How Long Does It Take To Become A Veterinarian?

By Chris Kolmar - Oct. 24, 2021

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On average, it takes approximately nine years to complete a full veterinary education and obtain a license to practice. Depending on how you choose to go about your education and on the specialty you choose, however, it can take anywhere from six to thirteen years to complete your education in full.

Veterinary medicine is a complex science that involves serious training and preparatory work. While it can prove lucrative and rewarding, it takes dedication.

In this article, we’ll talk about the process of becoming a vet, along with other key concerns of venturing into a career as a veterinarian.

What Does a Veterinarian Do?

In general, veterinarians provide medical care to animals. The care they provide is based on years of rigorous study and training. Vets can care for any animal type, but your average vet will typically care for cats, dogs, and other pets.

Vets can have offices where they treat patients, or they can visit the animals. For pet vets, you’ll usually see them working in private office practices. But vets also work in farms, zoos, animal sanctuaries, and anywhere else that needs consistent veterinary care.

As humans’ relationships with animals evolve, so does veterinary medicine. Many advances in veterinary science and practice have been made in recent years. Pet owners and other animal caregivers have become increasingly invested in treating long-term, complicated and chronic conditions in their animals.

Different Types of Vets

Like the medical field, there are a significant number of specialties a vet can pursue, depending on the type of work they’d like to do and the type of animals they’d like to oversee. Here are some common specialties:

  • Surgery

  • Pathology

  • Toxicology

  • Internal medicine

  • Nutrition

  • Sports medicine and rehabilitation

  • Anesthesia and analgesia

  • Dentistry

  • Laboratory animal medicine

  • Poultry

  • Ophthalmology

  • Emergency and critical care

  • Dermatology

  • Behaviorism

The Process of Becoming a Vet

  1. High school. While high school isn’t typically considered part of the standard veterinary education, it is necessary for embarking on this career path. Your keys goals in high school are to set yourself up for success by choosing the right classes, maintaining good grades, and researching universities.

    Focusing on science classes is great for a future vet. For the sake of applying to colleges, you’ll also want to consider your standardized test scores and your overall GPA (aiming for a 3.0 or higher).

    In your last couple of years of high school, look into universities with great physical and biological science programs. Some universities even have pre-vet undergraduate programs meant to prepare you for veterinary school, and these are excellent choices.

    Something else to consider as a high schooler is finding volunteer opportunities, extracurriculars, or other experiences that let you work with animals. This could look like joining clubs like FFA or volunteering for a local shelter. It not only helps you get more acquainted with animals, but it can help to show your dedication to these universities.

  2. Undergraduate. To get into a competitive veterinary school, you are usually required to have a degree from an accredited university. This can either be a four-year bachelor’s degree or a two-year associate degree in animal healthcare or a related field.

    It’s possible to complete all of your prerequisites at vet school and forego undergraduate education altogether, but this is not recommended. This could potentially decrease your chances of being accepted to a competitive vet school, and it very much increases your daily workload.

    In your undergraduate study, be sure to take courses on subjects such as biology, anatomy, chemistry, zoology, or any other class that will prepare you for vet school. Maintain good grades in college – aiming for a 3.5 or higher – as vet schools can be highly competitive.

    You can also use your time in college to continue building your professional network, and gaining hands on experience working with animals. See if there are opportunities to shadow local veterinarians, for instance, and get acquainted with the daily responsibilities.

  3. Applying for veterinary school. Before applying to vet school, you’ll want to make sure all your test scores are in order and you have an organized process. After undergraduate, you’ll want to take the GRE or the MCAT and get a score that lines up with the applicants’ average scores to your schools of choice.

    Once you’ve got your materials in order, research vet schools, and decide which ones you wish to apply to, you can consider factors such as the cost, areas of specialty, location, or whatever else matters to you.

    Luckily, the Veterinary Medical College Application Service (VMCAS) makes it, so you only have to fill out an application once. Just submit all the necessary materials and select the veterinary school.

  4. Veterinary school. After being accepted to a doctorate program at an accredited veterinary school, your rigorous specialized training and education can finally begin. During this time, you’ll have a full eight-hour-day schedule of lectures and labs.

    Your classes and course load will depend largely on your school, program, and specialization. In general, you will likely have to take foundational or core requirement classes and classes more focused on your area of specialization.

    Usually, the first three years of vet school are spent on more theoretical and conceptual study, and the last year is spent getting practical knowledge and practicing your learned skills.

    Your classes and course load will depend largely on your school, program, and specialization. In general, you will likely have to take foundational or core requirement classes and classes more focused on your area of specialization.

