Becoming a Zoo Veterinarian: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Learn how to become a zoo veterinarian. Research the job description and the education and licensing requirements and find out how to start a career in zoological medicine.

Should I Become a Zoo Veterinarian?

Zoo veterinarians provide both emergency and routine medical treatment to the many species of exotic animals kept at zoos. By observing an animal's behavior and providing a physical examination, a zoo veterinarian can diagnose illnesses, learn the extent of injuries and provide treatment. Dealing with sick animals can be emotionally stressful, and the zoo atmosphere may tend to be noisy.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Doctoral degree
Degree Field Veterinary medicine
Experience Varies; typically at least 1 to 2 years of experience
Licensure and Certification All states require a license; certification optional
Key Skills Decision-making, interpersonal, management and problem-solving skills; compassion; manual dexterity
Salary $98,230 per year (2014 average salary for all veterinarians)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, American College of Zoological Medicine, Online Job Postings (August 2012, 2015), Association of Zoos and Aquariums, O*NET OnLine

Step 1: Get an Undergraduate Education

Aspiring animal doctors need undergraduate training before entering veterinary school. Veterinary programs generally require students to have already completed such subjects as anatomy, animal science, biology, chemistry, physiology and zoology. Students may select any undergraduate major in preparation for veterinary school, providing they complete all the classes necessary for admittance to a veterinary program. While no specific major is required, biology may be a good undergraduate choice for aspiring veterinarians.

Step 2: Earn a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree

Future zoo veterinarians need a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M. or V.M.D.) degree from an accredited veterinary medicine college. Programs typically take four years to finish and involve classroom studies, laboratory experience and clinical work. The coursework generally covers topics like animal anatomy, animal illnesses and physiology.

Step 3: Obtain a State License

Every state mandates that veterinarians hold a license to practice, and licensing regulations can vary by state. Aspiring veterinarians must have graduated from an accredited veterinary school and successfully completed the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam. Many states also demand that applicants pass a state exam in addition to the national test.

Step 4: Complete an Internship

In order to be a zoo veterinarian, new vets must acquire work experience with exotic animals, which can be accomplished through a voluntary internship. Many zoos have internship programs with veterinary schools that allow interns to work under the supervision of experienced zoo veterinarians in treating exotic animals. Interns may serve rotations in various aspects of zoological medicine, including surgery, dentistry and anesthesiology. Completing an internship usually takes one year and can prepare interns to serve a residency training program in zoological medicine or to work in private practice or perform clinical scientific work at a university. Serving an internship can also help veterinarians who want board certification.

Step 5: Obtain Specialized Training in a Residency Program

Veterinarians planning to seek certification in zoological medicine must complete a residency program lasting 3 to 4 years. Residency programs are approved by the American College of Zoological Medicine (ACZM), the certifying board for zoological medicine, and are taught and supervised by board-certified zoological veterinarians. Residency programs give veterinarians in-depth training in zoological medicine and sharpen their clinical skills and research abilities while working at zoos, aquariums, wild animal parks or other sites with captive exotic animals. Residency training can lead to a Master of Specialized Veterinary Medicine degree, but some residency programs don't result in a degree.

Success Tip:

Join a professional organization. Organizations, including the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians and Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians, can provide networking opportunities. Members may also have the opportunity to discuss current issues in the field of exotic animal health.

Step 6: Get Certified in Zoological Medicine for Career Advancement

Certification isn't mandatory for veterinarians, but getting certified in zoological medicine displays expertise and extended training in that specialty. To be eligible for certification from the ACZM, applicants must be graduates of a veterinary medicine program accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association, possess a veterinarian license and have published a minimum of five articles on zoological medicine in professional journals. Other eligibility requirements include finishing an ACZM-approved training program lasting at least three years or working in zoological medicine for six years after veterinary school. Applicants who meet all eligibility requirements receive board certification and recognition as a diplomate of the ACZM.

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