What is it like being a veterinarian? Life as a veterinarian is rewarding, but challenging and demanding, is the answer from most vets. To be a vet, you must have a passion for or a clinical interest in animals, have great interpersonal skills, and possess a strong work ethic.
We'll break the lifestyle into several categories to give readers an idea of what the pros and cons of being a veterinarian are.
The Patients: Animals and their Human Caretakers
- You'll be working with your passion
- It is rewarding and fulfilling to diagnose, treat, and make animals feel better
- Animals will likely protest being taken to the vet's office. You might get bitten, scratched, or kicked
- Neglectful, difficult, or emotional human caretakers
Most people are inspired to go into the veterinary sciences because of their love for animals. In our interviews with pre-vet and veterinary students, a passion for animals or a childhood pet provided the spark in pursuing a career as a vet. As University of California Berkeley student Amanda Wong, explains, "I have always maintained a fascination with animals from a young age and I knew I wanted to pursue a career that works closely with animals. Pursuing veterinary medicine became the obvious choice for me early-on..."
Dr. Jonathan Woodman, veterinarian and owner of Town Country Veterinary Services, shares a recent rewarding experience with a patient: "Dolly is a 13 year old Dalmatian that we treated in January and February this year. She was so sick with an intestinal virus and got so weak that she couldn't even stand. I was sure she would not survive. I worked very hard to save her and it all seemed for naught, but she finally slowly began to come around. This summer, I saw I saw her back to her normal active, happy self, and that was very rewarding."
Perhaps one of the most difficult parts of the job are the pet parents and human caretakers who accompany patients. This is where having great interpersonal skills comes in. Animals come attached with human caretakers, such as farm owners or pet parents, who can be difficult to deal with. Unfortunately, caretakers can range from irrational and unpleasant to downright neglectful. This is a common theme in veterinarian communities.
The Work: What Veterinarians do
Pros of Being a Veterinarian
- Versatile degree with different industry applications, daily responsibilities, and mobility
- Possibility of owning your own practice
- In animal practice, you can be anesthesiologist, surgeon, or obstetrician all at once, depending on what clients the day brings you - not the case for human care providers
Cons of Being a Veterinarian
- Potential burnout and compassion fatigue
- You will see animals in pain and suffering from every ailment, and will likely perform euthanasia
- Long hours in the office and on-call during weekends and evenings
- Revenue a discretionary expense for caretakers
Being a vet is similar to being a detective. "Veterinarian(s) must learn to conduct insightful interviews with the owners, observe and read animal body language, and use strong deductive reasoning and rational application of tests to figure out … the best course of action for the animal's health," says Jennifer Livesay, a DVM student at Oklahoma State University in an interview. You'll need to be a jack-of-all-trades in investigating the illness or treating the injury, especially as your patients cannot verbalize their condition. This contrasts with human medicine, where functions such as surgery or anesthesia must be referred to other doctors. While vets do refer more complicated cases to specialists, they can perform routine procedures on their own.
When most people think of becoming a veterinarian, they tend to think of a private practice focusing on companion animals. Private practice employs the majority of the 61,000 veterinarians in the workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree is versatile, though, and opens up a wide range of career options in research, government, or corporations.
Depending on the type and location of one's practice, the hours as a veterinarian can be grueling. It is not uncommon for a veterinarian to maintain standard operating hours from 9AM to 6PM during the weekdays, as well as be on-call for emergencies after hours and on the weekends. This is amplified if there are fewer vets serving a location, and pet parents only have a handful of vets to rely on. Furthermore, depending on scheduling arrangements, overnight shifts are generally expected for ER veterinarians. For this reason, the work-life balance of a veterinarian is highly variable depending on their client roster and demand for their services.
After some time in the field, veterinarians can suffer from compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is generally described as the maelstrom of emotions from caring too much or too little. People experiencing compassion fatigue can get emotionally drained or be unable to recover from the slightest events to feeling numb about both patients and life outside of work. It is estimated that veterinarians experience death five times more frequently than human doctors, which understandably raises these conditions.
Lastly, care for pets and animals usually falls into discretionary income. When times are great, pet parents or farm owners are able to pay for treatments. When the economy dips, however, the funds to cover additional care is less available. Veterinarians report that clients can delay providing health care for their pets to save money, only to bring them in at a later stage when conditions have deteriorated severely.