    Usually, the first three years of vet school are spent on more theoretical and conceptual study, and the last year is spent getting practical knowledge and practicing your learned skills.

    During clinical rotations, you’ll get a chance to get hands-on experience in veterinary medicine and build your professional network.

    Once you graduate, you will be awarded a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (or equivalent degree).

  5. Obtain a license. During your last year of vet school, you’ll want to carve out some time to study for the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam (NAVLE). You are officially allowed to take this exam eight months before graduating, but you can spend as much time as you like preparing.

    While your years of education before this moment have done a lot to prepare you, this exam is perhaps the most important single moment on your path to becoming a vet. To practice veterinary medicine of any kind in the United States or Canada, you must pass this exam and obtain your license.

    The NAVLE is composed of 360 questions related to the study and practice of veterinary medicine. You can re-take this exam, but many states limit you to only five chances to do so.

    Depending on your state, you may also have to pass an exam regarding your state-specific laws and policies on a veterinary practice.

    Once you have passed your licensing exam (and graduated from veterinary school), congratulations, you are now able to practice veterinary medicine. The process of “becoming a vet” has ended, but many choose to continue their training in the following ways.

  6. Internship. Once licensed, many successful vets strongly suggest that you undertake an internship or residency program with a seasoned vet. Internships usually last around one year, and residencies last around two to three years.

    Internships and residencies help you gain professional experience and learn more about the job while also offering a source of mentorship and guidance. This can also help you to gain some specialty training.

  7. Specialization program. If you’d like to even further specialize in your field, try a specialization program. These can last around two to three years and will have you working closely with an experienced vet with years of experience in your chosen specialization.

    Many vets choose to undergo specialization programs after about a year or two of independent practice. Honing your skills to a specific specialization typically leads to an increase in salary due to the simple fact that you have more knowledge and experience in specific areas and can offer more advanced care.

  8. Board certification. While board certification isn’t necessary for becoming a practicing vet, highly skilled and specialized vets often choose to get board certified. Board certification is intended as one of the highest official distinguishments a vet can obtain.

    To get board certified, you must pursue a specialization program of some sort and pass an exam related to your specialty.

With these steps in mind, it can take anywhere from 8-13 years to finish your veterinary education, depending on how you choose to go about it. However, there is sort of a catch to this answer. The catch is that, to retain your license, you have to continue your education throughout your career.

No, you don’t have to formally go back to school (or drop serious money on anything), but you do have to continue to stay updated with the field of veterinary medicine. This could look like participating in seminars, pursuing research opportunities, or publishing articles on veterinary science.

Qualities of a Great Vet

While being a veterinarian is an incredible and rewarding profession, it’s not for everyone. Those who succeed most in the veterinary field possess or practice the following qualities:

  • Love of animals. This one is a no-brainer, but if you don’t like or feel comfortable around animals of all stripes, maybe pick a different career path. You’ll have to work with and be around all sorts of animals in your profession and schooling.

    Being a vet requires a deep understanding of animals and deep respect for them. Vets understand that they are treating a feeling, autonomous being and that every step they take must reflect a genuine concern for this animal’s wellbeing.

  • Stress management and emotional regulation skills. While loving animals goes hand in hand with being a vet, you also have to consider that you may be dealing with animal pain, sickness, and even death daily. Because of this, you will need great emotional management skills.

    While it can feel quite emotionally impactful to encounter animals in this state, great vets can regulate their emotions well enough to make these animals delicate. It can be helpful to adopt a regular de-stress routine or hobby to help deal with the profession’s demands.

  • Organization and time management. To make it through approximately eight years (or more) of schooling, you’re going to need to be good at keeping track of things and making sure your time is managed well. These skills will carry directly into your career, especially in the managerial and administrative responsibilities.

    You’ll need to be good at managing not only your own time but the time of those who work for you. Vets are often responsible for scheduling and evaluating their assistants and other employees.

  • Not squeamish. Finally, when working with animals, you’ll have to be okay with big messes. Animals, especially sick ones, cause a variety of different messes. In this line of work, it’s important that you aren’t grossed out easily because, frankly, you’ll have to deal with some pretty gross things.

  • Passion. It takes dedicated work and a profound commitment to become a vet. All the schooling, continuing education, and daily responsibilities can be a serious investment of time and energy.

    To succeed in this work line, you’ll need to be dedicated to your career and have a genuine interest in learning more.

Veterinarian FAQ

  1. How many years of college does it take to be a veterinarian?

    It takes about six to eight years of college to be a veterinarian. The first two to four years are spent in an undergraduate program obtaining your associate’s or bachelor’s degree, and the last four are in a veterinary school obtaining your doctorate of veterinary medicine (DVM).

