unpaid internships to get their degree, and are still working long hours to help our pets. So next time you see your vet, give them a little thank you!

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