Veterinary surgeons - usually known as vets - work to safeguard the health and welfare of animals.
Vets working in general practice are responsible for the medical and surgical treatment of a range of animals, including domestic, zoo and farm animals. They also work to prevent disease in animals and the spread of disease.
There are mixed veterinary practices and those specialising in small animals, food-producing animals and equine work, amongst others. The specialism may depend on the practice's rural or urban location.
Vets combine their knowledge of animal physiology, nutrition and medicine with practical skills to diagnose illnesses, prescribe medicines and perform surgery. They also manage anaesthesia during procedures.
Vets are employed in other sectors, such as education and research, government agencies including the army, animal charities and pharmaceutical companies.
Vets either work from a surgery or by visiting animals in their living environments, such as a farm or stables. Some vets carry out home visits.
Typical tasks include:
- handling, examining and treating all species of animals, including domestic animals, farm livestock and horses;
- meeting and consulting with the owners and carers of various animals, including zookeepers;
- carrying out tests such as x-rays, blood samples and ultrasound scans;
- giving advice to farmers on issues such as nutrition, breeding and herd health;
- routinely visiting farms to check the health of livestock;
- immunising animals against different types of disease;
- euthanising old and terminally ill animals;
- performing surgery, including managing anaesthesia;
- working on out-of-hours emergency cases when on-call;
- providing suitable paperwork for animals travelling abroad, as well as inserting identification microchips;
- maintaining up-to-date records;
- liaising with, and referring to, other professionals within the industry;
- inspecting certain animal products to ensure they are safe for human consumption.
Vets who work as practice partners have the additional responsibility of managing practice finances, promoting the surgery to potential clients and recruiting and managing vets, veterinary nurses and other relevant staff.
Vets working for government agencies may research diseases, test and manage infection outbreaks, investigate food safety issues and complete paperwork for pet passports.
- The average starting salary is around £31,150 for a newly-qualified vet.
- The average salary of a vet with further training and experience, at a small animal practice, is £41,148 and in a large animal practices this can rise to £44,142.
- Senior vets with over 20 years experience can earn up to £69,021.
- Experienced vets employed in industry earn around £59,106.
Salary levels can vary according to further training, specialisation, whether you are working as a practice partner and the size and location of the practice. Salary packages may include a car and accommodation.
Income data from the Society of Practising Veterinary Surgeons (SPVS) 2014 Salaries Survey. Figures are intended as a guide only.
Many veterinary practices offer a 24-seven, 365 days-a-year service. This means that a vet's working hours may be irregular, as it is important to be available for emergencies.
What to expect
- Many vets work in private practices and experience as a vet can lead to buying into, or setting up, a practice.
- Locum work is often possible.
- Working conditions vary. Vets work in surgeries, farms, zoos, customers' homes and other environments. They may be required to work outdoors in poor weather conditions.
- The job can be physically demanding and stressful dur to its high level of responsibility.
- There is a physical risk of scratching and biting from animals and also a risk of catching a trans-species disease.
- Travel around a range of locations may be frequent, but travel overseas is uncommon.
- There has been a significant increase in the number of women entering the profession and there are now more female practising veterinary surgeons than male (Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, 2014).
A degree in veterinary science/medicine and registration as a member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) is required to practise as a vet.
Eight institutions currently offer this qualification. These are:
- Royal Veterinary College (RVC) in London;
- University of Bristol;
- University of Cambridge;
- University of Edinburgh;
- University of Glasgow;
- University of Liverpool;
- University of Nottingham;
- University of Surrey.
Degree courses are generally five years in length, six in some schools. Fees will depend on individual circumstances so applicants should check with the institutions where they intend to study.
Entry requirements differ between universities so check individual institutions for specific entrance criteria. In general, biology at A-level is an essential requirement for all of the courses, as well as one or two out of chemistry, physics and maths. The minimum grades required are usually two As and a B, although some universities ask for three As. With regards to GCSEs, it depends on the entry requirements for each university.
Some universities will consider applicants who have relevant vocational qualifications, such as a BTEC diploma in Animal Science with distinction. Some universities will accept applicants without the relevant A-level or vocational qualifications due to special six-year programmes. In the first year of these programmes, the basics learnt at A-level will be covered, to prepare the students for the five-year course.
Applicants to Cambridge or the RVC must also register for, and pass, the BioMedical Admissions Test (BMAT) before receiving an admissions interview.