    It’s recommended that you pursue your bachelor’s degree, which usually takes about four years, but you can become a veterinarian with just an associate’s degree, which takes about two years to get.

    Having a bachelor’s degree increases your chances of getting into a good veterinary school, and it gives you a better foundation of classes that will make vet school less of a learning curve.

    This is especially true if you choose to pursue a science-based degree that requires you to take classes such as biology, anatomy, chemistry, and even zoology.

    Some schools also have specific veterinary sciences programs that are designed to prepare you for veterinary school, and they may even run a veterinary school.

    These undergraduate programs can be a great opportunity for you to get your foot in the door with the doctorate level faculty, making it easier to get into veterinary school once you graduate. Keep this in mind as you look into undergraduate programs if you know you want to pursue this career path.

    Once you do get into veterinary school, you’ll spend the majority of your first three years in a classroom and the last year doing hands-on, clinical work applying what you’ve learned in class to the real world.

  2. Is becoming a vet worth it?

    Yes, becoming a vet is worth it. Veterinarians can have very rewarding careers helping animals and, by extension, their owners. Depending on the type of vet you become and where you work, it can also be a lucrative career.

    All this depends, of course, on you enjoying the work that a veterinarian does. You have to love and respect animals while also being able to emotionally handle seeing them in pain or pass away. You also need to be able to handle humans’ stress or grief when their beloved pet is in distress.

    If you can handle all of that as well as the technical skills that being a vet requires, then it is very likely worth you becoming a vet.

    Financially speaking, though, there are some other factors you should consider before you go down the road of becoming a vet. Do your research into how much the specialty you want to enter pays in your area and how much it’s going to cost to achieve.

    If the numbers are significantly different, it may not be worth going into decades of debt in order to become that particular type of vet. However, that doesn’t mean you need to find a totally new career option.

    You should look into scholarships, higher-paying specialties that you also find interesting, or creative and cheaper ways to get the training and licenses you need. Experienced vets can often give you good ideas that may save you a significant amount of cash.

  3. Is becoming a vet difficult?

    Yes, becoming a vet is difficult. It is very doable, but it does take a significant amount of time and energy.

    You have to have the discipline to get good grades in high school so that you can get into college, then you have to perform well in your college classes in order to get into vet school.

    Before you even apply to vet school though, you’ll also need to study for and take the GRE or MCAT. Sometimes you even have to test more than once in order to get the score you want.

    Once you’re in a veterinary program, school becomes your full-time job, as you will regularly have eight-hour days of lectures, labs, and clinical rotations. Before you graduate, you’ll also need to study for your licensing exam and then take that test. This one can also take more than one attempt to pass.

    After you’ve graduated and obtained your license, you can choose to pursue an internship or a specialization program. These are very often worthwhile, but they require even more time, and you still likely won’t be getting paid much, if anything, while you’re in them.

    All of these steps require lots of studying and likely not a lot of money or free time, but your hard work will pay off. Just be sure you know what you’re getting into so that you can be sure this is the path you want to take before you get in too deep.

    If you are passionate and disciplined about your work, though, you’re highly likely to be successful in your endeavor to become a vet.

  4. How do I get started as a vet?

    To get started as a vet, you have to focus on getting good grades in high school. This may seem extreme, and while it won’t necessarily make or break you, a strong high school career will make the rest of the process of becoming a vet much easier.

    You’ll be more likely to get into a good college where you’ll study science-based subjects to give yourself a good foundation moving forward. (You’ll need your associate’s or bachelor’s degree to become a vet, preferably a bachelor’s degree.)

    After you graduate, you’ll need to attend a veterinary school. During your four years there, you’ll learn the theoretical side of veterinary medicine and get to put it into practice during clinical rotations. Once you graduate as a doctor of veterinary medicine, you’ll need to obtain your national and state licenses.

    Once you accomplish this, you’re legally a vet, but in order to get the job you want, it’s a good idea to pursue an internship or residency program. There you can get professional experience while learning from an experienced veterinarian.

    If there’s a specific specialty you want to enter, this is also the time to enter a specialization program, although you can also wait to do this until after you’ve worked a few years. In a specialization program, you’ll gain experience working with a seasoned professional who works in the specialty you want to enter.

    Specializing, while it isn’t necessary, opens doors to new career paths and higher paychecks. It can also allow you to do the type of veterinary work that most interests you, making your career even more rewarding.

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Author

Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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Topics: Definition, Glossary