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Small Animal Veterinarian Career Overview

Small animal veterinarians specialize in providing veterinary care for companion animal species.  Their patients often include dogs, cats, small mammals, and exotics (such as parrots and reptiles).


Small animal veterinarians are licensed practitioners who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of the illnesses and injuries common to small animals often kept as pets.  Most small animal vets work in private practice and are based out of a clinic, though there are some that offer mobile veterinary services using a specially outfitted van or trailer.

Small animal vets are responsible for many routine health care services.  Routine tasks may include performing surgeries (especially spay and neuter procedures), giving general health exams, drawing blood samples, giving annual vaccinations, suturing wounds, providing dental care, prescribing medications, taking ultrasounds or x-rays, and counseling owners on pet care and dietary needs.  They must also work closely with their team of veterinary technicians and staff to ensure that proper care is administered quickly and efficiently.

As is quite common in the veterinary profession, most small animal vets work long hours (which may include “on call” hours to address any emergencies occurring on weekends and holidays).  In fact, many clinics are open on Saturdays (either for a half or full day) to accommodate owners who are unable to bring their pets in during the work week.  Small animal vets tend to spend a lot of time on their feet, going from one exam room to the next.  They also face the risk of suffering bites or injuries from handling animals under extreme stress.

Employment Options

More than 75 percent of all vets work in private practice, and more than half these private practitioners choose to work exclusively in companion animal medicine.  Others choose to work in companion animal predominant or mixed private practices so that they can accommodate large animal patients as well, though this model is not as common.

While private practice is by far the most popular option for vets, those not choosing to work in the private practice environment have several other career possibilities.  Small animal vets can also find positions in academia, veterinary pharmaceutical sales or product development, the military, government agencies, research labs, and the corporate world.

Vets may open their own practice if they can secure the significant financial backing required to open a facility, but it is more common for new small animal vets to join an established practice for a period of time as an associate veterinarian (employee) while paying off their student loans.  They may eventually have the option to buy into the practice as a partner, or they may establish their own solo practice at a later date (potentially with partners or hiring associate veterinarians).

Education, Training, and Certification

All small animal veterinarians must complete a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree to be eligible to practice medicine.  DVM degree programs cover multiple species in great detail (both small and large animal) through challenging coursework and clinical training.  There are 30 AVMA accredited colleges of veterinary medicine in the United States, and according to the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) approximately 3,000 new veterinarians enter practice each year.  After successfully completing a DVM degree, new vets must pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam (NAVLE) to be eligible for licensing in the state where they intend to practice.

Small animal veterinarians may also go on to seek specialty board certification in one of several small animal related areas.  The 2015 AVMA Market Statistics on board certified vets found that there were 464 canine and feline practitioner diplomates, 82 feline exclusive practitioner diplomates, 1,310 small animal internal medicine diplomates, and 577 small animal veterinary surgeon diplomates.  Board certification requirements vary, but certification usually requires completion of a multi-year residency under the supervision of a diplomate in the field.

Salary Range

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the median pay for veterinarians was $88,490 per year ($42.54 per hour) in the most recent survey published in May 2015.  The survey showed the lowest paid ten percent of veterinarians were bringing home less than $53,210 annually, while the highest paid ten percent of veterinarians were bringing home more than $158,260 annually.  The BLS doesn’t offer niche salary information for the various veterinary specialization areas.

According to AVMA’s salary survey (last conducted in 2011), companion animal exclusive veterinarians earned a median salary of $97,000 annually.  Owners of companion animal practices earned the highest median professional income ($139,000), compared to associate veterinarians (employees) in companion animal practice who earned a median professional income of $85,000 annually.  Veterinarians who are board certified may earn significantly higher salaries as a result of their credentials and experience.

The AVMA survey found that first year average salary for companion animal exclusive practitioners was $69,712; companion animal predominant practitioners had similar first year earnings of $67,631.  For comparison, food animal exclusive practitioners had the highest first year salary average ($76,040).

Job Prospects

Information from an American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) study conducted in late 2015 reveals that most U.S. veterinarians work in small animal private practice (44,396 in companion animal exclusive practice and 6,603 more in companion animal predominant practice).  Comparatively, there are just 3,371 vets working in food animal predominant practice and 1,233 vets working in food animal exclusive practice.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the veterinary profession will grow at a rate of about 9 percent from 2014 to 2024, which is slightly faster than the average for all professions monitored in their survey.  With pet ownership continuing to rise, there should be steady demand for small animal veterinary services for the foreseeable future.

The only potential concern for small animal practitioners is the increasing number of graduates entering the field.  The increase is due to two factors: larger class sizes from established vet schools and the opening of two new vet schools (Midwestern University in Arizona and Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee).  More new vet schools are expected to seek accreditation in the near future, which would further fuel a potential oversupply of vets.

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