How To Become A Veterinarian - Degrees & Licensure

Since 9000 BC, veterinary work has been essential to animal and human lives. In 1756, the first school for veterinary medicine was opened by Claude Bourgelat in Lyon, France, and the rest is history. Veterinarians are a crucial part of our medical health community and well-being. Veterinarians help stop the spread of disease, protect the nation’s food source, and provide critical research for animals and humans.

To launch a career in veterinary medicine, a person must first have a high school diploma or GED. Most programs begin after the candidate completes a bachelor’s degree requiring a minimum of four years of work and a doctorate before the licensure process.

Keep reading to learn how a candidate can become a certified veterinarian, educational institutions with veterinary programs, licensured details, and the career outlook.

Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming a Veterinarian

Step 1: Graduate from high school or earn a GED.

Canidiates must graduate from high school or obtain a GED through a state-approved program. Taking classes in anatomy and biology can be beneficial to prepare for veterinary work in the future.

Step 2a: Complete a bachelor’s degree and take the GRE (four years).

Public and private institutions offer nationwide university programs for completing a bachelor’s degree.

Specific science courses are highly encouraged and can be prerequisites for vet programs. These bachelor-level courses include math, physics, biology, and chemistry. However, some programs require courses that include animal behavior, biochemistry, and mammology.

While completing a bachelor’s degree, a candidate can also explore community engagement to gain relevant veterinary work experience. Volunteer work is a beneficial opportunity to glean knowledge, hands-on experience, and a connection with veterinary services in their immediate area. Investigating vet clubs at institutions is a practical method for engagement. Connecting to the community is crucial for applicants.

In the final year of bachelor’s studies, it is essential to study and complete a Graduate Record Exam (GRE). GRE and a GRE (Biology) scores are generally required by graduate programs to assess an individual’s readiness for graduate-level course work.

Arizona State University

Step 3: Complete a doctor of veterinary medicine or DVM degree (four years or more)

Selecting an institution with a veterinary program is based on the interested party and their financial needs. Most veterinary programs take four years to complete.

Programs begin with the first two years focusing on classroom study and coursework to build background knowledge around the field. Such courses may include virology, animal anatomy and physiology, and nutrition, and other classes specific to animal varieties and groups.

The third year of vet study provides the opportunity to practice the knowledge gleaned from years one and two through hands-on work. This year brings candidates first-hand experience with live animals and emphasizes critical thinking while handling animals to diagnose and provide treatment.

The fourth year of veterinary study allows students to focus on specific areas of interest. The fourth year can extend beyond one year, depending on the program. Many programs teach this area of interest courses in two to three-week blocks of time. The fourth year also incorporates clinical rotations into the study, aligning students with faculty who guide their practice. Exploring areas of interest generally are driven by small or large animal rotation work or mixed-animal studies. This final year is also when students participate in practicum or externships.

Some of the coursework covered within the first two to three years of study includes the following categories but are not limited to the following list:

  • Veterinary bacteriology and mycology
  • Veterinary anatomy
  • Veterinary cell biology
  • Microscopic anatomy of domestic animals
  • Physical diagnosis
  • Principals of physiology
  • Basic animal nutrition
  • Veterinary virology
  • Veterinary immunology
  • Veterinary neuroanatomy and neurophysiology
  • Epidemiology and preventative medicine
  • Veterinary parasitology
  • Veterinary animal behavior
  • Principles of pharmacology
  • Principles of anesthesia
  • Veterinary ophthalmology
  • Clinical pathology
  • Veterinary toxicology

Many online resources help guide decision-making regarding specific programs, regions of interest, and university interests. Some of the most highly regarded on-campus programs are described below, with detailed information regarding the location, accreditation, tuition estimations, and completion timelines.

University of California-Davis

The University of California-Davis provides around 600 students with pristine access to best practices in veterinary medicine education. Their graduates obtain the knowledge, skill, and application of veterinary experts, providing them with the keys to their professional future. Candidates are provided with the opportunity to learn about the macroview of veterinary medicine before choosing a species-specific line of study in either small or large mammal practice.

Students can choose from a vast array of specific analyses, including equine, livestock, large animal, small animal, aquatic medicine, laboratory animal, poultry, zoologic or mixed animal work, public health, research, or pathology. This university is known for its “best veterinary school in the nation” ranking; it sets itself apart from other institutions with its faculty and superb educational curriculum.

