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Small Animal Veterinarian


Guinea Pig at Vet
Seymore Imagery/Photodisc/Getty Images

Small animal veterinarians are practitioners that specialize in health management of dogs, cats, birds, exotics, and other companion animals.


Small animal veterinarians are licensed animal health professionals that are qualified to diagnose and treat a variety of companion species. Small animal practitioners commonly treat dogs, cats, other small mammals, birds, and reptiles. A small animal vet can work in a variety of environments, but will generally have routine interactions with both patients and their owners by appointment in the clinic’s exam room.

The typical routine for a small animal vet includes performing wellness exams, giving routine vaccinations, drawing blood, prescribing medications, evaluating and suturing wounds, performing surgeries (such as spay/neuter procedures), performing post-surgical follow up exams, and cleaning teeth. Other duties may include performing health exams on young animals, monitoring the reproductive health of breeding animals, assisting with problem births, using ultrasound machines, and taking x-rays.

It is common for veterinarians to work both day and evening hours, and they are often “on call” for potential emergencies that might arise on weekends and holidays. Some veterinary offices, especially small animal clinics, are open on Saturday for a half or full day, though most are closed on Sunday. A few small animal practitioners offer mobile veterinary clinic services, traveling to visit their patients in a specially modified van equipped with the necessary medical gear.

Career Options

According to statistics from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), more than 75% of vets work in private practice. While some vets choose to work exclusively on small animals, others may operate mixed practices that also provide equine or other large animal veterinary services.

Outside of private practice, vets also find work as college professors or educators, pharmaceutical sales representatives, military personnel, government inspectors, and researchers.

Education and Training

All small animal veterinarians graduate with a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree, which is the culmination of a rigorous course of study involving both small and large animal species. There are 28 colleges of veterinary medicine in the United States that offer a DVM degree to their graduates.

Upon graduation, vets must also successfully complete the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam (NAVLE) to become professionally licensed. Approximately 2,500 veterinarians graduate, pass the NAVLE exam, and enter the veterinary field each year. At the end of 2010, the most recent AVMA employment survey available, there were 95,430 practicing U.S. veterinarians. Small animal exclusive vets make up over 67% of that total.

Professional Associations

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) is one of the most prominent veterinary organizations, representing over 80,000 practitioners. Another large veterinary organization is the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA), which is comprised of 80 member associations representing 75,000 small animal vets worldwide.


The median wage for veterinarians is approximately $79,000 according to the 2010-2011 Occupational Outlook Handbook from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Earnings in the 2010 BLS salary survey varied from under $46,000 for the lowest 10% of veterinarians to more than $143,000 for the top 10% of veterinarians.

According to the AVMA, the median professional income for companion animal exclusive veterinarians (before taxes) was $97,000 in 2009. Vets in companion animal predominant practice earned a similar median income of $91,000.

In terms of average starting salary right out of veterinary school, small animal vets fared the best with average compensation of $64,744; large animal vets started out at an average salary of $62,424.

Veterinarians who are board certified in a particular specialty area (ophthalmology, oncology, surgery, etc) generally earn significantly higher salaries as a result of their advanced education and experience. As of 2010, AVMA data indicated there were 473 board certified canine and feline diplomates and 290 board certified small animal surgeons (some vets may hold both certifications).

Job Outlook

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the veterinary profession will expand at a much faster rate than average—nearly 33% from 2008 to 2018. The limited number of graduates from vet programs will translate to excellent job prospects in the field.

The AVMA’s most recent employment survey (December 2010) found that there were 61,502 vets in private practice. Of that number there were 41,381 vets in companion animal exclusive practices, and an additional 5,966 in companion animal predominant practices.

With the steadily increasing numbers of animals kept as pets, as well as the steady increase in medical spending on those pets, the veterinary profession should continue to be a rewarding business over the next decade and beyond.

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