7 minute read

How Much Training Does It Take to Become a Veterinarian or Vet Support Staff?

Frequently, I’ll hear young people say that they dream of becoming a veterinarian, or parents will tell me that their child does. But not everyone is aware of the rigorous education and training it takes to become a veterinarian or support staff. 

After the pet parent, a pet’s best ally is their primary care veterinarian. They are the only ones who can legally diagnose, prescribe medications, or perform surgery on your pets. Some disreputable breeders, shelters, and rescues have gotten into serious trouble for practicing veterinary medicine without a license, and it causes huge problems for those animals.

Sometimes people think becoming a vet means playing with puppies and kittens all day rather than dealing with people, but it really is a people‑oriented career. After all, pets are only able to come into the clinic with a human attached. And there are many other things that you can do as a veterinarian besides work in a veterinary clinic treating dogs and cats.

I advise anyone to do their homework before they decide on what career they will pursue to earn a living and make a positive impact on society. You’ll need to know what kinds of experiences and education you need, what that education will cost in time and money, what kinds of job opportunities are available with that education (especially if your first choice doesn’t work out), and what your earning potential is so that you can make a living. And most importantly, you should find a job that you can enjoy. 

What kind of experience is needed before applying to veterinary school?

It might surprise you to know that you need animal‑related experience before you apply to veterinary school.

It’s not good enough to say that you grew up with a lot of animals at home and that you like to take in stray animals. You need to know what kind of work is involved from handling different kinds of animals to working alongside different kinds of veterinarians. Most volunteer or work opportunities with animals require you to be at least 16 years old, so be prepared before you approach your local animal shelter, veterinary clinic, or zoo for work experience. Enrolling in your local 4‑H group is a great way to get started when you’re young.

Keep a record of where you volunteered or worked, who supervised you, and what kinds of experiences you had. Create a profile for yourself on LinkedIn to start building your résumé, and get connected to those who are familiar with you as a student, volunteer, or employee. Get a professional‑looking photo to upload that shows your head and a portion of your shoulders with a plain background that highlights your face with favorable lighting.

What kind of education do veterinarians need?

Those interested in becoming a veterinarian need to be good students in math, biology, and related science courses (aka STEM) starting in high school. You must have the ability to learn new concepts, apply that knowledge, and think critically.

After graduating from high school, a veterinarian‑to‑be needs to take the same kinds of courses that premedical students take in undergraduate school from a college or university. You must take all of the required courses to gain acceptance into a veterinary school, so do your research about preveterinary education needs well before you apply.

A great resource for finding out what is required is reviewing the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges website, as well as the website of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). In general, becoming a veterinarian requires an undergraduate degree (averaging 4 ½ years), with rigorous courses including biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, physics, microbiology, anatomy, physiology, math, and animal science. It took me five years of undergraduate school since I found organic chemistry and physics especially challenging to learn and get good grades. Having good study habits and test‑taking skills matters, but understanding the material is more important for doing good work as a veterinarian.

Interestingly, not all veterinary school programs require the same courses to gain entry or the same kinds of standardized tests. Some don’t require a bachelor’s degree, and some don’t require standardized test scores at all. Most students do finish their undergraduate degrees, which can take four to five years to finish before they apply, and standardized tests that may be required are the Graduate Record Examination (GRE®) and/or Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT®). To find out what specific courses and tests are required at the veterinary school you’d like to attend, visit their website for more details. I took the GRE® test since I could take either test and I didn't want to go to medical school as my backup plan.

Some vets have already earned a master’s or a doctorate before they even start veterinary school. I didn’t get accepted into veterinary school the first time I applied. In fact, the best advice I got was that I should NOT expect to get in on my first attempt. After my rejection, I asked the college what I needed to do to have a better chance the next time. Once I knew what I needed to do, I created a plan to get into a veterinary school that would also help get me to get a different career if they still didn’t think I’d be a successful student or veterinarian. I was accepted into a graduate school program and worked hard to earn a master’s degree in molecular genetics in a year and a quarter. With my education and different kinds of unique experiences, I was accepted into my school of choice, The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Becoming a veterinarian is similar to becoming a doctor, but vet students need to learn to care for multiple species of animals. Students need to take courses in anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, microbiology, immunology, pathology, toxicology, biochemistry, surgery techniques, and specific animal species and body systems. There’s often a discussion about who has it harder, doctors‑in‑training or veterinarians‑in‑training. Human doctors must learn a lot about one species, while veterinarians need to know about multiple species and may not get into the same depth of knowledge for each species that a human doctor does for one. There’s much more known about human health and diseases than there is about other animal species. 

