What is a Veterinary Medicine Degree?

If you have a love of animals, a mind for science, and a knack for biology, becoming a veterinarian may be a great career choice for you!

Veterinarians practice veterinary medicine, which is the branch of medicine that focuses on diagnosing and treating diseases, disorders and injuries in both domesticated and wild animals. In order to work as a veterinarian (in private practice, research, or teaching, a Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine is required. Licensure is also required, which is earned by passing the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam. Veterinarians that want to specialize must complete a two-year internship—examples of specialties are surgery, radiology, pathology, or laboratory animal medicine.

There are only about 30 veterinary colleges in the United States that are accredited by the Council on Education of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), and approximately 20 AVMA-recognized specialties. Because of this, spaces are limited and competition is quite intense. The road to becoming a veterinarian is long, so before coming to a decision on a particular program, it is important to think about your goals.

Ask yourself a few questions when looking at veterinary medicine degree programs:

  • Is the program accredited?
  • What is the focus of the program?
  • What are the requirements of the program (coursework, time)?
  • Does the program offer any opportunities (internships, etc)?
  • Does the faculty have areas of specialization?

It might also be beneficial to volunteer and spend time with animals in various settings, such as animal shelters or wildlife rescue organizations. Doing this will help you answer these questions:

  • How do I handle seeing an animal in distress?
  • Am I able to work under stress?
  • How emotionally stable am I when dealing with wounds and injuries?
  • Am I able to be empathetic and patient with animals?
  • Can I be understanding and patient with distressed animal owners?

Program Options

Associate Degree in Veterinary Medicine - Two to Three Year Duration
An associate degree program in veterinary medicine offers students a solid foundation in animal biology and nutrition, as well as experience with clinical laboratory assisting techniques and procedures. Examples of classes are: animal nutrition, clinical lab methods, anatomy and physiology, introductory veterinary technology, pharmacology, and radiology.

Students learn: how to use diagnostic radiographic machines, dispense pharmacological drugs, perform assessments on animals, handle lab specimens, manage anesthetic procedures, and properly communicate with clients. Internships with veterinary facilities are also included in many of these programs.

Note: An associate degree program in veterinary medicine needs to be accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). An example of an accredited degree program is the Associate of Science in Veterinary Technology, which prepares students to become veterinary technologists. For those wanting to work as veterinary technologists, passing a licensing exam is also required.

Bachelor’s Degree in Veterinary Medicine - Four Year Duration
A major in pre-veterinary science is available at many, but not all schools. If a pre-veterinary major is not available at your choice of school, it is acceptable to earn a bachelor’s degree in a broader subject, such as general science, zoology, or biology. Just make sure of all the course requirements are completed for acceptance to veterinarian school. Typically, pre-veterinary studies focus on anatomy, physiology, physics, and math. Coursework generally includes: animal science, microbiology, biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology, and organic and inorganic chemistry.

Bachelor’s program graduates can pursue a veterinary technologist career, and can work in a veterinary hospital, rescue shelter, or zoo.

Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) - Four Year Duration
All prospective veterinarians must earn a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree. Applicants to most DVM programs must meet certain course prerequisites in chemistry, physics, statistics, biology, and biochemistry. Many schools require test scores from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and Veterinary College Admission Test (VCAT), as well as letters of personal and professional recommendation.

The DMV curriculum focuses on veterinary medicine and animal science topics, the biological systems of various animals, veterinary medicine procedures, technology, preventative care, and diagnosis and treatment of diseases and injuries. Classes include: animal behaviour, animal nutrition, radiology, pharmacology, ophthalmology, parasitology, toxicology, veterinary virology, large and small animal medicine, as well as clinical and communications training. Students also learn how to perform surgery on small and large animals, treat wounds, and set fractures.

Coursework may become more specialized during the third year of study, and clinical rotations are offered during the final year.

Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and Doctor of Philosophy in Veterinary Medicine (DVM-PhD) - Seven Year Duration
Students wanting to pursue careers in the veterinary sciences research industry are able to take a combined Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Veterinary Medicine program—this degree is the terminal degree in the field of veterinary medicine and veterinary science. Most combined DVM-PhD programs are offered as four years of DVM study plus three years of PhD study.

