The Making of a Veterinarian

"We are pleased to notify you that you have been accepted by the College of Veterinary Medicine as a first-year student in the professional curriculum beginning August 22, 2002." These few words are the light at the end of a long tunnel, and the beginning of a new pathway for people wanting to become veterinarians. What did your veterinarian do during this journey?

Whether you are thinking of going to vet school or just want to know what your practitioner went through before being licensed to touch your horse, know that it takes a lot more than just a love of horses to become a veterinarian.

Undergraduate Pain

Undergraduate studies for pre-veterinary requirements are not fun. The stress of obtaining high grades in tough courses always weighs on the shoulders of pre-vet students. Try getting mostly As and a few Bs in:

  • Two semesters of general chemistry with labs;
  • Two semesters of organic chemistry (all compounds have carbon) with labs;
  • Two semesters of biochemistry (do you like chemistry yet?);
  • Two semesters of general biology with labs;
  • Two semesters of physics with labs; and
  • Two to four courses of science electives such as genetics, microbiology, cell biology, and animal nutrition.

Other necessary non-science courses vary from school to school, with some schools requiring specific humanities, social sciences, and fine arts courses.

"Advanced English courses were some of the most helpful classes to survive the first year of veterinary school," says Kimberly Smith, currently a second-year student at the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine. "Having a strong base in writing skills really helped on those five-page papers which were required in courses that some students really struggled through. Statistics was also helpful to understand scientific papers assigned by professors."

And these are just the "required" classes!

The "Other" Factors

Better-than-average grades are absolutely necessary to obtain entrance to veterinary school--most entering classes have an average GPA (grade point average) of approximately 3.5 on a 4.0 scale. Most veterinary schools also require an entrance examination of either the Graduate Records Examination or the Veterinary College Admissions Test. A successful candidate also needs to strive for an excellent record in animal and veterinary-related work, leadership skills such as activities in student government or clubs, and community service.

Food animal, equine, and small animal veterinary experience is highly encouraged, since veterinary schools teach all species, including exotics and poultry medicine. Three letters of recommendation are required, with at least one being from a veterinarian who has a working knowledge of the student interacting with animals and people.

It is equally important for the veterinary student to experience the differences in small animal and food animal (cattle, sheep, swine, etc.) veterinary practice. Even though a student might swear that he/she will be an equine practitioner for the next 40 years, interests, circumstances, health, and locale can change during a lifetime. The situations encountered by famous veterinary author James Herriot are quite true even 40 years later, and his books should be required reading by any person considering veterinary medicine!

Why Does It Matter Where I Live?

State residency is an important fact of life for veterinary students. Just ask anyone who pays out-of-state tuition. Legal residents of states that have one of the United States' 27 accredited veterinary schools (and the new Western University College of Veterinary Medicine in Pomona, Calif., which will take its first class in 2003; see list of veterinary schools on page 60) apply as in-state students and generally pay a much lower tuition than if they attend another state's school. For example, for the entering class of 2000 at Louisiana State University, 209 Louisiana resident students vied for 66 seats, whereas 868 out-of-state students battled for four seats. These four out-of-state students also paid an additional $12,000 per year for tuition compared to their in-state classmates.

Since there are only 27 veterinary schools in session, not all students can apply in-state. Some states that do not have veterinary schools have contracts with states that do. For example, Oklahoma State University has contracts to accept a certain number of students from New Jersey and Arkansas. Sadly, some states have no contracts with any veterinary schools, and their residents either have to establish legal residency in a veterinary school state (or contract state), or apply to all schools as an out-of-state student, fighting low odds of acceptance and high tuition fees.

Application Jitters

All pre-veterinary students apply in the fall semester prior to their anticipated entrance to veterinary school. Most deadlines are Oct. 1, and the majority of schools require application through the Veterinary Medical College Application Service (VMCAS). To view the application, which can easily take 10+ hours to complete, go to Some schools require interviews at the expense of the student, while others just mail "the letter" in March or April, determining the future pathway of the student.

"We Are Happy to Inform You..."

