If you’re reading this, you probably love animals, and you might have said at some point as a kid, “I should be a vet!”
Many children, as well as plenty of adults, are sure that being a veterinarian—spending each day helping and healing animals—would be more magnificent than even winning the lottery.
But the requirements for being a veterinarian go way beyond having boundless puppy (or parrot) love. From completing undergraduate and graduate veterinary training to building courage and emotional strength, there is much more to becoming a veterinarian than meets the eye.
Here’s what you should know if you’ve always wanted to become a veterinarian.
1. Becoming a Veterinarian Requires Extensive Training
Becoming a veterinarian means getting a lengthy education, inside and outside of classrooms. “I always found every way I could to spend my time helping animals,” says Dr. Liz Bales of Red Lion Veterinary Hospital in Newark, Delaware.
Dr. Bales’ decision to become a veterinarian required a lot of work before she even got to veterinary school. It meant researching different universities’ pre-vet requirements, then excelling in a rigorous undergraduate curriculum of biology, calculus, chemistry, organic chemistry and more.
Dr. Bales explains that she had to pass all the typical standardized testing to get into the right university program so that she could pursue her veterinary career in the PennVet program. “Additionally, I volunteered outside of college with a veterinarian during all of my free time—holidays and summer,” she explains.
To prepare for the many years of education and training, Dr. Emily Nielsen of Stahl Exotic Animal Veterinary Services in Fairfax, Virginia, advises young clients who want to become vets to “spend time at a vet clinic or an animal shelter and try to find a mentor.”
2. In General, Veterinarians Have to Be Specialists in Multiple Fields
“What people don’t know about vets is that we specialize in everything and anything, whether it’s dental issues or an eye problem or cancer,” says Dr. Alex Klein of Alison Animal Hospital in Brooklyn, New York.
Dr. Klein explains that people bring in pets with a wide variety of symptoms and rely on veterinarians to be able to identify what the underlying causes are. “That’s what makes it so hard, because we see everything, and we try to know about and do it all for our clients,” says Dr. Klein.
For extremely difficult or rarer cases, the option to refer the pet to a specialist is available, but if you want to become one of these doctors, you’ll have to remain in school for even longer than a “regular” vet.
3. Veterinarians Share Your Worry and Grief
The toughest part of a veterinarian’s work comes when we ask for their help in saying goodbye to a beloved pet. “Veterinarians devote their lives to providing care for and saving the lives of animals. There is no easy way to cope with the sad aspects of the job,” says Dr. Bales, who offers her clients an open letter that lets them know how deeply she—and all veterinarians—feel the pain of pet loss.
Dr. Klein says that while the difficult aspects never ease up, having an enduring connection to the community and her clients provides strength. He explains that the people in his community all know he is there and wants to help them and their pets.
Dr. Klein adds, “And because the clients all come in pairs, two-legged and four, it’s twice as fulfilling to work with them.”
4. Compassion Fatigue Is Real, and Many Veterinarians Experience It
When they’re not working in a veterinary clinic, veterinarians take time to recharge their batteries. “The balance of life is very important in this [line of] work because there is often so much compassion fatigue,” says Dr. Nielsen.
To help maintain a balance for herself, Dr. Nielsen spends her downtime doing things that make her happy: training for marathons (she hopes to complete one on every continent) and planning her return to competitive horseback riding.
Dr. Bales found her balance in devoting her downtime to writing about pets for her blog and her business passion, Doc & Phoebe’s Cat Co. Her company is dedicated to creating a ‘no bowl’ feeding station with their Doc & Phoebe’s Cat Co. indoor hunting cat feeder kit. She’s also currently developing a version for canned cat food.
5. As a Veterinarian, Sometimes You Have to Improvise
In comparison to human medicine, there is not as much research when it comes to veterinary care. This is especially true for exotic animals. So when veterinarians like Dr. Nielsen, whose patients include snakes, rabbits, hamsters, reptiles and birds, encounter a unique problem, they have to find unique solutions.
Dr. Nielsen, who considers guinea pigs to be one of her favorite pets to treat, explains, “with guinea pigs and other small ones, sometimes you have to get creative in helping them, and you are not always sure it will work.”
Dr. Nielsen says that it’s this kind of challenge, and the successful treatment outcomes, that are “what makes the job so worthwhile and means no day will ever be boring.”
6. Veterinarians Need to Be Excellent Communicators
Dr. Nielsen says that besides learning about animals and focusing on their needs, veterinarians need to be good at communicating. “So much of what veterinarians do involves communicating with clients and other vets—yes, with humans—and you need to be prepared to do that well,” she says.
Dr. Nielsen says she reminds clients that she “can help your animal, but it’s your job too, because this is going to be a team effort to get him well. If that rabbit needs medication every three hours, you’ll need to do your part of the plan we’ve created for him. It’s heartening to work with animals, but pet parents understanding that they are a crucial part of the equation is what helps it succeed.”
7. Being a Veterinarian Means Being Prepared for a Twisty Career Path With Detours
Dr. Bales says, “I always envisioned myself as an equine veterinarian, driving from farm to farm, caring for horses.” However, when she got out of veterinary school, she discovered that it wasn’t going to be the best fit. “The great thing about veterinary school is that it prepares you for a variety of careers,” she says.
Although he always loved animals, Dr. Klein spent his early working years working in the corporate world. However, the death of his teenage sister, Alison—a devoted animal lover—prompted a major career change. He even incorporated Alison’s name into the name of his practice as a tribute to her spirit in serving the pets and people of Brooklyn.
Dr. Nielsen never planned to be a veterinarian. She started out studying forensic medicine, then started working with horses in Germany.
It wasn’t until after watching a veterinarian treat a horse’s leg for a laceration that she realized wanted to pursue veterinary medicine. “I was mesmerized at his precise movements, patience and care,” she says. “I never said, ‘I’m going to be a vet,’ but the transition came naturally, and I ended up with my dream job.”
8. Veterinarians Still Have a Business to Run
Although a veterinarian’s work is highly personal for their clients, it’s still a business. Veterinarians who own their own practices have to worry about utility bills, printer paper and staff salaries, just like any other company.
And just like any business, a vet’s office can experience ups and downs. They have to adjust to the changing market in order to make sure that they can provide pets with the best care possible without going bankrupt in the process.
Dr. Klein says that your neighborhood veterinarian faces the same small-business challenges as an independent bookstore or local yarn shop, with competition on all fronts. “A local vet should be an ideal small-business owner, with services and products the community needs,” Dr. Klein says.
Dr. Klein worries that as larger, incorporated veterinary practices grow, small veterinary practices will be forced to shut their doors. He explains that the larger veterinary practices can offer lower prices due to volume, whereas a smaller practices have to maintain certain prices to stay operational.
Dr. Brad Levora of Little Seneca Animal Hospital in Germantown, Maryland, points out that after the economic crash of 2007 and 2008, he saw a drastic drop in the number of people bringing their pets into the vet.
Dr. Levora says, “Often we would not see an animal unless it was in extreme pain or deteriorating health.” He explains, “And in those instances, the help needed was highly specialized and thus expensive or, in some cases, there was little we could do except try to keep the animal comfortable.”
He recommends that pet parents who experience financial bumps speak openly to their veterinarians, exploring all options to support their pet’s health and well-being. “Your vet wants what’s right for the pets and will do his or her best to work with you,” he says.
By: Kathy Blumenstock
Featured Image: iStock.com/SelectStock