The curriculum merges general veterinary medicine coursework with classes that focus on veterinary science research methodology. Research areas may include: veterinary surgery, pathology, pharmacology, immunology, and anatomy.

After completing veterinary school, graduates are able to take the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination, as well as any required state licensing exam.

Degrees Similar to Veterinary Medicine

Some four-year bachelor’s degree programs in zoology allow for specialization and others are more generalized. Core courses for most programs are general biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. The biology requirement is sometimes divided into courses in molecular and organismal biology. If specialization is permitted or required, options are marine biology, ecology, genetics, animal behaviour, or zoo and aquarium science. By taking certain elective courses students may be permitted to create a custom-made specialization in the subject.

Bachelor’s programs may offer both a Bachelor of Arts (BA) and a Bachelor of Science (BSc). The BSc is the preferred degree for those considering earning a master’s and/or Ph.D.

Marine Biology
Four-year undergraduate degree programs in marine biology are comprised of required and elective courses. Mandatory coursework includes general biology, cell biology, ecology, and evolution. Electives, which allow students to concentrate on particular areas of interest, might include mammal biology, vertebrae zoology, tropical ecosystems, fish ecology, aquaculture, biotechnology, environmental biology, molecular biology, toxicology, and species-specific biology.

Some universities do not offer a major in marine biology. It is therefore quite common for individuals pursuing the field to major in general biology or zoology.

Animal Sciences
A four-year Bachelor’s Degree in Animal Sciences is useful for managerial jobs in farm-related or ranch-related businesses, such as farming, ranching, agricultural inspection, farm credit institutions, or companies that make or sell feed, fertilizer, seed, and farm equipment. Further education is needed for advanced research topics such as genetics, animal reproduction, and biotechnology, among others.

Animal Behavioral Sciences
A four-year Bachelor’s Degree in Animal Behavioral Sciences is being offered at more and more universities. This is an interdisciplinary major that combines psychology and biology. A growing number of animal behaviorists work in government laboratories or in private businesses. These jobs involve health-related research, such as a drug company conducting research on the behavioral effects of new drugs on animals or examining the links between animal behavior and disease.

Skills You’ll Learn

Students in a veterinary medicine degree program learn many transferrable skills, such as:

Management Skills
Some veterinarians run their own private clinics, and are in charge of staff and technicians. Management skills are key in providing direction and overseeing the daily operation of things.

Manual Dexterity
Veterinarians need to have steady control of their hand movements and be precise when performing surgery and treating injuries.

Problem-Solving Skills
Veterinarians need to figure out what is ailing an animal, and since animals can’t talk, it is up to the veterinarian to determine the cause of illness and the best treatment available.

Compassion is needed when working with animals and their owners. Both animals and owners need to be treated with kindness, respect, sensitivity, and understanding.

Decision-Making Skills
Decisions must be made when choosing the best method for treating an animal, or for making a decision to euthanize an animal.

Communication Skills
Veterinarians must be able to give instructions to their staff, and discuss recommendations and treatment options to animal owners.

What Can You Do with a Veterinary Medicine Degree?

There are many fields, specializations and places of employment that graduates with a veterinary medicine degree can work in, such as:

  • Hospitals
  • Private clinics
  • Farms
  • Zoos and sanctuaries
  • Laboratory animal medicine
  • Research institutions
  • Teaching positions
  • Government
  • Production animal industries
  • Universities
  • Pharmaceutical industry
  • Pet food industry
  • Animal aid and welfare organizations
  • Animal production
  • Disease control
  • Environmental management
  • Public health
  • Clinical trials for veterinary medicine
  • Parasitology
  • Immunology
  • Radiology
  • Pathology
  • Cardiology
  • Neurology
  • Oncology
  • Pet insurance
  • Livestock industry
  • Aquaculture
  • Anesthesia
  • Animal behaviour
  • Ophthalmology
  • Preventive medicine
  • Animal dentistry
  • Animal dermatology
  • Emergency and critical care
  • Microbiology
  • Nutrition
  • Toxicology
  • Reproduction
  • Avian, equine, beef cattle, feline, canine/feline, exotic, mammal, food animal, dairy, reptile and amphibian, swine

Career Paths

Learn about your career prospects after graduation.

Read about Career Paths