Joy, joy, joy...After completing spring semester, finding housing, and moving to the veterinary school, students experience a new type of tension. As Smith expresses, "There were 92 type A personalities sitting in the same orientation class on the first day." Being surrounded by students with top grades, a variety of backgrounds--and often all strangers--can be an intimidating feeling that first day. Then comes the adjustment to the cost of books ($150 for an anatomy book is not unusual), and perhaps most shocking, the time adjustment.

Students are often in lecture or laboratory six to seven hours per day, go home for a quick dinner, then return to school to review anatomy, study in the library, or view tissue slides until 10 pm. The first year is especially grueling because of all the adjustments, plus trying to make time for family, friends, animal companions, and recreation. ("Recreation--what's that?" asks a first-year student.)

"Having a non-veterinary outlet is important," advises Smith, "or you'll go crazy." Throughout the veterinary school experience, the content of most information is not as difficult as the sheer volume of it.

What Is Veterinary School Like?

First year: The basics of canine, feline, equine, and bovine anatomy are taught, along with microscopic anatomy, meaning students learn to identify almost every tissue type from fat to nerve cells. Physiology (how body systems work), cellular biology, professional orientation, ethics, and other courses fill in the 18-20 hours of course work in the first semester. The second semester involves more anatomy and physiology, immunology, pathology, and radiology.

Second year: Case studies integrate information learned from courses to date, along with more basic science in pathology, microbiology, more physiology, and parasitology. While the study of parasites might seem straightforward, imagine learning the life cycles of everything from an equine roundworm (Parascaris equorum), to a swine parasite (Macrocanthorhynchus hirudinaceus). Students learn ecto- and endoparasites of the primary species, including their life cycles, identification methods, and their common and scientific names. Needless to say, parasitology is a tough class!

Spring semester usually continues with more case studies, plus microbiology, pharmacology (veterinary drugs as well as human drugs used on animals), public health, and principles of surgery and anesthesia. What will tranquilize a horse can kill a cow. How do you anesthetize a bird? How do you disassemble and reassemble an anesthesia machine? There is so much to learn!

Third year: Light is shining at the end of the tunnel, and gone is the rote memorization of the name of every muscle in the dog's body (although you know what book to find them in again!). Now come the juicy courses--infectious diseases, clinical medicine, surgery laboratory, animal reproduction, and therapeutic pharmacology. Spring semester continues many of these courses, and adds preventive medicine/ epidemiology, ophthalmology, and toxicology. (Yes, you too can and do learn to identify, by common and taxonomic name, the majority of poisonous plants in your geographic region, the toxic compound in the plant, the clinical signs and pathology it induces in animals, and treatment.) Add to your learning common toxic chemicals such as antifreeze, drain cleaner, rat poison, and a variety of other toxic elements in animals' environments. Remember, it usually isn't the difficulty of the material, but the volume that makes veterinary school so interesting and challenging!

Fourth year: Almost-veterinarians get to start practicing what they have learned during the previous three years. Students usually rotate through small animal, food animal, and equine medicine and surgery, ophthalmology, pathology, radiology, and other areas, working with clinicians in examining patients, performing procedures, writing case summaries, and communicating with clients. Students will also have one or several blocks of time off to do externships at veterinary clinics, zoos, or specialized areas, such as at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Multiple opportunities exist for veterinary students to expand their horizons. James Roth, DVM, PhD, a professor in the department of Veterinary Microbiology and Preventive Medicine at Iowa State University, has been key in developing opportunities for students. "During the summer of 2001, we had 21 students go to Kenya, 12 to Thailand, seven to Germany, and three to the Ukraine. These are learning, experiential trips, not just sight-seeing tours."

International study often broadens one's understanding of the many ways veterinarians can utilize their talents--after all, students have backgrounds in small animal, large animal, equine, and other species.

