Veterinary Career Guide - Education, Certifications & Salaries

Veterinary medicine has a storied history, beginning in Europe and starting with the care of horses—no surprise when considering their importance to economic life across many centuries. Over time it expanded further into caring for farm animals such as cattle and other livestock, ultimately branching out even into companion creatures like cats and dogs or exotic species beyond that.

In the present era, veterinary medicine is a highly diversified discipline that offers substantial employment opportunities. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2022) forecasts employment of veterinarians to grow at a robust rate of nineteen percent between 2021 and 2031, faster than the average of all occupations within the United States. As a result, approximately 4,800 openings are anticipated each year.

Given that veterinarians also hold the training to, directly and indirectly, protect public health, their knowledge may also become increasingly valuable in the twenty-first century as a warmer world will generally increase not just the risk of pathogenic disease among animals but also that of zoonotic disease.

Becoming a veterinary medicine professional requires dedication and commitment to pursue a doctor of veterinary medicine (DVM or VMD) degree from an accredited college. This four-year program provides comprehensive education, including classroom, laboratory, and clinical training components that students must complete before taking the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination (NAVLE). Additionally, to officially practice in any state, practitioners must meet additional requirements specified by the state before obtaining their licensure.

Licensure is a requirement all veterinarians must meet to practice within the United States; however, board certification goes beyond this minimum standard. Possessing such an esteemed credential can lead to substantial financial benefits – past surveys by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) revealed that those with Board Certification could earn nearly double their uncertified counterparts! It’s clear: experts in this field are rewarded for taking extra steps towards excellence.

Veterinary professionals come from various backgrounds, working in private clinics, hospitals, laboratories, classrooms, or zoos. Some even travel to farms to treat horses and food animals or work onsite at slaughterhouses and food-processing plants to preserve public health. This career requires emotional and physical stamina – not only is there often complex care guidance required by owners but specialized exotic animal practitioners may find themselves exposed to extreme environments with increased risks such as illness or injury.

Veterinarians are typically well compensated for their work. The median annual wage for veterinarians is $100,370 (BLS May 2021). Many veterinarians work full-time and may exceed forty hours per week. Their work schedules may vary based on their employers’ needs and their pursuit of additional training to advance their careers. In addition, they are often required to respond to animal care emergencies.

Read on to learn more about the different types of veterinarian and vet technician careers, including information on their duties, compensation, and licensing/certification requirements.

Companion Animal Veterinarians

Companion animal veterinarians are the most common type of veterinarian. Sometimes also referred to as small animal veterinarians, these individuals specialize in treating companion animals, including cats, dogs, birds, ferrets, and rabbits. Typical job duties for such veterinarians include:

  • Diagnosis and treatment of common companion animal health problems
  • Facilitation of preventive healthcare via consultation with animal owners
  • Conduct medical and surgical procedures, including vaccinations, dental work, and repair of bone fractures

Akin to the general practitioner for human healthcare, these veterinarians provide routine healthcare services for common companion animal health concerns.

  • Average Salary: $90,247 (, 2023)
  • Certification: Companion animal veterinarians can be certified by ABVP to practice in several of the eleven recognized veterinary specialties. ABVP board certification indicates a practitioner has exceptional knowledge, skill, and competency that is superior to the norms of the veterinary profession.
  • Certifying Organization: American Board of Veterinary Practitioners (ABVP)

Critical Care and Emergency Vet Techs

Critical care veterinarians and emergency vet tech are veterinary professional who specializes in providing medical care to animals requiring urgent stabilization. These technicians work in intensive care units or emergency rooms, monitoring the vitals of ailing animals, administering intravenous fluids, performing CPR, and other life-saving measures. In addition, they collaborate with veterinarians to develop effective treatment plans for critically ill animals.

Responsibilities of a critical care and emergency vet tech include:

  • Monitoring the health status of patients
  • Administering intravenous fluids and medications
  • Performing CPR and other life-saving interventions
  • Assisting veterinarians with diagnostic tests
  • Educating pet owners about their pet’s condition
  • Developing treatment plans for critically ill animals

Critical care and emergency veterinary technicians provide essential life-saving care for injured, sick, or critically ill animals. They are invaluable assets to veterinary hospitals and play a key role in providing quality medical treatments and care.

