What is veterinary medicine?

Veterinary medicine deals with the treatment and prevention of disease, illness, and disorders in animals. Veterinarians also play an essential role in promoting animal welfare by advising and educating owners on how to care for their pets. Some vets specialize in treating certain species, while others care for domestic, wild, and farmyard animals. A select few veterinarians work in the agricultural industry, ensuring safe food supplies and helping farmers stay compliant with animal welfare laws while maximizing productivity. 

Veterinary medicine is also an important academic field with widespread consequences for the entire globe. Researchers at the University Of Cambridge's Department for Veterinary Medicine are working on several projects related to sustainable farming methods, declining sealife numbers, and the prevention of zoonotic diseases, including the Ebola virus.

Reasons to study veterinary medicine

Newly qualified vets earn around $50,000 per year, while the average salary is $89,000. Established practitioners can make as much as $200,000, and there's extra earning potential for highly skilled specialists and surgeons. But while many enjoy the benefits of earning a high salary, most people don't go into veterinarian medicine for the money. The majority do what they do because they love animals.

Dr. Paula Castaño, a wildlife veterinarian who works on conservation projects in the Galapagos Islands, says, "As a little girl growing up in Colombia, I dreamed I had the power to help animals. At that moment it wasn't clear to me how I could do that. But with time, I realized that by becoming a veterinarian, I could indeed do just that!"

Vets also enjoy a varied working life where no two days are rarely the same and often become part of a close-knit community of animal lovers, including owners, rescuer workers, nurses, and kennel attendants. Moreover, vets never stop learning, making it an ideal profession for anyone who thrives off personal development and overcoming new challenges. There are also plenty of opportunities to move into more specialized areas of medicine or new industries, such as pharmaceutical development, conservation, or government consultancy roles. 

Creating a better world for all species

There's much more to being a vet than treating sick puppies or spaying ‘frisky’ cats. Veterinarian specialists in Alaska are working on a project to find what is often described as the 'holy grail' of modern medicine -- how to slow down the aging process. The multi-million dollar project, which Cornell University is part of, is striving to find out if a drug that inhibits particular enzymes can also decrease the aging process in sled dogs.

Dr. John Loftus, the co-head of the study, says, "As we age, we're finding these normally dormant DNA elements get turned on. [...] Our approach is going to be to give the dogs a reverse inhibitor and hopefully reduce inflammation, reduce the incidence of cancer and other diseases related to mutations and DNA damage." If successful, Dr. Loftus and his team could help create revolutionary new anti-aging medicines for canines and humans. "This is also a really good model for people, hopefully, in the future," said Dr. Loftus.

How to become a vet

Veterinary medicine is a highly skilled and very competitive profession. Apart from a love of aminals and a strong work ethic, the first thing veterinary medicine applicants need is a good high school education with top grades in the sciences. Then it's time for a three-year undergraduate degree. It's also an excellent idea to get some first-hand experience with animals through any volunteer or charity opportunities. You find these through animal welfare organizations, zoos, farms, or animal shelters. Alternatively, contact some private veterinary practices and offer a helping paw.

Now the hard work really begins with a graduate degree that can last up to four years. Postgraduate veterinary programs are intense courses of study which combine class and lab work with practical placements. As well as learning everything you need to know about caring for animals, this is also the perfect time to decide what particular path you'd like to follow. For example, do you want to work in a private practice where you can help treat sick pets? Or would you rather be out on the desert plains helping to preserve endangered species? Or maybe you've made an exciting new discovery and would like to pursue your research in an academic setting?

Funding your studies

Becoming a fully qualified vet can take the best part of a decade; it also takes money. This means you should consider the cost of your studies, making sure you've got enough funds to cover the long journey towards your dream career. So do lots of research of different schools, including those that might require you to relocate, Travelling a few hundred miles across the country could save you thousands of dollars in the long-term.

There's also plenty of bursaries, scholarships and finance options available, such as private and subsidized loans for key workers and health professionals. Again, do as much research as possible and make sure you read the small print before signing anything.

Some students take on part-time work during their veterinary studies, although this does increase the risk of spreading yourself a little thin. So if you're thinking of working while studying medicine, it may be a good idea to limit any part-time jobs to 10-12 hours a week. If you can get work related to your studies, so you can earn while you learn, even better! 

A growing industry and exciting side-gigs

In the UK alone, the pet product and services market is worth a staggering £1.7billion. Much of that includes accessories and toys. However, within such a highly competitive space, companies are always looking for an edge over their business rivals. This means many new products and services need to be vet-approved, providing plenty of consultancy opportunities for well-respected vets. What's more, humans are more concerned about their pets than ever before, especially when it comes to nutrition. A vet with a background in pet and animal nutrition can now build a side career in digital journalism, blogging, or even television.

Vets with an enterprising spirit can even set up their own companies. Co-founded by vet surgeon Richard Allport and canine specialist Kristina Johnson, Elmo's Kitchen is the kind of business that could only exist in the 21st century. Elmo's Kitchen creates individual nutrition plans based on each dog's requirements, as well as dishing out tips on supplements to prevent long-term health conditions.

There's also a rapidly emerging market in veterinary software that integrates IT and communications systems within universities, private practices, animal hospitals, and government offices. This new technology will help vets provide a more streamlined service and encourage a dialogue between different animal welfare agencies. It addition, it will become a great way to share information on new treatment techniques and drugs, helping to save even more animals. 

Becoming a vet is not easy, but most vets say it is definitely worth all the hard work. So keep your eye on the prize, and remember, once all the studying is done, you get to spend the rest of your career helping some of the cutest and most fascinating creatures on the planet.