The Student Chapter of the American Veterinary Medical Association's (AVMA) Native American Project Committee provides student externships on a Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona. Students work in the clinic treating large and small animals while learning the Navajo culture. This very popular program is highly competitive. Additionally, the University of Tennessee has a Remote Area Medical Veterinary Services program where students bring veterinary medicine to remote communities in the United States and overseas (

The Final Test(s)

During the fourth year of school, students take the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination (NAVLE), which is the national test for veterinarians. This consists of 300 multiple-choice questions involving all domestic and some exotic species. If you'd like to have a try at it, go to

After passing the NAVLE, students/veterinarians are required to complete state requirements in order to be licensed in an individual state. Fortunately, the job market is excellent for veterinarians, with last year's graduates having an average of 2.8 job offers per new veterinarian. Obtaining a state license varies from state to state--it might be as easy as paying a fee and filling out some paperwork, or it might require paying a fee and taking an intense examination. Every state requires a fee of some sort, from $50 to more than $400, so being licensed in multiple states can be an expensive proposition for new graduates, considering their average income and debt load.

While most graduates enter private veterinary practice, a variety of other pathways are open for equine veterinarians. Work as a federal veterinarian (see "Eileen Ostlund, DVM, MS, PhD" on page 55), an extension veterinarian ("R. Dean Scoggins, DVM" on page 55), and a unique equine veterinarian ("Ann Dwyer, DVM" on page 55) illustrate only some of the career options that veterinarians interested in horses can take. Other graduates apply for highly competitive internship positions, which include one year of further education at a veterinary school, and might be followed by a residency in a specific area of expertise. Ophthalmology, surgery, internal medicine, and many other specialties are available, but the competition is stiff, the hours long, and the pay for residents much below that for a practicing veterinarian. The upside of going into a specialty is that you can sharply hone specialized skills, and there is the potential for higher-paying jobs in the future.

So, How Long Does This All Take?

Becoming a veterinarian generally takes three to four years of undergraduate study, followed by four years of veterinary school. Then you must pass national and state licensing exams before you can practice.

You also can add education to your DVM degree, including one-year internships, two to six years of additional training for board certification (Diplomate status), two years for a master's degree (MS), and five years for a doctoral degree (PhD).

So, a veterinarian with a DVM degree has a minimum of seven years of college education, with an average of $63,000 in educational debt. Combine that with an internship and three-year residency, and you have 11 years of education (and more debt). Include a PhD, and you have an expert with 16 years of college education (and a lot of debt). People become veterinarians because they love the profession, not to become millionaires!

What About Board Certification?

Doug Berry II, DVM, MS, recently completed his master's degree and equine surgical residency at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine.

Requirements to take boards for his specialty, the American College of Veterinary Surgeons (ACVS), are quite rigorous. One must participate in a set number and variety of surgeries under the direct supervision of an ACVS Diplomate, publish an article in an approved peer-reviewed journal, and successfully complete a multi-part, three-day, intensive examination.

This specialty requires at least 3 1/2 years to complete after veterinary school and a year of internship or its equivalent. The time required to complete specialty board requirements varies from two to six years.

"Needless to say, it takes a lot of patience, planning, and perseverance," says Berry.

Prefer the International Route?

United States students can apply to and attend several international schools and graduate with credentials just as if they received their degree from an American-based university. All four Canadian veterinary schools are accredited by the AVMA-- University of Prince Edward Island, University of Guelph, University of Saskatchewan, and Université de Montreal (where all lectures and examinations are given in French). According to Walter Zent, DVM, recently on the AVMA Council on Education representing private equine practice, the Royal Veterinary School in London, the University of Glasgow, and Utrecht University in the Netherlands are also on the list of approved international schools. This means that U.S. residents admitted to these schools graduate with a degree allowing them to practice in the United States. Zent indicated that several other international schools were investigating the approval process, which is initiated by the veterinary school. European schools have a five-year veterinary education program.

What if you want to go to a Caribbean school, or studying in New Zealand or Mexico? When you graduate from their programs and want to practice in the United States, you must complete the Educational Commission for Foreign Veterinary Graduates (ECFVG) program. Although a few states (New York and Ohio) do not require the ECFVG program in order to legally practice, most states do. In New York and Ohio, students must pass state licensing requirements.

"Veterinarians must take the NAVLE and either a 3 1/2-day Clinical Proficiency Examination or serve a clinical year in a North American veterinary school (prior to AVMA approval)," says Emma Adam, BVetMed, MRCVS, a graduate of the Royal Veterinary School in London. She is currently an internal medicine resident at the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine. "I found the ECFVG program to be extremely fair. Even though my main interest is in horses, studying for and taking the test forces you out of mediocrity when it comes to other species."