  • Average Salary: $96,699 (, 2023)
  • Certification: Critical care and emergency vet techs are certified by organizations such as the Academy of Internal Medicine for Veterinary Technicians (AIMVT). AIMVT currently offers two levels of certification: Certified Veterinary Technician in Emergency & Critical Care (CVT-ECC) and Master Technician in Emergency & Critical Care.
  • Certifying Organization: Academy of Internal Medicine for Veterinary Technicians (AIMVT)

Dental Vet Tech

Dental vet specialists and dental vet techs specialize in oral health care for animals. They diagnose, treat and manage dental diseases in animals and perform various tasks related to their expertise. Typical daily job responsibilities for dental vet techs include:

  • Taking digital X-rays
  • Performing dental cleanings and extractions
  • Evaluating bleeding gums and other signs of oral disease
  • Placing sealants and fluoride treatments
  • Preparing teeth for crowns or root canals

Dental vet techs make surgical procedures go more smoothly so that animals spend less time under anesthesia and allow veterinarians to attend to more patients.

  • Average Salary: $72,624 (, 2023)
  • Certification: The American Veterinary Dental College (AVDC) certifies dental vet techs. To become certified, a vet tech must pass the AVDC’s Veterinary Technician National Exam (VTNE).
  • Certifying Organization: American Veterinary Dental College (AVDC)

Exotic Animal Veterinarians

Exotic animal veterinarians work with exotic animals, including pocket pets, reptiles, amphibians, and birds. Exotic animal veterinarians may work in various settings, including zoos, aquariums, and wildlife habitats.

A vet can become an exotic animal specialist through a residency program. Such residencies are typically three years long and provide opportunities for specialization in topics such as aquatic animals or zoological companion animals. Given the relatively small number of practicing exotic animal vets, those students who intend to become exotic animal vets early in their training may wish to complete their academic training at a veterinary college that offers an exotic veterinary program.

Typical responsibilities of this type of veterinarian include:

  • Assessing animals’ conditions
  • Administering vaccinations and medications
  • Testing for diseases
  • Cleaning and bandaging wounds

Given the focus of their duties, exotic animal veterinarians may later wish to specialize in working with wildlife and zoo animals. Such practitioners may find the career of zoologists and wildlife biologists interesting and decide to alter their ultimate career trajectory. The job duties of these professionals include monitoring animal populations, collecting specimens, and performing research on various animal characteristics that may later be used to guide conservation programming.

Despite the salary average noted below, the unique nature of this branch of veterinary medicine means there is an extensive range in salaries depending on the practitioner’s skill set, level of experience, and employment setting. As exotic pets can often be expensive to care for, it is not uncommon for exotic pet vets to be well compensated for their expertise in such species. However, exotic animal vets who opt to work in non-profit organizations like conservation centers may be less well paid due to reliable and robust funding challenges.

  • Average Salary: $72,387 (ZipRecruiter, 2023)
  • Certification: Certification is new to this field. Vets with at least six years of experience in a high-quality practice are eligible to become Diplomate under the Exotic Companion Mammal Practice category. The American Board of Practicing Veterinarians established this category.
  • Certifying Organization: Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians (AEMV)

Laboratory Veterinarians

Laboratory veterinarians provide a vital service by delivering healthcare to research animals. Although often less visible to the public than other veterinarians, laboratory veterinarians perform an essential role and usually have challenging duties. These duties may include:

  • Design and implement preventative and clinical veterinary medical programs
  • Provide oversight to animal husbandry programs
  • Train and supervise biomedical technicians and animal care technicians
  • Consult with research investigators from numerous medical disciplines
  • Management of research animal facilities
  • Design research animal facilities per animal needs, resources, and applicable law
  • Educate varied populations on the subject of animal research

Laboratory veterinarians are critical for analyzing and interpreting laboratory test results and diagnosing illnesses in animals. They play a key role in helping veterinarians better understand the health of their patients, diagnose illnesses and provide the best treatment options for them.

