Become an Animal Specialist: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become an animal specialist. Research the education requirements, licensure information and experience required for starting a career in veterinary animal health.

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Should I Become an Animal Specialist?

While animal specialists can choose between several different career paths, many choose to become veterinarians. Most veterinarians specialize in a certain class of animals such as companions, livestock or zoo animals. They generally treat animal wounds, vaccinate against disease and perform other preventative measures.

Many veterinarians work in animal clinics, but some travel to see animals, especially larger ones. This is often a well-paying career, though treating ill, mistreated or dying animals can also be emotionally stressful, and veterinarians run the risk of being bitten or scratched by animals that are scared or injured.

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  • Animal Health Sciences
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Career Requirements

Degree Level Doctoral or professional degree
Degree Field Veterinary medicine
Licensure and Certification Licensure required in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, certification not required but can prove beneficial for job seekers
Experience 2+ years of experience working with animals in a veterinary-type setting typically required
Key Skills Compassion for animal patients, strong decision-making and problem-solving skills, ability to effectively work with hands, excellent communication skills, knowledge of various diagnostic and surgical tools and procedures
Salary (2015) $88,490 per year (Median salary for veterinarians)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Monster.com job postings

Step 1: Choose an Animal Specialty

Veterinarians typically choose an area of specialty when it comes to their career pathways. Many focus on disease prevention, animal maintenance or animal research. Work environments vary based on specialization. For instance, veterinarians who specialize in large animals tend to travel directly to their patients. Comparatively, those who work with small animals usually run clinics to which owners bring their companion animals for services.

Step 2: Take Undergraduate Animal Science Courses

Before going to veterinary school, most programs require applicants to have taken prerequisite undergraduate courses. While this does not always involve getting a bachelor's degree, most veterinary schools prefer applicants who have a bachelor's degree to those who do not. Individuals who choose to earn an undergraduate degree may want to consider majoring in animal science, biology or wildlife science.

Some colleges have pre-veterinary course guides, but these do not always result in a bachelor's degree. Each veterinary school has different course prerequisites and not all pre-veterinary programs meet these requirements. Commonly required coursework includes multiple classes in biology, chemistry and physics. Many universities recommend additional courses, such as anatomy, animal nutrition, biochemistry, genetics and statistics.

Success Tip:

  • Consider finding an entry-level job in a veterinary setting while in school. Many prospective veterinarians choose to begin working in a veterinary setting while they are still enrolled in their degree programs. This facilitates experience and can help craft a solid understanding of the field.

Step 3: Obtain a Professional Degree

Degree programs for veterinary medicine usually take four years to complete. The first 2-3 years are spent in the classroom with courses such as anatomy, pharmacology, toxicology and general pathology. During the last two years of the program, most students participate in clinical experiences, which involve treating real patients while under close supervision. Some schools offer the option of a combined degree program, such as a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree paired with a master's in business administration. Applicants in a DVM program must typically submit passing test scores from the medical college admission test or the veterinary college admission test.

Step 4: Get Licensed

Each state requires that practicing veterinarians be licensed. Although licensure requirements vary by state, almost all states require applicants to possess a DVM degree, or equivalent, and to have passed the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination. Additionally, some states require that veterinarians participate in continuing education courses in order to renew their licenses. Other requirements vary state to state.

Step 5: Find a Veterinarian Position

After completing their education requirements and obtaining licensure, veterinarians can begin practicing. Many seek employment with established animal clinics and hospitals, while others open their own veterinary practices.

Step 6: Consider Earning Certification

While certification is not mandatory for veterinarians, it may improve job prospects, demonstrate expertise and devotion to the field and play a major role in creating advancement opportunities. The American Board of Veterinary Practitioners (ABVP) offers a certification program that involves completing continuing education and an exam in specialized areas of veterinary expertise.

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