What It's Really Like to Be a Veterinarian

What It's Really Like to Be a Veterinarian

What is it like to be a veterinarian? Most vets say the career is rewarding, but also challenging and demanding. To be a vet, you must have a passion for and a clinical interest in animals, great interpersonal skills and 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

Advantages

  • You'll be working in a field that you are passionate about.
  • It is rewarding and fulfilling to diagnose, treat and heal animals.

Disadvantages

  • 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.

"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," said University of California Berkeley student Amanda Wong.

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 or pet owners, 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 career mobility.
  • Possibility of owning your own practice.
  • You can be an anesthesiologist, surgeon or obstetrician, depending on which clients the day brings — 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 is a discretionary expense for caretakers.

Being a vet is similar to being a detective. "Veterinarians 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," said Jennifer Livesay, a DVM student at Oklahoma State University.

You'll need to be a jack-of-all-trades in investigating illnesses or treating injuries, 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 may 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 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. during weekdays, as well as to be on-call for emergencies after hours and on the weekends. This is amplified if there are fewer vets serving a location.

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 may 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 may feel emotionally drained or be unable to recover from the slightest events, or feel 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 economic times are great, pet or farm owners are better able to pay for treatments. When the economy dips, however, the funds to cover additional care may also dwindle. Veterinarians report that clients may delay providing health care for their pets to save money, only to bring them in at a later stage when their condition has deteriorated.