  • Average Salary: $129,400 (, 2023)
  • Certification: Practitioners who pass the ACLAM certification examination receive the designation of Diplomate. This designation indicates a person whose knowledge exceeds a certain threshold and who is skilled in the medical care and management of various animal species for medical, veterinary medical, and biological research and testing purposes.
  • Certifying Organization: American College of Laboratory Animal Medicine (ACLAM)

Livestock, Food, and Large Animal Veterinarians

Large animal veterinary techs and veterinarians often work in animal husbandry. Examples of animals include horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs. Practitioners may work in environments such as large animal veterinary hospitals or be self-employed and provide services on-site where the animals reside.

  • Diagnose, treat, and prevent disease using techniques including vaccination, surgery, and proper nutrition
  • Consult with farm personnel on the impact of management practices on animal welfare
  • Educate farm personnel on how to complete routine procedures
  • Complete fertility and pregnancy checks

The types of animals such veterinarians will work with typically fall within the eleven topical areas for which the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners (ABVP) holds certification responsibility. However, given how some animals may appear to overlap into two or more areas of veterinary practitioners, it is wise for any individuals researching a career in veterinary medicine to conduct sufficient due diligence to determine the training and certification requirements necessary to practice in their area of interest.

  • Average Salary: $79,958 (ZipRecruiter, 2023)
  • Certification: Livestock, food, and large animal veterinarians are certified to practice by ABVP. In addition, within this category of veterinary medicine practice, the ABVP certifies several of the eleven practice areas it holds responsibility for, including beef cattle practice, dairy practice, food animal practice, and swine health management.
  • Certifying Organization: American Board of Veterinary Practitioners (ABVP)

Vet Assistants

Veterinary assistants provide invaluable support to veterinarians, performing various tasks essential to the care and treatment of animals. Veterinary assistants provide compassionate and comprehensive care, from monitoring vitals to preparing medicines. The daily job responsibilities of a veterinary assistant include the following:

  • Taking patient histories and diagnostics tests
  • Preparing examinations rooms and equipment
  • Administering treatments as prescribed by veterinarians
  • Collecting sample specimens for laboratory analysis
  • Monitoring vital signs, including temperature, respiration rate, heart rate, and pulse rate
  • Cleaning cages and other areas in the clinic or hospital
  • Maintaining medical records and filing documentation

Veterinary assistants are important in supporting the veterinarian staff with the day-to-day care and management of animals in a vet clinic.

  • Average Salary: $31,780 (BLS, May 2021)
  • Certification: Veterinary assistants can be certified through the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA). NAVTA offers the Approved Veterinary Assistant designation, a nationally recognized certification. States or organizations may also have unique requirements for certification. The Texas Veterinary Medical Association (TVMA) offers a simple, cost-effective option for certification.
  • Certifying Organization: National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA); state-specific certifications

Veterinary Specialists

Veterinary specialists possess skills and knowledge specific to a particular type of animal health concern. An animal owner will often be referred to a specialist when an animal’s healthcare needs exceed the training and resources typically offered by a companion animal veterinarian.

To practice as a specialist, such professionals must be certified or boarded in their field of specialization. In addition, such veterinarians must complete advanced training in a post-veterinary education program and then pass an examination to evaluate their knowledge and skills. The American Board of Veterinary Specialties (ABVS) of the American Veterinary Medical Association currently acknowledges twenty-two recognized veterinary specialty organizations (RSVO) with forty-six distinct specialties.

The many specializations a veterinary specialist may operate within include animal behavior, dentistry, dermatology, internal medicine, microbiology, and toxicology. Dependent on the specialization, the job duties of a specialist may include any of the following:

  • Assessment of animal behavior and development of animal behavior modification plan
  • Diagnose and treat dental, oral, and maxillofacial diseases
  • Provide life-saving interventions for critically ill and injured animals
  • Treat infectious diseases via the application of knowledge from fields such as virology and parasitology
  • Apply principles of preventive medicine to recognize, contain and treat a variety of animal diseases

Specialists typically practice in one of eleven practice areas. These practice areas encompass many animals, including birds, horses, cattle, cats, dogs, sheep, goats, lizards, turtles, snakes, and pigs. The wide variety of possible specializations within this category of practitioners means there is also a significant variation in salaries, duties, and certification requirements.

