I’ve worked as a vet for more years than I care to remember. I was just like you: Animal obsessed as a child, eagerly consuming books, articles, or information on anything or everything to do with animals. When I shared my dream with parents and teachers, their reaction was cautious but encouraging. From an early age I ‘saw practice’ at a local vets, volunteered at stables, and milked cows. Out of sheer determination I studied hard, got the grades, and achieved my dream.
There’s nothing special about me. I’m averagely intelligent but no genius, but I do have grit and determination by the bucket load. If I can achieve my dream then so can you.
However, being a vet is not all sunshine and roses. Rather than talk about entrance requirements (which you can get from the websites of the relevant veterinary governing body) I want to give you an insider’s view on what the job involves.
Now is a step through moment to choose the right career that matches your strengths so I’m not going to pull any punches.
Working and training can be physically demanding. Vet school covers all species and you are expected to work with large animals such as cattle and horses, not just small furries or companion animals. This physicality continues into your working life where you may need to lift a 90 kg (198 pound) mastiff onto an operating table or carry a heavy cat basket from a client’s car to the clinic.
You mustn’t mind be scratched, bitten, peed and pooped on, and be prepared for clients to think it’s funny when their dog bites your ankle. OK, so you can cope with that, but what about after a busy night on call with little sleep and your patience is wearing thin?
This is balanced against legions of loving pet owners who are truly appreciative of your efforts on behalf of their fur-family member, and whose dedication to the pet is humbling and inspirational.
A professional has to be courteous, polite, and helpful no matter how tired or frustrated you are feeling. Does this sound like you?
One of the issues of modern veterinary education is that it tends to select students for their intellectual ability (after all, you need stellar grades to gain entry) which can mean some empathetic young people with a way with animals don’t make the grade.
If you’re not keen on people and prefer to text or email someone rather than speak face-to-face, then you may struggle as a vet. You need awesome powers of communication and to be a mix of detective, counsellor, and scientist to get an accurate patient history from a distressed owner. Then you need simple, clear language to explain what the options are.
This is balanced against making a real difference. You can give the owner a better understanding and ease their distress through the words you use. This is amazingly satisfying.
Can you learn to ‘read’ people: To understand what it is they’re NOT saying as much as what they are? If yes, you will make a great vet. Or do you consider people an inconvenience attached to the animals; if so, think again about your career choice.
Emotional Roller Coaster
How strong are you emotionally?
Vets need to be compassionate and caring; and the day you aren’t affected by euthanising an animal is the day you should change career. The emotions a vet feels range from elation at solving a tricky case, to anger at how cruelty and ignorance inflicts unnecessary suffering on gentle creatures that deserve better.
You also need to be able to cope with stress and have a life outside of being a vet.
Stress and Suicide
Being a vet is stressful. The hopes and fears of pet parents rest squarely on your shoulders. Not everyone understands that paying for treatment does not guarantee a happy outcome. Clients cope with loss and bereavement differently, from hysteria to aggression, and it’s you on the receiving end.
If this sounds overly dramatic you should realize that the veterinary profession has the dubious record of having the highest suicide rate of any job or career. A combination of student debt, threat of litigation, and disillusionment all have their part to play.
Debts and Income
Become a vet because you love animals, are great with people, and want to heal. Do not become a vet if you want to become rich. All those years of training mean you emerge from University with a huge debt to pay off. In addition, contrary to popular opinion, vets are not amongst the top earners. Doctors, dentists, lawyers, and accountants all pull wages that are multiple times higher than a vet. Indeed, in the United States a busy dog walker can earn more than a general practice vet. So if money is your motivation consider a different career.
And finally, don’t get me wrong I love being a vet, but my approach to advising prospective vet students is a grounded one.
This puts me in mind of one particular school boy in the practice on work experience. He was a serious chap, debating between becoming an economist or a vet. He asked what being a vet was like, so I talked through the high and lows, the jubilations and heart-ache, the sense of achievement and frustration, the mental challenges and sleep deprivation. He listened thoughtfully. I then suggested he got my colleague’s perspective. “I did,” he replied, “all he said was ‘I’m living the dream.'”