How Long Does It Take To Become A Veterinarian?

By Chris Kolmar - Jan. 14, 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.

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    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.

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Chris Kolmar


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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