  • Average Salary: $84,009 (, 2023)
  • Certification: Board certification is typically required in veterinary medicine specializations. Certification requirements will vary according to the particular specialization.
  • Certifying Organization: American Board of Veterinary Specialties (ABVS)

Vet Technicians (Vet Techs)

Vet technicians, also known as veterinary technologists and technicians, are responsible for providing medical care to animals in a laboratory setting. They work under the supervision of a licensed veterinarian and are responsible for various tasks related to animal health and wellbeing. Daily, vet technicians may be responsible for the following:

  • Maintaining medical records and filing documentation
  • Preparing laboratory equipment and instruments
  • Collecting samples from animals such as blood, urine, or tissue
  • Administering medications or treatments prescribed by veterinarians
  • Performing diagnostic tests such as x-rays or ultrasounds
  • Anesthetizing animals before surgery or other procedures
  • Monitoring vital signs during surgery or other procedures
  • Assisting veterinarians with examinations and surgeries
  • Educating pet owners on proper animal care techniques

Veterinary technicians are exceptionally helpful in providing essential clinical care to animals and ensuring the veterinarian staff has the necessary supplies, equipment, and support to perform their job effectively.

  • Average Salary: $38,250 per year (BLS, May 2021)
  • Certification: Veterinary technicians can be certified through the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA). NAVTA offers the Veterinary Technician National Examination (VTNE), a nationally recognized certification. Additionally, some states may require veterinary technicians to obtain specific licensing. For example, California requires applicants for licensure as a Registered Veterinary Technician to complete an accredited veterinary technician program and pass both a written and practical examination.
  • Certifying Organization: National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA); state-specific certifications

Vet Tech Specialists

Vet tech specialists, or veterinary technicians specializing in a particular area, are highly-trained professionals who provide specialized medical care to animals. Vet tech specialists work under the supervision of a veterinarian, and their daily responsibilities may include the following:

  • Performing advanced laboratory procedures such as ultrasound diagnostics and endoscopies
  • Assisting veterinarians with complex surgeries
  • Designing health plans for individual animals
  • Providing intensive nursing care for sick or injured animals
  • Educating pet owners on proper animal care techniques and preventive medicine
  • Monitoring patients’ recovery process after surgery or treatments
  • Administering medications prescribed by veterinarians

Vet tech specialists with unique types of certification are especially valuable in the veterinary practice, as their specialized training enables them to monitor and provide specialized care for the most complex cases.

  • Average Salary: $35,429 per year (, 2023)
  • Certification: Veterinary technician specialists can be certified by the Academy of Veterinary Technicians in Clinical Practice (AVTCP). The AVTCP offers four specialized certifications: small animal (canine/feline), feline, exotic, and emergency and critical care. To become a certified veterinary technician specialist, one must have a minimum of two years of experience as a veterinary technician and pass an exam.
  • Certifying Organization: Academy of Veterinary Technicians in Clinical Practice (AVTCP)

Vet Technologists

Vet technologists are professionals who specialize in veterinary technology. They use their knowledge of animal care, medical treatments, and technology to provide support services in a clinical or laboratory setting.

Daily job responsibilities for a vet technologist may include the following:

  • Administering anesthesia and monitoring animal patients during surgery
  • Preparing tissue samples for analysis
  • Testing urine, feces, and other biological samples
  • Taking X-rays and ultrasound images
  • Administering vaccinations
  • Collecting blood samples for testing
  • Educating clients on proper pet care

Vet technologists often work with veterinarians, assisting with diagnostics, medicines, and other related tasks.

  • Average Salary: $38,250 per year (BLS, May 2021)
  • Certification: Veterinary technologists may become certified by passing an American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) examination. The AVMA offers two credentials: the Registered Veterinary Technician (RVT) and the Certified Veterinary Technician (CVT). To qualify for certification, individuals must complete a two- or four-year veterinary technology program and pass the certification exam.
  • Certifying Organization: American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)
Bernd Geels
Bernd Geels Writer

Bernd Geels is a Berlin, Germany-based freelance writer and artist. He holds an undergraduate degree in atmospheric science and two graduate degrees. He completed his most recent graduate degree in international environmental studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in 2011. He is interested in healthcare, climate change, marine conservation, indigenous science, and refugee issues. You can reach him directly at [email protected].