What Does It Take To Become A Veterinarian?
Keven Gulikers, DVM, MS, always knew he would become a veterinarian. "The family joke is that my first words were 'mama,' 'papa,' and 'veterinarian,' " he laughs. "As a kid, I was running around studying animals— and I always had a love of bugs." In fact, he entered college as an animal science major but switched to entomology because he found it more interesting. But he knew his ultimate goal was to be a veterinarian. He initially wanted to work in the world of exotics or zoologic medicine but found internal medicine to be his calling. He now practices internal medicine at Animal Diagnostic Clinic in Dallas, Texas.
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO BECOME A VETERINARIAN?
Educational requirements are strict for a prospective veterinarian: Most college programs don't require a bachelor's degree (although having one is a good idea) but instead require a large number of undergraduate credit hours for entrance. Undergraduate courses should emphasize the sciences, which can include biology, genetics, microbiology, zoology, and many others.
Dr. Gulikers followed the traditional educational route, entering college directly from high school, then completing a double major before entering veterinary school. Instead of going into practice, Dr. Gulikers decided to do an internship and residency and specialize in internal medicine. "I found I enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of internal medicine, of seeing the various pieces of a diagnostic puzzle (lab work or x-rays or ultrasound) and putting them all together for the patient and client."
Christian Keller, DVM, divides his time between his duties at Mountain Hospital for Animals on Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, and as an aquatic veterinarian at the Tennessee Aquarium. Keller's path was more nontraditional. Although he knew his goal was veterinary medicine, he developed a strong interest in wildlife biology. He enrolled in a master's program at the University of Tennessee, where he spent two years studying the black bear population. After taking a course in wildlife diseases at the university's veterinary school, Dr. Keller knew he wouldn't be happy unless he was practicing veterinary medicine. "Unlike a lot of kids who go straight from undergraduate programs into veterinary medicine, I took a more circuitous route," he says. "Because of that, I was able to follow my interest in nontraditional animals."
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, more than 70% of private practice veterinarians work predominantly with companion animals such as dogs and cats. Some treat other small animals, including birds, rabbits, and reptiles. Others care for larger animals, such as cows, horses, or sheep. These veterinarians are usually mobile and visit farms and ranches, doing consultations and treatments onsite.
An even smaller number of veterinarians, including Dr. Keller, work with zoo, aquarium, or laboratory animals. "When a veterinarian talks about specific problems in aquatic medicine, only a tiny group of us has had similar experiences. I pick up the phone and talk to others, and we work through things. I then share that information with other facilities," says Dr. Keller. "That is how we make progress and keep our knowledge base growing."
Specialized medicine also continues to grow; areas of internal medicine as well as dermatology, oncology, ophthalmology, and other fields allow optimum care of pets, exotic animals, and wildlife. Many treatments that were once only available for humans are now a burgeoning part of veterinary medicine.
Whether they work in specialized medicine or in a pet clinic, veterinarians are a dedicated group. "We have made a conscious choice very early in our careers to do something that is satisfying and enriching," says Dr. Keller. "There are a lot of ways to measure wealth, and it isn't always about the money."
Dr. Keller finds his work with the Tennessee Aquarium as fulfilling as his work in the clinic. "It's just as satisfying to be able to help a rare endangered fish or reptile as it is to help someone with their cat or dog," he says. "There is value in both."
Dr. Gulikers feels the same satisfaction in his work in internal medicine: "You develop a friendship with the patient and a relationship with the pet owner, and you work as a team for the health of the animal. You see that patient for a couple more years, knowing how ill she was—and that you got her through it. Helping make animals better is very fulfilling."
Planning to Go into the Field?
Dr. Gulikers suggests:
- Work hard at academics. With fewer than 30 colleges of veterinary medicine in the United States, competition is fierce.
- Volunteer or become a summer employee at a veterinary clinic. "It isn't all about happy puppies and kittens," says Dr. Gulikers. "Sadly, there are a lot of reality checks, too. Make sure you are cut out for the job."
- Find a mentor. Even if you're interested in specialized medicine, establish a relationship with a veterinarian in any field for learning opportunities and support.