Types of Veterinarians and How They Practice

Alexandrea Dillon, Artem Cheprasov
  • Author
    Alexandrea Dillon

    Alexandrea has taught secondary science for over six years. She has a bachelors degree in Teaching Secondary Science and a Masters of Education in Instructional Design. She's TESOL certified and a National Geographic Certified Educator. In addition, she was the spotlight educator for National Geographic in late 2019.

  • Instructor
    Artem Cheprasov

    Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Learn what a veterinarian is and what kind of profession they are a part of. Discover the different types of veterinarians as well as their various practices. Updated: 01/17/2022

Table of Contents


Veterinarian Definition

What is the definition of a veterinarian? Veterinarians are specifically trained doctors that help animals when they are sick or hurt. Oftentimes abbreviated to vet, veterinarians can be found anywhere animals exist. Zoos, ranches, breeding facilities, towns, and cities all often have vets tending to the resident animals living there.

The academic study of veterinary medicine was founded in 1761.

Puppy being examined by a veterinarian

Dr. Claude Bourgelat founded the academic practice of veterinary medicine in 1761, but people have been medically treating their animals since the dawn of agriculture.

There are several famous veterinarians. James Herriot wrote a famous series of books about his experiences working in a Mixed Animal Practice in England, and this series was eventually turned into a television series.

Types of Veterinarians

Learning about the human body and how to heal it takes doctors between four and ten years of academic training. Can you imagine how much harder it is to learn not only about best medical practices for dogs, but having to include tigers, parrots, horses, cows, pigs, sheep, hermit crabs, rabbits, goats, elk, elephants, and a host of other animals as well? It's simply impossible to be an expert in every animal. Therefore, veterinary practice is broken up into specialties. We will discuss the most common types of veterinarians here. Regardless of the type of practice, all veterinarians in the United States require a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM or VMD) degree to legally practice. There are only 30 colleges that offer that degree in the United States.

Small Animal Practice

Small Animal Practice is also known as the companion animal practice. The bulk of the work done by small animal veterinarians involves caring for animals typically kept as pets, like:

  • Dogs
  • Cats
  • Guinea Pigs
  • Birds
  • Hamsters
  • Rabbits

The vast majority of work for these veterinarians involves dogs and cats, simply because these are the most common companion animals chosen by humans.

Acute care, or care immediately needed for the onset of an injury or illness, is common. Chronic care, or the care routinely needed to stay healthy and prevent disease, is also a large part of this type of veterinary practice. End-of-life care, or putting down animals at the end of their lives to prevent unnecessary suffering, is an unfortunate reality as well.

Large Animal Practice

Large Animal Practice involves the treatment of large or livestock animals. Here is an incomplete list of animals a large animal vet might treat:

  • Horses
  • Cows
  • Sheep
  • Goats
  • Pigs
  • Yaks
  • Llamas
  • Alpacas

Large Animal Veterinarians treat many livestock animals, like horses and cows.

Horse running

Treating food animals and ensuring their safety for consumption is an important component of being a general large animal practice veterinarian. Adhering to the proper practices keeps both the animals, and the humans who may consume them, safe. These veterinarians also ensure that food animals are as well-treated as possible by advising farmers and ranchers on best animal care practices.

Most large animal veterinarians engage in a mobile veterinary practice, in which the veterinarian will travel to the animal. Usually, mobile veterinarians will have vans or trucks equipped with a variety of medical supplies, including suturing supplies and medications. For large animals, particularly when a herd must be treated, mobile practice makes the most sense. For example, it would be very impractical, challenging, and dangerous for a rancher to bring 100 heifers to a veterinary building for their annual deworming and vaccinations. For this reason, large animal vets get to spend lots of time outside during their workday.

Mixed Animal Practice

Mixed animal vets do it all! They treat food animals, farm animals, and companion animals. This type of vet is often the vet of choice for hobby farms, because a single vet can come to the farm and give wellness exams and vaccinations to every farm member, from barn cats to bulls. Mixed animal practice vets tend to be mobile veterinarians for this reason, but do sometimes have clinics of their own as well.

A Mixed Animal Practice veterinarian could treat both the herding dog and sheep pictured here.

Dog and sheep

Due in part to the amount of knowledge required to treat this many types of animals, it is an uncommon specialty. Less than 6% of American veterinarians consider themselves to be mixed practice veterinarians.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What does a veterinarian do?

A veterinarian is a person who has undergone extensive academic and hands-on training on how to heal animals when they are hurt or injured. Most veterinarians specialize in certain types of animals.

How many different type of veterinarians are there?

There are four main types of veterinarians. Small practice, large practice, mixed practice, and exotic practice make up the bulk of veterinary practice today. However, many specialties and subspecialties exist as well.

What does word veterinary mean?

The word "veterinary" includes anything relating to the treatment of animals. Animal disease, injury, illness, genetic abnormalities, ailments, and preventative care all fall under the umbrella of this word.

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