Exciting Additions to Practice

The options for excitement are endless in equine veterinary medicine. Some enjoy the challenge of clinical research while working full-time as a practitioner. Veterinarians in mixed animal practice have the variety of working on multiple species, whereas specialists really like their own area of expertise.

Some veterinarians stir up international excitement outside of practice. Jay Merriam, DVM, private practitioner at the Massachusetts Veterinary Clinic in Uxbridge, Mass., has taken groups of veterinarians, veterinary students, and veterinary technicians to the Dominican Republic twice a year for the past nine years to deliver veterinary services to remote parts of the island.

"This past July we castrated 50 horses and neutered over 200 cats and dogs, as well as patching up whatever owners brought our way," says Merriam. The program is self-supporting, with members donating time, travel expenses, and medical supplies. "Fort Dodge Animal Health also helps in donating dewormer and medications," adds Merriam.

Alternative and Complementary Therapies, Anyone?

Your next Jeopardy question is...

Answer: A person who legally practices acupuncture, chiropractic, and homeopathy on animals.

Question: Who is a veterinarian?

In the vast majority of state veterinary codes of practice, all diagnosis and treatment of animals is reserved for licensed veterinarians. Some states allow practice of complementary or alternative medicine "under the direct supervision of a licensed veterinarian." The AVMA has just approved "Guidelines for Complementary and Alternative Veterinary Medicine," which state that, "Recommendations for effective and safe care should be based on available scientific knowledge and the medical judgment of the veterinarian."

Although there are many two- and four-week courses on alternative medicine for lay people, it just is not possible to learn all of the equine anatomy, physiology, medicine, pathology, etc., to have competency in alternative therapies in such a short time. Well-taught courses can give owners and trainers an appreciation for what alternative and complementary therapies can and cannot do, but the practice of these modalities should be reserved for a trained veterinarian. Post-veterinary school training for certification in acupuncture, chiropractic, and homeopathy require hundreds of hours of training and extensive examinations.

Veterinarians are arguably the most highly and diversely trained health professionals in the world. They are innovative, imaginative, and absolute masters at improvising. After all, an equine veterinarian can bandage most any wound with a diaper and duct tape!


AVMA guidelines for complementary and alternative veterinary medicine. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 218:1731.

Veterinary Medical School Admission Requirements in the United States and Canada. Purdue Press, 2001.


American Veterinary Medical Association (for Educational Commission for Foreign Veterinary Graduates information, veterinary technology programs, and the latest veterinary news);

American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges (for information on the Veterinary Medical College Application Service application, veterinary school preparation, and admission statistics); www.

After finishing vet school and passing the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination (NAVLE), students/veterinarians are required to complete state requirements in order to be licensed to practice in an individual state.


Veterinary Credentials

Those letters after your veterinarian's name can tell you very specific things about his or her education. For instance, a DVM earned a veterinary degree at a United States veterinary school (except University of Pennsylvania graduates, who are VMDs). A BVSc, MVB, FRCVS, or MRCVS denotes a veterinary degree earned in another country. MS and PhD degrees signify master's and doctorate degrees in many fields.

Specialties can further muddy the waters, such as Diplomate degrees from respective colleges or boards (such as a Dipl. ACT from the American College of Theriogenologists). Only these further board-certified veterinarians can be called specialists.

Find your veterinarian's degree(s) below.

BS: Bachelor of Science
BVetMed: Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine
BVMS: Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine and Science
BVSc: Bachelor of Veterinary Science
DVM: Doctor of Veterinary Medicine
DVSc: Doctor of Veterinary Science
MS: Master of Science
MVSc: Master of Veterinary Science
PhD: Doctor of Philosophy
VMD: Veterinary Medicine Doctorate