Early on in vet school, students spend time in classrooms and labs – sometimes before beginning clinical rotations while supervised by instructors, and sometimes while becoming immersed in clinical work at other training programs. Clinical rotations are when you actually get to work with the animals and put the book learning to use. It can be the most fun part of our training and also the scariest. We always want to make a pet better than when they came to us. 

Some veterinary students enroll in dual programs offering master’s degrees or PhDs along with the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree. After graduating from a U.S. veterinary school, veterinarians earn a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) or Veterinary Medical Doctor (VMD) degree, which means we are qualified to care for your companion animals and many, many other kinds of jobs. We must take and pass the board exams in order to get licensed to practice veterinary medicine. Some vets opt for additional training by doing internships or residencies, to gain certification for a specialty, such as radiology, anesthesiology, exotic animal medicine, and much more. Most people are used to thinking of a veterinarian as someone who treats dogs and cats, otherwise known as "small animals." Having that degree can lead to many, many other kinds of jobs even if you don’t pass the board exams.

What is the cost of getting through school to become a veterinarian?

It might surprise you just how expensive veterinary school training is. 

Understand how much it will cost for at least four years of undergraduate school AND four years of veterinary school. Determine whether you have any savings that you can use, whether you’ll be able to have a family member help pay for your education, or whether you’ll need to get scholarships or take out student loans.

You need to be realistic about the cost of your education, whether you can earn a living salary doing something you love if you need to pay back any loans, how much it would cost you, and how long it would take to repay those loans. It’s best if you can have someone else pay for as much of your education as you can get. Grandparents, parents, and scholarships are your best bets for getting some or all of your education for free. 

Otherwise, talk to trusted, independent financial advisors who can guide you in your decision‑making process. Loan officers are in the business of making money by lending, so be wary when talking with them. An independent advisor can help you navigate the process and what you’ll need to consider.

I was lucky. My parents paid for 100% of my undergraduate, graduate, and veterinary education. I recently looked at my old bills, and the cost of education has skyrocketed over the years. I had classmates who worked their way through college and veterinary school. Most jobs you can get now while taking classes will make a relatively small difference in covering the cost of your education. Nowadays, some people graduate with student loan debts exceeding $200,000, and they might have trouble paying those loans back on the salary they can get after graduation with the quality of life they seek.

What is required to practice veterinary medicine?

Since most people want to know what is required to treat dogs and cats, these are the safeguards that are in place to ensure that your veterinarian is qualified to take care of your animal companion:

  • Veterinarians must pass a national exam to show their knowledge in order to be licensed to practice veterinary medicine.
  • Veterinarians must be licensed in each state where they practice (though some can work under the license of another veterinarian).
  • Some states require an additional state‑level exam.
  • Veterinarians need to obtain continuing education credits to keep their licenses.

Who else works at a veterinary clinic?

Veterinary clinicians are responsible for evaluating your pets’ health, diagnosing and treating illnesses, prescribing meds, and doing surgery. But they couldn’t do their work without the team that supports their efforts to care for pets. Here are some of the titles of other support staff you might meet in the clinic:

  • Veterinary specialists. After graduating from vet school, some people decide to continue to complete internships and residencies to become specialists. Some clinics employ animal radiologists, allergy specialists, oncologists, and more. Usually, these people work for specialty or emergency clinics.
  • Veterinary technicians. These folks work in clinics to provide medical and non-medical services. In most states, they need to pass a credentialing exam in addition to earning an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. They help with surgery, lab procedures, radiography, anesthesiology, treatment, and educating pet parents about the treatment plan under the direction of a veterinarian. You can learn more from the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA) about what it takes to become a technician. Some states are seeking to change their titles to "veterinary nurses" since that’s in better alignment with what they do and most people understand what a nurse does in a human hospital setting.
  • Veterinary assistants. These animal lovers help maintain clean and comfortable kennels, help with handling animals, feed and exercise pets, and perform some clerical duties. They aren’t required to have a college degree or pass a credentialing exam, but the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA) does offer training programs.
  • Veterinary hospital/practice managers. Managers hold down the business end of a clinic or hospital, including hiring and supervision, budgets, inventory, accounting, and anything that keeps a veterinary practice running smoothly. Some veterinary practices like to hire those who are Certified Veterinary Practice Managers, so if the veterinary coursework isn't for you, and you do want to help animals, this might be a better fit for you.
  • Receptionists. The first and last person you talk to when you call or walk into a clinic is the receptionist, who is responsible for setting up appointments, communicating with clients, and helping you with the financial transaction needed after your pet gets the care they need. You'd definitely need a high school diploma or GED, plus excellent communication skills, and being able to use the office equipment, such as computers, and learning how to use any software programs. Many people find it handy to have a bachelor's degree.

It truly is a gift when clinic staff works well together to keep pet parents and companion animals happy and healthy. Caring for animals isn’t always easy, but the people who choose this profession do it because they love people and animals alike.

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