Even if you’ve always felt drawn to the idea of studying veterinary medicine, it’s not uncommon for students to enter a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) program without a clear idea of the type of career they’ll eventually pursue. In truth, veterinary medicine is a vast field with a range of different possible career paths you may not have even considered.
Many veterinarians will end up in general practice, but there are a number of other options outside of that traditional practice setting. Join us as we explore a handful of alternative careers for veterinarians and see if you can find one that piques your interest.
12 Fascinating veterinary career paths
Most assume that students who go to veterinary school will inevitably become small animal vets, treating cats, dogs, and other pets in their communities. But you may be surprised to learn just how versatile a DVM degree is.
While this is hardly an exhaustive list of the various positions you can pursue, you can learn more about your options by reviewing this sampling of alternative careers for veterinarians.
1. Veterinary research
The field of veterinary research has three primary areas of focus: public health and food safety, animal health and welfare, and comparative medicine. Research opportunities can often be found in university settings, but there are numerous other options as well. There are many biomedical research positions available to veterinarians who obtain additional training in a specific field, such as virology or parasitology. Veterinary research may also include work with lab animals, ensuring their health and well-being.
2. Shelter medicine
While shelter veterinarians work with companion animals, their role is significantly different than that of a vet working in a traditional clinic. One major difference is that they don’t work with pet owners. Shelter medicine can present its own unique challenges, as it’s not uncommon to encounter animals that don’t have any available medical history. With that in mind, shelter veterinarians must be comfortable navigating the unknown with confidence and skill.
3. Animal health industry
Though only a small percentage of veterinarians work in the animal health industry, there are several opportunities available. Many companies offer products and services for pet owners, and veterinarians are often involved in research, sales, technical services, and more. Many DVM degree-holders find they prefer industry to traditional practice because it can allow for a better work-life balance. Do keep in mind, however, that some of these roles involve a fair amount of travel.
4. Veterinary public health
Obtaining education and training in veterinary medicine can help you develop the unique qualifications required to work in public health. Public health veterinarians may monitor vaccine development or respond to various disease outbreaks, many of which are zoonotic. You can find public health veterinarian roles within the US Public Health Service, state governments, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
5. Public policy
Who better to represent the needs of animals and veterinary professionals than DVMs? Rather than pursuing clinical practice, some veterinarians opt to work with the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) or other organizations to advance advocacy efforts at the federal and local levels. Vets who focus on public policy may work to secure research and education funding, ensure animal welfare, and more.
6. Regulatory medicine
Regulatory veterinary medicine involves protecting certain animals and the people who consume animal products by inspecting animals and facilities, engaging in disease surveillance, and enforcing humane treatment laws. Many veterinarians in these roles work for the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Safety Inspection Service and the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Veterinary Medicine.
Veterinarians often turn to consulting roles after spending a substantial amount of time in practice, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Any vet with a specialized area of expertise can become a consultant. A veterinarian with advanced toxicology training, for example, may help general practitioners determine how to treat a poisoned pet. Similarly, a former practice owner can utilize their expertise to help new clinics streamline their processes.
Business-minded vets can make for great practice managers. Some take on this type of leadership role early in their careers, perhaps by obtaining an MBA in addition to their DVM degree. Others transition into management after gaining experience as a practicing veterinarian. Management could also be a good option if you enjoy educating in an informal setting, since you may spend a fair amount of time working with new practitioners.
9. Military service
There are multiple roles for DVMs in the US military. Army veterinarians may treat soldiers’ pets, go on missions to combat diseases, develop vaccines, or care for government-owned animals. Veterinarians who work in the US Air Force serve as public health officers who work to prevent and control the spread of disease. Vets interested in making a global impact may find what they’re looking for in military service.
Tomorrow’s veterinarians and vet technicians need quality instructors—and DVMs have the education and expertise those teaching roles require. For those who find they thrive in an academic setting, serving as a veterinary instructor could be a great fit. And it’s worth noting that formal classroom teaching isn’t the only option; there are also opportunities for qualified vets to pass along their expertise by speaking at conferences, educating clients, and developing tests and assessments.
11. Mobile practice
While veterinarians within mobile operations offer similar services as those who work in brick-and-mortar clinics, there are distinct differences that make this type of practice preferable for some. Being able to receive at-home treatment can mean less stress for both animals and pet owners, and it’s not uncommon for veterinarians to develop even closer relationships with their clients in these environments.
12. Veterinary specialty medicine
Finally, it’s worth remembering that there are many different veterinary career paths you can pursue within the hub of clinical practice. There’s no need to become a generalist if you’re much more interested in a focused area of veterinary medicine like radiology or neurology. Veterinarians can also choose to work exclusively with a certain type of animal, such as wild animals, zoo animals, or even one specific species. The opportunities for specialization are numerous.
Which veterinary career path will you follow?
As you can see, there are several alternative careers for veterinarians who aren’t interested in working in small animal practice. A Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree can help you pursue employment options that range from research and public health to consulting, management, and even dedicated military service. In veterinary medicine, your career is truly what you choose to make of it.
Different specialty areas may have differing training requirements. But regardless of which veterinary career path you choose, you’ll need to start by laying a solid foundation with a high-quality DVM degree.
To learn more about what you should be looking for, head to our article “6 Things the Top Veterinary Schools Have in Common.”
*This article was originally published in 2019. It has since been updated.