The following are specialty degrees.
CVA: Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist
ABVP: American Board of Veterinary Practitioners
ABVT: American Board of Veterinary Toxicology
ACLAM: American College of Laboratory Animal Medicine
ACT: American College of Veterinary Theriogenologists
ACVA: American College of Veterinary Anesthesiologists
ACVB: American College of Veterinary Behaviorists
ACVCP: American College of Veterinary Clinical Pharmacology
ACVD: American College of Veterinary Dermatology
ACVECC: American College of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care
ACVIM: American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
ACVM: American College of Veterinary Microbiologists
ACVN: American College of Veterinary Nutrition
ACVO: American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists
ACVP: American College of Veterinary Pathologists
ACVPM: American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine
ACVR: American College of Veterinary Radiology
ACVS: American College of Veterinary Surgeons
ACZM: American College of Zoological Medicine
AVDC: American Veterinary Dental College


Veterinary Colleges in the United States

College of Veterinary Medicine
Auburn University, AL 36849
334/844-3691 *

College of Veterinary Medicine
Ithaca, NY 14853-6401
607/253-3000 *

School of Veterinary Medicine, Davis, CA 95616-8734
530/752-1360 *

College of Veterinary Medicine and
Biomedical Sciences, Fort Collins, CO 80523
970/491-7051 *

College of Veterinary Medicine
2015 SW 16th Ave., Gainesville, FL 32610-0125
352/392-4700 *

College of Veterinary Medicine, Athens, GA 30602
706/542-3461 *

College of Veterinary Medicine
2001 South Lincoln, Urbana, IL 61802
217/333-2760 *

College of Veterinary Medicine, Ames, IA 50011
515/294-1242 *

College of Veterinary Medicine
1700 Denison Ave., Manhattan, KS 66506
785/532-6011 *

School of Veterinary Medicine
Skip Bertman Dr., Baton Rouge, LA 70803
225/578-9900 *

College of Veterinary Medicine
Dean's Office, G100 Veterinary Medical Center
East Lansing, MI 48824-1314
517/355-6509 *

College of Veterinary Medicine
1365 Gortner Ave., St. Paul, MN 55108
612/624-9227 *

College of Veterinary Medicine
Box 6100, Spring St.
Mississippi State, MS 39762-6100
662/325-3432 *

College of Veterinary Medicine
1600 East Rollins St., Columbia, MO 65211
573/882-3877 *

College of Veterinary Medicine
4700 Hillsborough St., Raleigh, NC 27606
919/513-6200 *

College of Veterinary Medicine
1900 Coffey Rd., Columbus, OH 43210
614/292-1171 *

College of Veterinary Medicine
110 McElroy Hall, Stillwater, OK 74078
405/744-6648 *

College of Veterinary Medicine
Office of the Dean
200 Magruder Hall, Corvallis, OR 97331-4801
541/737-2141 *

School of Veterinary Medicine
3800 Spruce St., Philadelphia, PA 19104
215/898-5434 *

School of Veterinary Medicine
1240 Lynn Hall, West Lafayette, IN 47907-1240
765/494-7607 *

College of Veterinary Medicine
PO Box 1071, Knoxville, TN 37901-1071
865/974-7262 *

College of Veterinary Medicine
University Dr., College Station, TX 77843-4461
979/845-5051 *

School of Veterinary Medicine
200 Westboro Rd., North Grafton, MA 01536
508/839-5302 *

School of Veterinary Medicine
Tuskegee, AL 36088
334/727-8173 *

Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine
Duck Pond Dr., Blacksburg, VA 24061-0442
540/231-4621 *

College of Veterinary Medicine
Pullman, WA 99164
509/335-9515 *

*First class: Fall 2003
College of Veterinary Medicine
309 East Second St.--College Plaza
Pomona, CA 91766
909/469-5628 *

School of Veterinary Medicine
2015 Linden Dr., Madison, WI 53706
608/263-6716 *


The Veterinarian's Oath

"Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health, the relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge.

"I will practice my profession conscientiously, with dignity, and in keeping with the principles of veterinary medical ethics.

"I accept as a lifelong obligation the continual improvement of my professional knowledge and competence."

Adopted by the AVMA in November, 1999

About the Author

Roberta Dwyer, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVPM

Roberta Dwyer, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVPM, is a professor within the University of Kentucky's Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center and editor of Equine Disease Quarterly.

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