All universities look for evidence that applicants have a passionate interest in veterinary science/medicine. Applicants must demonstrate this by gaining experience in a veterinary practice working with, and handling, domestic animals and livestock.
As well as the relevant qualifications and work experience, to apply for university courses you will also have to show evidence of:
- commitment to animal welfare;
- an ability to communicate to clients in a way that is easy to understand - especially in emotional circumstances;
- being caring and approachable;
- good organisational skills;
- being able to work in a practical and unsentimental way with animals;
- commercial and management skills, for those wishing to progress to practice partner.
Work experience can be sought, either in a paid or voluntary capacity, in veterinary practices, on farms and in stables, kennels and catteries and with animal charities such as the:
- Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA)
- The People's Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA)
This is a competitive career but gaining relevant work experience may help strengthen your application for employment.
Veterinary surgeons are typically employed in private practices in rural and urban areas. They may also work for zoos, animal hospitals and animal welfare societies, such as the:
- The Blue Cross
It is possible to pursue a research or teaching career within universities or research bodies.
Overseas opportunities may be found with:
- Royal Army Veterinary Corps (RAVC) - a bursary for the last three years' training is possible through the Army Undergraduate Cadetship scheme, but commits the recipients to a minimum six years' commission.
- Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO)
Government Veterinary Surgeons (GVA) is a network of vets working across the various government departments and agencies. This work involves the control and eradication of animal diseases and the protection of public health interests.
The government agencies that employ vets include:
- Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA)
- Food Standards Agency including Food Standards Agency Meat Hygiene Service
- Home Office
- Ministry of Defence (MoD)
- Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD)
Look for job vacancies at:
- Veterinary Record - journal of the BVA.
- vetsonline - for online access to the BVA journal, Veterinary Times.
Academic institutions and charitable organisations may also advertise vacancies through their websites.
An essential element of undergraduate training is extra-mural studies (EMS), where students complete a minimum of 38 weeks gaining real-life, hands-on work experience to enhance their university-based studies.
Once qualified, veterinary surgeons are required by the RCVS to renew their membership annually to remain on the RCVS Register of Members, and to undertake and record continuous professional development (CPD). Initially, new graduates must complete the RCVS professional development phase (PDP).
For the rest of their working lives, veterinary surgeons must average at least 35 hours of CPD per year, although most do more than this. Vets are expected to evaluate what knowledge and skills they need to develop or keep up to date and maintain their CPD Record Card. They may gain the skills and knowledge by requesting in-house training, reading publications or attending conferences or courses.
The following organisations have further career information and details about events and seminars:
- British Veterinary Association (BVA)
- British Small Animals Veterinary Association
- Society of Practising Veterinary Surgeons (SPVS)
Once in practice, many vets go on to study for further qualifications, such as the RCVS certificates and diplomas.
There may be opportunities to become an Official Vet (OV). An OV is authorised by the The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA). Being awarded OV status means you are qualified to test for diseases such as tuberculosis (TB), carry out market inspections and be involved in the exportation of animals and animal products.
Newly-qualified veterinary surgeons usually work as assistants for some time before being offered the opportunity to become a partner or a principal in a veterinary practice. However, many practices are now owned by large companies that employ vets on a salaried basis, which has decreased partnership opportunities.
Not every vet wants to become a partner, as it involves increased responsibility, the need for more business and management skills and a financial input into the practice.
Once working, there are opportunities for vets to specialise in particular areas. They can do this either through existing practices or practices noted for expertise in a particular field, such as equine medicine, small animal surgery or dermatology. Further training is required for these specialisations, which may lead to a diploma.
With further training, extensive professional experience and publication of articles on a chosen area, it is possible to gain RCVS Recognised Specialist Status. Recognised specialists offer consultation in their chosen field.
There are opportunities to work for employers such as animal welfare societies and government services, for example in the AHVLA or the VMD, which is focused on the licensing of veterinary medicines.
Vets may undertake research, teaching and academic work in universities, research institutes and pharmaceutical companies. Veterinary research leads to a greater understanding of how diseases originate and spread and what effect this has on animals. This can lead to improvements in prevention strategies against specific diseases, the production of vaccines and in diagnostic testing, resulting in healthier and more productive animals.
Veterinary researchers also play a particular role in food safety - developing prophylactic, therapeutic and management strategies to prevent disease in food animal species.