  • Location: Davis, California
  • Accreditation: AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association)
  • Expected time to Completion: Four years
  • Estimated Tuition: $32,618.05 (annual resident); $44,863.05 (annual non-resident)

Cornell University – College of Veterinary Medicine

Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine is an excellent choice for east coast veterinary residents who wish to be leaders that inspire their community to build a healthy world for people and animals alike.

This New York land grant college focuses upon the elements of scientific study to provide educational background, discovery, and care. The institution itself began over 150 years ago. It developed a revolutionary program requiring four years of study for a DVS degree and two further years of study for DVM work.

  • Location: Ithaca, New York
  • Accreditation: American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians (AAVLD)
  • Expected time to Completion: Four years; additional two years for DVM
  • Estimated Tuition: $39,900 (resident) and $59,500 (non-resident)

Some colleges and vocational programs offer online or hybrid options to meet the needs of applicants.

Students looking for hybrid options can find classes online and in-person laboratory practice available in various programs around the country. These programs generally focus on veterinary workers who are a part of the veterinary team, such as vet techs and technicians; however, some programs provide veterinary doctor degrees, especially in the current climate of pandemic work.

Step 3: Pursue professional licensing (timeline varies).

On a national level, the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination (NAVLE) has been the nation’s critical licensing examination in this profession since 2000. This exam consists of 360 clinically relevant multiple-choice questions. This exam is required to practice veterinary medicine in the United States and Canada. The exam is provided throughout a four-week window between November and December and a two-week window in April.

Once online, testing locations across the country are provided for participants to attend. Application materials must also be submitted by August for the November through December exam and February for the April exam.

Step 4: Get certified in a specialty area (optional, one year or more).

After obtaining certification by completing an accredited program and passing the NAVLE exam, the option to intern for a year is often the pathway many entering the veterinary field choose to pursue. Working with private or non-profit organizations can provide new veterinarians with the experience they would not gain elsewhere.

Sometimes working with private clinics or finding work with larger animals such as equines or exotics at zoos gives new professionals in the field a cutting-edge education, certification, and experience that portrays the passion behind the degree.

To pursue veterinary work within a specialty field, additional education and certification is required. Specialty veterinary work is completed through a residency or with multiple years of further education beyond the four completed for the doctorate in veterinary professional work.

Here are a few of the specialties that veterinary professionals can consider:

  • Virology
  • Dentistry
  • Ophthalmology
  • Animal behavior
  • Surgery
  • Internal medicine
  • Virology
  • Immunology
  • Bacteriology/mycology
  • Parasitology

For a full list of the 22 AVMA-Recognized Veterinary Specialty Organizations™ and 46 distinct AVMA-Recognized Veterinary Specialties™, check out the AVMA website.

Step 5: Join a professional veterinary association.

Connectivity is essential in any professional field, and veterinary practice is no exception to this rule. It is helpful to pursue a professional veterinary association at the state or national level to connect with colleagues beyond those within a new professional’s circle.

These associations include the American Veterinary Medical Association, which provides membership, advocacy, education, career support, conference journals, research, live webinars, and up-to-date news. There are numerous associations for a broad range of topics within the area. Some of these associations include:

  • American Animal Hospital Association
  • American Veterinary Medical Association
  • Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges
  • The United States Animal Health Association

Step 6: Renew credentials (ongoing).

Finally, any licensure and certification will require continuing education and skills assessment at a regular interval. Maintaining one’s credentials is essential to veterinary practice.

Veterinary Career Outlook & Salary

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2022) reported that job openings for veterinarians are expected to swell 19 percent nationally between 2021 and 2031—nearly four times the expected average growth of all professions.

Many veterinarians find work within private practice clinics and hospitals, although there are many opportunities to pursue veterinary medicine in zoo locations, classrooms, and laboratories. Dependent upon the interest of the professional pursuing veterinary work, there is a sustainable fit for all levels of passion and individualized personality.

As a final note, veterinarians are well-compensated for their hard work. The BLS (May 2021) reported that there were 77,260 professionals practicing across the country with an average annual salary of $109,920. They earned the following percentiles:

  • 10th percentile: $60,760
  • 25th percentile: $78,920
  • 50th percentile (median): $100,370
  • 75th percentile: $128,410
  • 90th percentile: $165,600
Rachel A. Becker
Rachel A. Becker Writer

Rachel Becker is a freelance writer who enjoys life in the PNW. She holds a master's degree in education and taught in elementary classrooms for twelve years. When she is not running around after two toddlers, she makes time for daily movement, running two blogs, and reading.