Veterinary surgeons provide medical care to a range of animals, from domestic pets to those in farm and zoo settings and wild animals with injuries
Your role as a veterinary surgeon (often known as a vet) will be to safeguard the health and welfare of animals. It's likely you'll do this in a general practice, where you'll be responsible for the medical and surgical treatment of a range of animals.
You'll use your practical skills and knowledge of animal physiology, nutrition and medicine to diagnose illnesses, prescribe medicines and perform surgery. You'll also manage anaesthesia during procedures and will work to prevent disease in animals and the spread of disease.
As a veterinary surgeon, you'll need to:
- work from a surgery or visit animals in their living environments, such as a farm or stables
- carry out home visits, which only some vets do
- handle, examine and treat all species of animals, including domestic animals, farm livestock and horses
- meet and consult with the owners and carers of various animals, including zookeepers
- carry out tests such as x-rays, blood samples and ultrasound scans
- give advice to farmers on issues such as nutrition, breeding and herd health
- routinely visit farms to check the health of livestock
- immunise animals against different types of disease
- euthanise old and terminally ill animals
- perform surgery, including managing anaesthesia
- work on out-of-hours emergency cases when on call
- provide suitable paperwork for animals travelling abroad, as well as inserting identification microchips
- maintain up-to-date records
- liaise with, and refer to, other professionals within the industry
- inspect certain animal products to ensure they are safe for human consumption
- manage the practice finances, promotional activities and recruitment, if you work as a practice partner
- research diseases, test and manage infection outbreaks, investigate food safety issues and complete paperwork for pet passports, if you work for a government agency.
- Starting salaries for newly-qualified vets are generally around £30,500 to £35,500.
- With further training and experience, your salary can rise to approximately £40,000 to £70,000. Vets working in large animal practices tend to earn more than those working with smaller animals.
- Experienced vets employed in the industry can earn up to around £92,500.
Salary levels can vary according to further training, specialisation, whether you're 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) 2018 Salaries Survey. Figures are intended as a guide only.
Many veterinary practices offer service 24/7, 365 days a year. Because of this, your working hours may be irregular as it's 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 of your own.
- 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 due to its high level of responsibility. There are physical risks, spanning from minor injuries such as scratching and biting from animals to the much rarer risk of catching a trans-species disease.
- 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. There are also significantly more female undergraduate veterinary students, though in most veterinary practices women are still underrepresented at very senior level and sometimes face discrimination for their gender.
A degree in veterinary science or 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 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 learned at A-level will be covered, to prepare the students for the five-year course.
All universities look for evidence that applicants have a passionate interest in veterinary science or medicine. Applicants must demonstrate this by gaining experience in a veterinary practice working with, and handling, domestic animals and livestock.
You will need 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:
- Blue Cross
- 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.
The main employers of vets are:
- mixed veterinary practices
- practices specialising in a particular type of animal, such as small animals, food-producing animals and equine. The specialism may depend on the practice's rural or urban location
- animal hospitals
- animal charities and welfare societies, such as the RSPCA, PDSA, The Blue Cross
- education and research institutes
- government agencies - including the army and the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA)
- pharmaceutical companies.
Overseas opportunities may be found with:
The Government Veterinary Services (GVS) is part of the Civil Service and acts to support public-sector veterinary professionals and promote policy to other vets and to the public. It also provides a number of student placements in a range of areas of veterinary practice.
Look for job vacancies at:
- Vet Times Jobs
- Vet Record Careers - journal of the British Veterinary Association (BVA).
The BVA also produces Vet Record, a journal for veterinary professionals, which is published weekly and is available to BVA members.
Academic institutions and charitable organisations may also advertise vacancies through their websites.
An essential element of undergraduate training is extra-mural studies (EMS), where you'll complete a minimum of 38 weeks gaining real-life, hands-on work experience to enhance your university-based studies.
As a new graduate, you'll complete the RCVS professional development phase (PDP), which is designed to aid the transition from student to professional veterinary surgeon. The RCVS requires that you renew your membership annually to remain on the RCVS Register of Members. You’ll also need to undertake (and keep record of) continuous professional development (CPD) throughout the rest of your working life. This must consist of at least 35 hours of CPD per year, although you can do more than this.
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, you can 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 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.
As a newly-qualified veterinary surgeon, you'll usually start work as an assistant before becoming fully-fledged. Once working, there are opportunities to specialise in particular areas, for example, equine medicine, small animal surgery or dermatology. Further training is required for these specialisations, which may lead to a diploma.
With time and experience you may be offered the opportunity to become a partner or a principal in a veterinary practice. Whether you decide to take this up is a personal decision, as it requires a greater degree of responsibility and financial and management input into the practice. Partnership opportunities have decreased somewhat as a result of large companies taking over many veterinary practices and employing vets on a salaried basis.
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.
You could move from practice work to working for an animal welfare society, or government service in a related field such as the licensing of veterinary medicines.
There are also research and teaching opportunities in universities, research institutes and pharmaceutical companies. In particular, working in the area of animal disease cure and prevention and food safety.